“It’s Complicated.” (Wrong Answer.)

Photo by Matthew Schultz

I’m not sure whether to be heartened or dismayed by the number of my students and editorial clients who exhibit the same problem I routinely have as a writer.

If asked what the story is about—what the protagonist wants, why he wants it, what stands in his way—I often encounter the same creased brow and thoughtful nod I provided my own teachers, with the inevitable, “It’s complicated.”

And the response is equally inevitable: “That’s exactly the wrong answer.”

To mangle a phrase: I can overthink a goddamn potato.

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Albert Einstein

My mind sees endless variation and nuance in the simplest things, and what elaborations it doesn’t see it creates.

I used to consider this a sign of intelligence. I thought that those constantly harping on the KISS Principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid—were mediocrities lashing out at those who had an IQ over room temperature.

  • The kind of people who think all modern art could have been churned out by their four-year-old.
  • The kind of people who mock the blues and country music as crude and opera as, well, operatic.
  • The kind of people who think money alone measures excellence.

But that was snotty arrogance on my part. I wasn’t just mistaken. I was lying to myself.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t know what was what. Before I started writing fiction, I’d already learned that simplicity equated with truth. I learned this, ironically, studying mathematics, a subject most people find hopelessly complicated.

It’s not. It’s just difficult.

From Sir Isaac Newton (“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”) to Albert Einstein (“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”), I’d been almost browbeaten into realizing that the need to overelaborate was the surest sign of foggy thinking if not outright flummery—“hand-waving,” my professors called it.

And yet, as I began to write fiction, I found it far easier to spin off in new directions than to settle in, focus, and ask myself: What’s really going on here?

Acting and theater helped a great deal. I discovered the mysterious power of scenes. Putting two or more people at odds, vying for the same thing—or irreconcilable things—created the opportunity for incredible variation as they forced each other to devise and employ new, different, stronger, more extreme methods to keep after it.

The trick was knowing what “it” might be.

This “it,” I learned, was called the Objective. Simply put, I was forced to ask in every scene and every story I wrote: What does the character want?

I found it far easier to spin off in new directions than to settle in, focus, and ask myself: What’s really going on here?

And I, like so many of my students and clients since, feeling the sprawling expanse and ornate intricacies of my tale, felt obliged to respond, “It’s complicated.”

And I was always wrong. What I perceived as a complexity was really just a confusion—worse, an evasion—in drag.

In strong drama, what a character wants can almost always be stated in simple terms. To become king. To get vengeance. To marry the beloved. To catch the killer (or win the trial, etc.). To discover the way out/a cure/America/the Grail.

Honest desires are almost always simple to state. It’s dishonest, equivocal or misunderstood desires that seem complicated.

What creates complication isn’t the desire but the conflict created by what stands between the character and what she wants. That obstacle (or obstacles) forces the character to devise some method—an action or actions—to continue her pursuit of her ambition.

The formula for complexity, then, is simplicity itself:

Objective + Obstacle + Action(s) = Dramatic Complexity

And yet how many times do I hear it: What the character wants is, well, um, complicated.

What I perceived as a complexity was really just a confusion—worse, an evasion—in drag.

Now, in their defense, writers who use this excuse often do indeed have a dramatic situation. But they’ve given their main characters nothing to do except lament their fate. (It’s not just fledgling or unknown writers who are guilty of this, by the way.)

The best way to show a character in stasis isn’t to have him just sit there. Make him try with all his might to get somewhere else only to hit one wall after another.

Having a character wallowing in his plight usually results from one of two poor choices (sometimes both):

  • Conceiving the character as passive, introverted, lacking the will to pursue a great desire. (In other words, choosing a character far too similar to the writer.)
  • Beginning the story too early. Don’t start when the character is directionless. Start when he’s finally fed up enough that he’s ready to do something, anything about his circumstances. He may end up right back where he started. Fine. But the reader engages with movement—ask the peg-legged man chasing his whale.

Another frequent dodge: My character doesn’t know what he wants. First, again, I find this almost always indicative of the writer as much as the character. Particularly when the writer doesn’t know what he wants to write. And this is often because he’s afraid if he admits it someone will notice how clichéd or threadbare his idea is.

Important lesson: Throwing words at a bad idea does not improve the quality of the idea, no matter how lovely the words.

I was forced to ask in every scene and every story I wrote: What does the character want?

Now there are indeed characters confused or unaware of what they want. But the writer is not allowed to share that confusion or ignorance.

If the character’s confused, have him pick one thing to pursue and then learn, through the struggle to obtain it, whether he was wise or foolish to go after it.

