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Sunday 22 Jul 2018

The Writing Matrix
AJ Robinson

No, this column has nothing to do with the movie. It refers to a connection between five key elements of any story. The first two are the two most important aspect of any book or movie you might want to write: the characters and the story. Characters and story move forward any narrative.


Tension and conflict challenge characters.

On the other side of the matrix are the three items you use to advance the first two: tension, conflict and challenges for your characters to overcome. Now, all three are not needed in every scene, you can go off on a tangent and not have any of them once in a while, Michael Crichton is an expert at that, but they are needed to advance your story and characters. It’s also important to vary them and gradually build them up as you move toward the climax of your story.

After all, why is Lord of the Rings compelling? It’s not because Frodo throws the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom at the end. The journey Frodo and his companions make to carry out the task.

Something to guard against is false tension. My wife Jo Ann really enjoys the television series, Castle, but she got tired of the threats made against the protagonist by various criminals, over the course of the series. After all, he’s the star. It’s not as if killing him off is an option, unless, of course, the series was ending quite abruptly. On the other hand, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones routinely kill off long-standing characters. On both shows, it’s not a matter of killing a character, but when and how. Thus, when a character is in danger, the tension is quite real.

In the case of my parents, in their memoir, the story takes place during World War II, which is quite the tense period. Both my parents faced several instances of mortal danger. Yet, I didn’t dwell on them for a very simple reason: it’s obvious that they survived.

This wasn’t the case with my comrades of my father or the parents of my mother. Any event where one of them was in danger was a perfect incident for me to ratchet up the tension by drawing out the details. Some of them lived and some didn’t.

Tension also builds on something as simple as a small conflict like a disagreement or debate. In my new novel, The Long Journey Home, I have a scene where the two main characters, Arthur and Hazel, stop in Edgar Towne just as a little orphaned girl is about to be whipped for stealing a dress. Hazel, of course, goes thermal and tries to intercede on her behalf. She’s able to convince some of the people by offering to pay for the dress, but others are still out for blood, so to speak.


Hazel gets an idea.

Hazel offers to take in the girl. I realized the scene didn’t work as written. That wasn’t in keeping with Hazel’s character; Hazel had no experience with small children and didn’t want to risk screwing up their lives by taking her in.

Thus, I changed circumstances. I had Arthur make the offer and the people agree. Hazel argued with Arthur that it was a mistake. This boosted the tension.

Challenges may be as simple as a locked door or asking a girl on a date; defeating the evil Galactic Empire or climbing over the Alps to freedom. One important aspect of the challenges you set out, whether for the protagonists or the antagonists, is that you don’t want them overcoming every adversity. As with false tension, if your characters always succeed, your readers will quickly lose interest in your story.

It’s not that the characters have to fail. It’s merely that they should occasionally not be entirely successful. Vulnerability adds to tension; will a character fail or not.

In my teen action story Vampire Vendetta, the main character, Rosemary, is kidnapped and held on a deserted island. She gets the idea to make a flash bang to blind her captors so she can grab the boat keys and escape. She carefully assembles the components, gets everything ready, and then, one night, sets it off.


Here’s where her plan goes south.

The powder she uses is standard gunpowder, which doesn’t make a flash, it just goes boom! Rosemary doesn’t know that. As a result, she briefly disorients her capturers, but doesn’t blind them. They’re able to chase her, shoot at her and wound her as well as damaging the motor of the boat. Her plan doesn’t go off as planned, which is good, it helped to make the finale even more exciting.

Thus, when striving to build a story, keep the matrix in mind. Use it judiciously to create a truly compelling tale.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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