Learning my Lines: Believable Conflict

by Dan Stout in ,

One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

Okay, so this is a bit of a departure, as this time around Learning my Lines looks at a screenplay, rather than a novel. 


The 2017 romantic comedy THE BIG SICK was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Based on Nanjiani and Gordon's real-life story, the film is touching and brilliantly structured. It's a stunning example of how to take true events and find the deeper Truth at the story's heart. 

THE BIG SICK is excels in many areas, but there's one area in particular that really shines: the forces keeping the leads apart

A massive hurdle for writers telling relationship stories or arcs is how to put obstacles in the characters' path. It's difficult to show two people who have enough chemistry for the audience to root for them to be together, but who also manage to somehow not get together for most of the story. Far too many writers resort to one character having a 'secret' that they inexplicably refuse to fess up to the other. If you've watched many romantic comedies, then you've seen a dozen variations of the man who can't admit to his soul mate that he's not actually a construction worker -- he's the billionaire who owns the building, or the woman who's secretly a journalist writing her 'big break' article about dating jerks, when she accidentally meets her dream guy. Generally, these are the plots that could be resolved with a five minute conversation. 

But in THE BIG SICK, the conflicts working against the leads aren't easily swept aside. Nunjiani's family expects him to enter into an arranged marriage, and the idea of him dating outside Pakistani circles is seen as disrespectful to his parents. But Kumail's family are never depicted as caricatures. They're not afraid to pressure him, but they're still his family, and he loves them. Kumail lies to himself and Emily in order to avoid the inevitable conflict between committing his love for her and the inevitable fall-out from his family. It's a weakness, and we're hoping he won't do it, but his behavior is totally understandable.   

The same is true for Emily's character, though I won't go into them here as they're are a bit more spoilery. Suffice to say that the issues she faces are serious problems that can't be resolved with a short conversation. Her response to these obstacles are both sympathetic and proportional to the nature of the hurdles placed in front of her. 

Since this film is based on true events, there's an obvious reason why the characters' motives seem so realistic: They're what actually happened. The real life Kumail and Emily had serious motivations and reasonable reactions, because otherwise they wouldn't have done them.  For those of us creating fiction, the trick is to craft characters whose actions feel every bit as ground in reality. Easier said than done, right?

This is where all that work you put into fleshing out your characters pays off. If you have two characters drawn together (romantically or not) then ask yourself what kind of obstacle makes it difficult for one (or both) of them from fully committing. Ask your characters what they'd do to overcome the obstacle, and then keep upping the physical or emotional threat until the answer is that they wouldn't-- your characters would run away, even risking the loss of love or friendship, rather than face it. And if you don't get an answer at all, then it's time to do the work of learning the twists and turns of your characters' psyches. 

by Dan Stout

Everything You Need to Know About Writing Can Be Learned From Football

by Dan Stout in


Okay not everything, but pretty damn close.

When I talk to my peers and clients about writing, I often use sports metaphors. As I do, I almost invariably get some strange looks. Apparently it’s a little unexpected for a writer to also be a sports fan.

This is a huge mistake: sports are theatre on a grand scale, and the way that they compel and involve their audience/fans holds valuable lessons for anyone who wants to similarly draw in their audience. Let’s look at the key elements with which sport hooks fans, and see how they appear both fiction and writing for business.

So come on, and we'll see how the same storytelling techniques that pack stadiums with paying fans can drive readers and customers to flock to you.


Clear conflict

First off, your audience needs to know who to root for, and who to root against. On the field, there is no question about who the participants are and what they want. The audience wants a hero and a villain, also known as the protagonist and antagonist.

In business writing, the concept of the antagonist is often left to the side. Resist this temptation. No matter your product or service, there are antagonists in your story. For your customers, the antagonist is the problem they’re looking for you to solve. If you’re a plumber, it’s clogged drains or sinks that need to be relocated. If you sell RC cars, then it’s the unnecessary difficulty that consumers have finding quality RC cars at fair prices. Regardless of your industry, your company is the hero, while the customer’s problem is the villain.

For internal business writing, the antagonist is a little different. Internally the antagonist is often a competing company, but it may be an abstract concept like quality control issues or loss prevention. The trick is to understand the distinction between a concept like “customer complaints” and “complaining customers”. The need for an antagonist stays the same, but the implementation has to be handled skillfully.

For fiction writers, the protagonist and antagonist should be established relatively quickly. And while in fiction the true identity of the villain may be withheld for a time, the threat which that villain poses must be present almost from the initial pages of the story.


High Stakes

As humans, we crave stories about things that matter. Sports see higher ratings and more passion in the stands during the playoffs because we care more when there is more on the line.

In fiction, this can be saving the world, or coping with a terminal illness. “But Dan,” you say, “the stakes can be as high as we want. If the audience doesn’t care about the character, they won’t care about the stakes.”  And you’d be right. After all, a crappy movie about saving the world is still a crappy movie.

