How to Illustrate Effective Narrative Conflict
Coding the machine within the machine.
One of the more powerful features of Subtext is the ability to convert complex theoretical concepts into actionable writing prompts quickly. Prerequisites become “taking baby steps,” and Preconscious becomes “responding inappropriately to something.” When combined with the focal point of a Throughline, either a single character or a group of characters, these illustrations transform into the essential beats of a story.
Narrative elements vary widely between too much and not enough. An over-abundance of Pursuit finds characters chasing for the pure thrill of the chase. A lack of Pursuit might find those sane characters missing out on opportunities right in front of them.
Illustrating and cataloging the vast spectrum of these Elements is an important, but time-consuming, task. Submissions must be vetted by those well-versed in narrative theory, lest they reduce the effectiveness of the model with gross inaccuracies. “Being stuck in the past” is a great illustration of the narrative Element of Past. “Mistakes of the past” is not.
Descriptive of a Process
The most important thing to think about when generating a new Illustration for Subtext is process. The Storybeats created by these Illustrations do not merely describe the conflict in a story, they must indicate a process that creates conflict within a story.
Motion through the narrative is everything.
This is the response many writers receive when they first submit Illustrations for Subtext:
Descriptive of conflict, not a process of conflict.
A complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to resolve an Inequity. The Storybeat is one moment of consideration along that mental process of resolution. Think of it as a self-contained function within a software application; narrative energy goes in, the function computes and processes the current state, and the result is a return of power—a gentle push or nudge towards the next moment of consideration.
It is essential that these Illustrations are written as a mechanism. If written otherwise, they end up blocking and shutting off the flow of energy through a narrative.
They break the story.
For example, the Past is a crucial Element of telling a story. We see it in the injustice being served in The Prestige and we see it with Bernard Lowe’s dysfunctional history during the first season of Westworld.
A careless Illustration might lead one to list mere descriptions of conflict for these two stories:
- The Past In The Prestige: an unfortunate tragedy
- The Past In Westworld: Season One: an unknown personal history
The Storymind encounters these instances of “conflict” and comes to a dead stop. If it were a computer program, the code of this story would break, and return to the command line with little applause.
Storybeats are objects of functionality within the mind. They need to process a Current to operate as an effective mechanism. They’re not part of a machine—they’re a machine within a machine.
A better way to process the above stories:
- The Past In The Prestige: seeking revenge for what happened
- The Past In Westworld: Season One: uncovering one’s hidden past
Note how the last set inspires the imagination and encourages the mind to visualize an endless amount of possible scenes. The former set lies dormant, a dictionary definition no more useful than the next.
The -ing Concept
The key to understanding useful Illustrations lies in applying -ing to the end of the narrative Element in question. It’s not the Past that creates conflict, but rather Past-ing. Mistakes of the past are not transitory—they’re lifeless, dead. Uncovering one’s hidden history illustrates a process of Pasting, of engaging in what was, that creates inequity within the mind of the story.
It always, always, goes back to the Storymind concept. A complete story is an analogy to a single mind working through a problem. These Illustrations stand in for moments along that process of consideration. That’s why adding -ing to the end of the Elements works so well.
It’s not Change that creates conflict, but instead Changing—constantly adapting or altering that upsets the balance. It’s not Proven that creates conflict, but rather Proven-ing, of constantly evaluating in terms of what has shown to work, that impacts the Storymind and encourages further exploration.
Many Elements arrive with their procedural nature already intact—Obtaining, Learning, Becoming, Understanding. Note how easily writers new to this process take to these Elements and contrast that with the difficulty they encounter with something like Memory. It’s not memories that create conflict, but rather memory-ing (or remembering) that challenges the Storymind in a different direction.
This is why “observing change” doesn’t work for an Illustration of Progress. Nor does “deepening evil.” The imbalance created by Progress-ing, whether forward or backward, is not accurately reflected in merely seeing the progression, or in recognizing greater evil. It’s engaging in the process of progress that tips the cart of consideration.
Growth by Learning
Every Sunday, Subtext emails subscribers a list of new Illustrations added during the previous week. This email also includes a list of the rejections (anonymous, of course) with the understanding that the individual stands to gain much from the experiences of the group.
Previous rejections of the Past might include:
- mistakes of the past
- is a long lost lover
- having an intimidating reputation
This last one is interesting—as it actually works as an Illustration of the Present—another narrative Element close in nature to the Past, but different enough to warrant an alternate location. In those cases, we’ll reject the idea for the Past and instead, add it as an Illustration of the Present.
This process intends to create a vast wealth of meaningful Storytelling Illustrations that develop the collective intelligence and understanding of storytellers everywhere. The more one contributes, the more one grows in their appreciation of narrative conflict. By working together and collaborating on this universal store, we ensure the integrity and impact of future stories and improve the overall quality of storytelling.