The Bomb Under the Sofa

A couple walks on stage, sits on a couch and begins talking. She says he's stopped caring. He says she's insecure. Blah, blah, blah. Before long, the audience is yawning and nodding off. Rewind the scenario. A man sneaks on stage, plants a ticking time bomb under the couch, and slithers away. Then the couple walks out, sits down and has the exact same conversation. But the audience is now riveted.

This simple illustration was employed by Wells Root, an old Hollywood screenwriter, in his book Writing the Script, to note the importance of conflict in storytelling. Conflict has a way of making even the most mundane activity more intereresting.

As a novice writer, I am learning the importance -- no, necessity! -- of introducing conflict into my stories. People just do not pay attention unless there's a bomb under the sofa... or some equivalent. In television and film, this is called a plot point . It's an action, event or tidbit of information that creates obstacles, raises the stakes, or complicates things for a protagonist. Supposedly, in most films made in the United States, the first major plot point happens at almost precisely 26 minutes of run-time.

Conflict is often divided into two parts: Internal conflict and External conflict. In other words, not only should the protagonist be sitting on a time bomb, she should be one.

Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, puts it this way:

Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irrisistible plan,a noble ideal, an undying hope...

These are the internal time bombs that make characters interesting. Of course, we can identify with them because most of us burn with angst and regret and disillusionment, to varying degrees. When we combine these volatile people with difficult situations, things get interesting. The writer's job is not just to create explosive characters, but to place them in contexts where their volatility is tapped.

Maass again:

Trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict. Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character. What is your protagonist's greatest physical asset? Take it away. What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve the main problem? Shorten it.

In other words, stack the deck.

I'm ruminating on this writerly routine, because I recently witnessed it in action. This is not a review of Peter's Jackson's, King Kong, but P.J. sure knows how to stack the odds against his hero. In this case, Kong. The likeable giant ape fights numerous foes in the new film. But the sequences in which K. battles the T. Rex are some of the most incredible CGI footage ever. Unbelievable! (If only the whole movie were that good.) Anyway, in the orginal 1933 version, Kong also fought the maneater. But Jackson puts his own unique twist on the dreaded standoff. He pits the ape, not against one T. Rex, or two. But three. And it doesn't stop there. The skirmish sends all of them, including Kong's lady-friend, tumbling into a chasm where they become suspended in prehistoric vines. So here we have King Kong fighting three dinosaurs and trying to protect his woman, while swinging precariously between a canyon. Talk about upping the ante!

See, it's not enough to pit your hero against a villain. The villain must be elastic, invisible or an anguished Dodger fan. Furthermore, the hero must be handicapped: shot in the arm, temporarily blinded or missing a prosthetic leg. But don't stop there. The two can fight on a sinking submarine, in a burning oil refinery or at the MTV music awards between two opposing rapper's entourages. Hey, let your imagination run wild. Just don't forget to put the time bomb under the sofa.


Ane Mulligan said...

Well done, Mike! Great article. I really like how you introduced the subject, too. Get 'em in a jam and start squeezing.

Ame said...

Sounds like being a stay-at-home Mom of several pre-schoolers :)

Gina Holmes said...

Hey Duran. I read this book and have it on my shelf but it's been awhile. As I inch toward writing my book's climax this was just the reminder I needed. Thanks buddy.

Adda Dahlke said...

Hey Mike,
I have to count my blessings. The only conflict we seem to have in our marriage is who has to get up and deodorize the bathroom after one of the kittens leaves a
"BOMB" in their litter box!!

evandahlke said...

Hey Mike,
I find your views most enlightening. Yet I ponder the tought of you preparing yourself for an "anguishing' Laker season.
Even on this beautiful Christmas day you will be plotting your next blog while watching the feud between Shaq, Kobe and that other PJ, Coach Phil Jackson!

mike duran said...

Alas, I've been found out. The Lakers provide a neverending source of conflict for me. If only a happy ending was in their near future...

Mirtika said...

Love your post, Mike. I have always had trouble with conflict (craftwise), so this is a good one for me. I've quoted your post over at http://onceuponanovel.blogspot.com, and hope I send some folks your way to read this entry.


Heather Smith said...

I am now placing a note beside my computer that says "Is the bomb under the sofa?" Great reminder!