The job of the storyteller is to force the audience to care about the stakes whether they want to or not. If the audience is invested, they will care what happens to the character. But when the stakes are high for that character, the audience will be riveted, rather than just engaged. Audiences desperately want these stories to matter; we just have to help them along.

Again, we can see a great example from the world of sport: fans crave high stakes so much they’ll manufacture them on their own, by betting on games. A game between two teams without a chance of being in the playoffs can bring a fan to the edge of her seat when she has cash riding on the outcome. And while fantasy football is beloved for many reasons, one of the biggest is that it makes otherwise uninteresting games matter to more fans.

For businesses, this sense of high stakes is so much easier to achieve. The customer has a problem, and wants a service or product to solve it. The nature of internal communication means the issues discussed directly impact the audience (your employees). Both customers and employees are already invested in the story, because it’s their issue that you’re going to solve. Since it’s their problem, the stakes are already high.


Good Games Are Exciting Stories

Sure, it can be fun for a fan to see your team run wild over the other guys, but blowout contest will never be called a “game for the ages”. Setbacks and reversals are the hallmarks of classic games that will be replayed and talked about for years to come.

For works of fiction, this is known as the try/fail cycle. It’s when things look darkest for our heroes, and nothing seems to be going right. It seems like the heroes are about to score, but they fumble on the one-yard line. Things continue to get worse, until the “Darkest Before Dawn” moment when the tide turns and we come to our resolution.

Setbacks and reversals can add a layer of depth to business writing, but it’s a technique that needs to be handled more delicately than in fiction. After all, Hamlet is a brilliant cornerstone of Western literature, but that doesn’t mean that you want to model your company’s story after it.  (Spoiler: It doesn’t have a happy ending.)

You don’t want to give your customers a “Darkest Before Dawn” mindset, but you can let them know the obstacles you surpassed to get where you are. On your About Us section of your website, this could mean addressing the challenges your business faced during the recession. Or you might address that your customers may have faced obstacles -- in your sales material, consider mentioning some of the common ways people try to ‘fix’ their problems before turning to a professional. The goal is not to demonstrate potential failure, but to highlight the ways you’ll come to the rescue in the face of adversity.

One severely under-utilized strategy in customer management is sculpting the story of the customer’s experience. A simple transaction should be expected to move seamlessly, but in any sufficiently large or complex task, there are bound to be setbacks and problems. If the project storyline is told properly during the project, instead of headaches and inconveniences, the customer will recognize a series of hurdles cleared on the inevitable road to success. This can take a talented and customer-centric person on point for communications, but the payoff in terms of referrals and customer satisfaction is enormous.

But Wait…. There’s More!

While we’re looking at the storytelling aspect of sport, let’s also look at the media treatment of big games.

The Pre-Game Reel: Likeable Protagonists

Watch the pre-game media blitz before a championship match. The network showing the game will normally play a pre-made pseudo-documentary that casts the competitors in one of three roles: the underdog, the humanitarian, or the super-human. Media analysts usually describe this as ‘The human-interest angle’. This to help solidify the audience’s investment, and especially to give casual viewers a team or player to root for.

The human-interest stories vary, of course, but generally speaking, the underdog has risen up from a humble background or played through injury. The humanitarian is active in the community services, while the super-human may be the best to ever play the game. These same archetypes are commonly seen in fiction and marketing material.

A fictional protagonist needs to have something to draw in the audience. The underdog, humanitarian, and super-human mentioned above, are not the only ways to get an audience to bond with your character, but they are time honored and effective. Whatever method you use, the establishment of some kind of bond between audience and protagonist is essential to capturing their imagination.

When telling your business story, look in the mirror. Does your company give donations and volunteer time back to the community? Are you a start-up disrupting the old guard? Or is your story about being the best in the world at what you do? Be honest with yourself and your audience. Give your current and potential clients a reason to root for you, and you’ll be surprised at the passion of their response.


The Post-Game Interview: The Hook

 After the last second has ticked off the clock, the analysts in the booth or back at the studio begin dissecting the game. What does this mean?  What happened, and what happens next?

In fiction, this is known as the denouement. At the end of a novel or film, it gives a sense of completion, like the sense of fulfillment at the end of a championship season. But if there is room for a sequel, or if it’s at the end of a chapter, it also means enticing the audience, keeping them hungry for more. When done properly, storytelling is a series of hooks, pulling the audience along from one scene to another, with the end of the story leaving them wanting more. (Or eagerly looking forward to next season.)

For businesses, the hook means customer engagement, delivering on your promises, and earning repeat customers and referrals. Let your customers know what to expect as far as warranty and service. Make these elements of your business a selling point, rather than fine print, and you will hook them in as repeat customers.


Last Notes

There are plenty of examples of fiction and business writing that fly in the face of these guidelines I’ve listed. My point here is to show that humans in general respond to certain types of storytelling techniques. These stories run deep in our psyche, and appear not only in books, movies, and plays, but also in our sports and even in our junk mail. By understanding how these principles work, we can tell more effective stories in everything from science fiction to quarterly earnings reports. 

by Dan Stout