Monday, 13 May 2013

Context and Conflict

These parrot-penguins illustrate a very important point about context and conflict!

Yesterday we held our second workshop, Internal Combustion at Sterling Books in Rue Fossé aux Loups.

Sterling books, as seen the moment before a nasty bump

We got about twice as many people as we had expected, eleven (one of the six we expected was quite small), and by the end of the afternoon we had eleven new works-in-progress by the workshop participants, and a collaborative story jointly conceived by the group.

Each participant started by writing down three words (a similar exercise to the second  one outlined here): a profession, an object and a location.

The idea, as outlined in a previous post, is that when you choose three words, your brain naturally finds a way of connecting the dots and making a new context for things to happen.

So, if I am asked to put the words "dentist", "harpsichord" and "library" in a sentence, the most natural thing is for me to write "The dentist played the harpsichord in the library".

And this sentence, unpromising as it might be, is the basis of my story.

Eleven participants produced eleven different such story ideas.  We had an interpreter who wore a yellow flower to a studio; a bar man who found the key to a safe in the toilets; a scientist who approached the door of his cabin with a hammer; a "so-called osteopath" who lured a woman away from a launderette by lying about a box of matches.

None of these is a story in itself, but they formed the basis of a story.  By asking questions about the almost randomly composed scene, we found the world of the story developing.  By asking a few simple questions, the "activist" who brought a "bottle of whiskey" to the "basement" was soon a fully-rounded character: a sensitive and socially awkward suffragette, desperate for the approval of her new associates, and harbouring an infatuation for her leader.  The "journalist" who placed his "suitcase" in the "overhead locker of an aeroplane" was now a fugitive - and we all wanted to know what was in that suitcase.

The big question in the scenario I have just come up with is a simple one: what is a dentist doing playing a harpsichord in a library?  I don't know but, in coming up with an answer, I go a long way to building the world of my story.  So let's see: as a dentist he lives a constrained life; he always wanted to be a musician but chose the sensible and lucrative path of dentistry instead; he is at a party where everybody is a dentist or the spouse of a dentist and he has stolen away from the incessant chatter (of teeth).  He finds himself in a library, almost empty.  He sits down and he plays.  The librarian shushes him but he plays on....

I don't know what happens next but I am interested in the scenario now.  There is conflict inherent in the idea of playing music in a library (no, I don't know why they harpsichord is there in the first place; I'll have to deal with that) and there is internal conflict within the dentist who has spent a life denying his artistic impulses.

These scenarios were the context: they gave us the basic shape of the story, but as we discussed, we needed something to make them move.

Here we talked about conflict (and tension as unresolved conflict) and how it helps create drama.  Conflict can be internal or external - why did the piano-tuner leave the hotel room with its piano untuned: was it because he had lost his confidence in his own ear?  Or was it because there was a tiger or a fire or a distractingly sexy occupant in the hotel room?  In answering the question "What comes between the character and his or her goal?" we go some way towards creating a dramatic problem within the context we have set up.

The last part of the afternoon was a big writing exercise.  Bearing in mind our discussion of context, conflict, tension, obstacles and the crucial matter of what is at stake in a story, the writers were given twenty minutes to come up with a first draft (or outline) of their story.
A harpsichord in a library (the dentist is just out of frame)

After time was up - twenty minutes can be a either intimidatingly long or frustratingly short - it was time to sum up and go home, but we had a chance to hear a few of the stories that had been worked on.  One or two seemed like the starting-off points of a novel (and good novels too) but some seemed ended up as almost fully-realised stories, which was impressive given that when they began each writer had only three little words.

Of course not everybody will want to write a story constructed in such an apparently haphazard way, but remember that the words you choose don't come from nowhere.  And even if you reject the scenario you have constructed, the process of thinking about your world and answering questions about it can only help you create realised fictional worlds.

And if you would like to see the results of our group exercise, the immortal piece of literature we came up with is... (wait for it).... HERE!
This farmer is charged with eliminating a plagueof mysterious red flowers....

No comments:

Post a Comment