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Writing - Tension, Counterpoint, Conflict and a Good Villain

Updated on January 5, 2012

My red-haired buddy is extremely claustrophobic. Unfortunately he lost his job and is living in a van. But he finally met the love of his life through Craigslist. She can only make love to red-haired men. Guess what - she lives in a tiny apartment and insists they sleep in the front hall closet she's made into a bedroom. Needless to say there's a lot of tension in that relationship.

The new movie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Richie has a constant tension between Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Watson wants to end his adventurous sleuthing to settle down to a peaceful wedded life, but Holmes keeps roping him into new adventures. He fears Watson will soon bore of conjugal bliss. In the original book series, Holmes likes to partake in cocaine, Dr. Watson feels strongly against his friend's habit. This forms a background and gives depth to their relationship.

Counterpoint is not as common in real life, but adds spice to your fictional characters. Sherlock Holmes, A Game of Shadow gives a good example. The arch-villain Professor Moriarty takes time out from conquering the world to feed the pigeons. In the James Bond series, Goldfinger gently strokes his cat while detailing how he will kill Bond. In the final scene of Blade Runner the robot recites a stanza of poetry after killing his Father and maker in the previous scene.

A priest told me of his last hours with the ancient dying Bishop. Priests from miles around were gathered. The last last rites administered when the Bishop sat up and shouted "Give me the book!" "Give me the book." The priests looked at each other, found the thick, black Latin Bible and brought it to him. "No. No. The book. The Book. Give me the book." The priests were perplexed. One grabbed a hymn book and scrambled over to the Bishop. He dropped it on the floor and said, "The Book. The Book. It's on my desk." A priest raced to search the desk, coming back with a thin white pad. The long wrinkled fingers flew out grabbing. His eyes relaxed, and his body sunk back in peace clutching the checkbook to his heart and he expired.

Conflict is the energy driving the story forward. Man against Man (Saving Private Ryan), Man against Nature (Jaws, Robinson Crusoe), Man against Society (The Matrix), Man against himself (Hamlet - "To be or not to be?", Man Against Time (Airport) and the good old Love triangle are the basis of most stories.

Aristotle was probably the first philosopher to study what makes a good story. His secrets of Greek play-writing are found in "Poetics" written more than two thousand years ago. The secret sauce to a good Greek play? A heroic underdog who defeats a stronger enemy. The hero must have some weakness. Superman needs to be vulnerable to kryptonite. And like every Superman story, Superman must be almost defeated before coming back to ultimate victory. The eviller the villain, the sweeter the catharsis of final victory.

In summary, every writer should think about tension, counter-point, conflict, flawed heroes and fiendish villains.


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    • johndvan profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks B. Leekhey. I've edited and expanded it a bit. I'll keep working on it if people like it.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Good advice.


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