Story, Drama, Conflict, and Suspense

Let's stress test my unique ideas of story and drama. Then we'll look at coming up with more useful thoughts about suspense and conflict.


In my article "What Is a Story?" I came to new definitions about story and drama that I think get to the very root of the issue.

A story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state.

Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value, in its value.

My friend Jon liked the article and sent me a message about story. His favorite author George Saunders gave this example of what a story is at a seminar he attended.

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a.  Not a story:  "the cat sat on the mat."
b.  A story:  "the cat sat on the dog's mat."

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This was my off the cuff response.

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That's interesting. See, I would say that's an idea for a story. I've seen several writers do this. They're examples of the difference between a fact and a story, as Aaron Sorkin put it, don't really include stories. They give the start of stories, like teasers, or good story ideas. I think this example is revealing conflict rather than story, that is the key piece that he probably focuses on when coming up with story ideas. It works great, I use it too, but it's not truly what the kernel of a story is. It's just the part that makes a story good. "The cat sat on the mat." isn't a story because there isn't a change followed by a steady state. At least, that's what I found while trying to puzzle it out in that article. So, from this steady state we need to have a change and then a steady state again. Like, "The cat sat on the mat. He heard a sound. Looked left. And... nothing. He waited the rest of the night, but there was no other sound to be heard." There's a little suspense, but no real drama because there was no change in the value of a thing of value. Stories can be done without conflict, they just usually aren't because it's not too exciting. B actually isn't a story either. It's just the beginning. We need to know what changes, and then what steady state eventually comes about again. That would be a story, and probably a dramatic one with the conflict of the dog already foreshadowed.

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This reminded me an example that the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin gave.

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The queen died is a fact. The queen died and left a king with a broken heart is a story. The queen died, and she was the brains behind the king who is now struggling to keep his throne is drama.

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His example of drama works for me. It's a potential change for the worse in the value of his power, which I assume he values over all other things. Good.

The issue I have is with the story example. That doesn't seem like a story to me. It's just the situation. Nothing happens. Dead queen, sad king. Where's the story in that? We can make a story from that situation, but there isn't a story actually in there yet. When Stephen King writes he often starts with a situation and then just discovers the story as he writes it. That's what you could do in this situation. But that means the story still needs to be made, the idea doesn't exist yet.

When Sorkin is breaking down how to do a story arc over three acts he gives this example.

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Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.

Act 2: You throw rocks at them.

Act 3: You get them down (or not).

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This is good. Actually, I think this is great. Notice that it isn't really built around the intention and obstacle of the hero. Intention and obstacle are the drive shaft of the story, according to Sorkin. But, it would seem that the intention of the unseen adversary is what drives this story. I find that common. "Harry Potter" is a great story with or without Harry Potter, what "Harry Potter" has to have is Voldemort. He's the most important character and drives the whole plot.

This little three act example has conflict. It definitely has conflict. That seems to be one of the main things that drives story ideas for writers. It may be the main thing that successful writers think about.

Notice also that this fits perfectly with our definitions of story and drama. There is change happening and ending with a steady state. And, there is a change in value of something that is valued, namely life and health in this example.

I think that clears up those ideas and examples. We see that the writers are focused on what would be useful in making a story rather than technical definitions, which makes sense. Let's take a look at some examples from a literary theorist, the psychologist Jerome Bruner.

This is from Bruner's article "Life as Narrative".

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There is widespread agreement that stories are about the vicissitudes of human intention...

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The first thing we have to do is look up what vicissitude means. Google gives two definitions.

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a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.

alternation between opposite or contrasting things.

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So, stories are about the changes in human intentions. It has the ring of truth to it, but it's not really satisfying. I think that can be an important piece to stories, but not exactly a good definition because it doesn't get to the core of the issue.

In Bruner's article "The Narrative Construction of Reality" he says this.

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A narrative is an account of events occurring over time.

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Still not good enough. It's close, because over time there will probably be some change. But, without the idea of achieving a new state of affairs that has some consistency we can't distinguish where a story ends. Bruner is a genius across multiple fields. But, his definitions of story and narrative are falling short. These are close, but they're not right. I explored similar possibilities myself in my article "What Is a Story?", and I had to discard them before coming up with my final formulation that a story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state. It's just a better description of what a story truly is.

I think my definitions of story and drama have passed the stress tests well. I've looked more at story than at drama. That's because I thought someone else's idea might replace my idea of story. I feel pretty solid about my idea of drama. Now, I think both are the best definitions I've ever encountered.

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A story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state.

Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value, in its value.

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We still need to try to figure out something new with conflict and suspense.

Neil Gaiman talks about writing a story by starting with a conflict. He's not really giving a definition of story here. He's talking about what a good story is, and how to generate story ideas.

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Everything is driven by characters wanting different things, and by those different things colliding. Every moment that one character wants something, and another character wants something mutually exclusive, and they collide—every time that happens, you have a story.

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I think that is pretty darn good. It seems to me that conflict requires a conflict of values, and values can only occur if you have a living thing. Living is the process of valuing. (I made up that definition too. I like finding my own definitions.)

Let's look at a dictionary definition of conflict.

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a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.

a prolonged armed struggle.

a condition in which a person experiences a clash of opposing wishes or needs.

an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests.

be incompatible or at variance; clash.

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I think that's pretty good. I might formulate it more around values. Such as: conflict is when two conscious beings have mutually exclusive values. Something like that.

What about suspense? Here's the dictionary definition.

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a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.

a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen.

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I think that's pretty good too. Values control emotions. Potentially having a major change of value is dramatic, it's emotional. It also causes suspense. So, maybe what we have here is that suspense is a limited condition of drama. Where drama is a potential or actual change of value. Both cause strong emotion. Suspense is just the potential change. A death that happened yesterday can still be dramatic, but not suspenseful.

Dan Brown says that suspense gets you to ask, "What is going to happen?" That makes sense. Here are a couple of quotes from him about suspense. He is a master.

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Suspense is all about making promises. It’s about telling a reader, ‘I know something you don’t know. And I promise, if you turn the page, I’m going to tell you.’

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And...

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In the broadest sense, there are two types of suspense: telling the reader what’s happening and withholding information. In the first case, you generate interest by allowing the reader to know more than the hero. This is called “dramatic irony.” For example, your hero is waiting for his spouse to arrive, but she was murdered in a previous chapter. The reader is now filled with dread and expectation for what they know is coming: the hero’s shock at the news of his wife’s death. Generally speaking, thrillers let the reader know more than the hero. In the second case, the reader knows the same or less as the hero. Interest comes from needing more information, and the reader is engaged by the hero’s quest because it slowly reveals explanations for things, such as why a hero’s wife was murdered. Curiosity drives the reader through the novel. Most mystery novels function this way, but bear in mind that on a page-by-page basis you may be using both types of suspense in any novel.

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A promise is about a future value, so that works.

It's interesting that Neil Gaiman mentions that when building a story it's useful to work the other direction in time, to ask, "How did we get here?" Notice that that seems to imply that we're asking the question from a steady state and the story is contained in the changes that have lead to that state. I think it works perfectly with my definition of story.

It seems to me that I've made definite contributions to the ideas of story and drama, and have found unique and better definitions for those terms. But, for suspense and conflict I don't have much that is unique to offer, only slight reformulations of what has already been understood and articulated.

I feel much better with these ideas worked out so thoroughly and completely. I feel like I have more solid ground to stand on when examining or creating stories. Hopefully, you do too.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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