If the character is ignorant, put the thing he wants in front of him, rub his nose in it, then take it away. If he’s still just sitting there, shoot him (or the literary equivalent).

Many of my students and clients get stuck when their characters are mistaken about what they want. And yet this is one of the oldest, greatest and most interesting dramatic set-ups in literature. One might even define irony, the most prevalent narrative mode of the past century and a half, as a situation where the character wants one thing but gets another.

The way to dramatize this is the same as when a character is confused about what he wants—just send him single-mindedly after something. He will either learn through failure what it is he really wants or die trying.

Throwing words at a bad idea does not improve the quality of the idea, no matter how lovely the words.

Another common error is misunderstanding the interplay between the outer objective in the story—marry the beloved, save the miners, discover the cure, find the killer—with the inner yearning it speaks to.

By inner yearning I mean the way of life or sense of self the character secretly craves—his idea of heaven on earth and who he has to be to abide there.

Often the character doesn’t know his true yearning at the beginning of the story—or, again, is afraid to admit it. A character’s yearning speaks to what he believes his life is truly about. And due to the overwhelming significance of the question—what am I living for?—not just characters but the writers who create them often shrink from asking it, out of fear they’ll have to admit how inadequate they feel before the answer.

But the yearning defines the stakes. As the pursuit of the outer goal leads to greater and greater conflict, as the prospect of defeat or loss or failure looms closer and closer, the character has to ask himself: Why continue? Why not compromise or surrender or go back?

The answer to that question lies in how intrinsic the outer goal is to the character’s emerging understanding of himself, the way of life he wants to lead and the world he wants to live in. In short, his yearning.

The yearning defines the stakes.

Ahab pursues the white whale with the obsession of a man whose deepest desire is to strike back at God. Gatsby pursues Daisy because she symbolizes what he really wants but can’t have—a legitimate place among the upper crust. Yossarian will do anything to serve the one god he still believes in: survival.

One might even define story as the awakening of the character to his deeper yearning through the conflict created by pursuing some outer object of desire.

When it comes to complication, more is less.

I’m a firm believer that writing problems are personal problems. And often it isn’t until we’ve suffered some great loss or setback that we stop fooling around and admit what it is we want. Death is a great educator on the need to figure out your life before the chance slips away. Many of my best students are exactly those who’ve had a good strong “whiff of death,” and have responded to the experience mindfully.

Look no further than Waylon Jennings’s iconic “Dreaming My Dreams” for confirmation.

Someday I’ll get over you

I’ll live to see it all through

But I’ll always miss

Dreaming my dreams with you

As the old saying goes: The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When it comes to complication, more is less. The tendency toward baroque elaboration is almost always motivated by an inability or unwillingness to deal directly, honestly and meaningfully with the emotional truth of what we’re trying to say.

Or, as my favorite math professor use to put it: The difference between great men and men who are not so great is that great men think deeply about simple things.

  • Do you find yourself avoiding the simple emotional truth of your story by adding complications?
  • Does understanding desire and yearning in your own life help with your characterizations?
  • Which of your writing problems turn out also to be personal problems?



About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character


  1. says

    **Which of your writing problems turn out also to be personal problems?**

    I find that when I feel anxious about sitting down to write, its more my self-esteem manifesting self-doubt, rather than my feeling any real doubt in my abilities as a writer.

    I still have to work everyday on trying to learn to accept rejection as a part of writing (indeed as a part of life).

    • says

      Hi, Katherine:

      That lack of self-esteem, driven by fear of rejection, can often create a restriction of our own creativity. We tend not to take the boldest risks when we’re uncertain about our prospects, and it get harder to sit in the char for the long periods required to create a truly compelling story. It takes real courage to sit there and take those risks in the face of uncertainty. But that’s the writer’s life. Good luck with whatever work you’re facing.


  2. says

    “Does understanding desire and yearning in your own life help with your characterizations?”

    I got a lot out of your post today, David. It made me wonder about the process of how you find what your character yearns for. I don’t know this ahead of time. I find out what my characters yearn for, what the emotional truths are, as the character acts within the scenes on the page and through interactions with the other characters. Almost like the character is showing me what my personal issue is.

    • says

      Glad I offered a little assistance in some way, Paula. I often tell my students to think of the yearning as the kind of love and life that character longs for, and he sees the opportunity for that in the loved one. The beloved is a crucial piece of the larger element but not its entirety, she’s necessary but not sufficient. For our longing never rests, and the full realiZation of our happiness lies just beyond our reach.

  3. Richard Maguire says

    “Death is a great educator on the need to figure out your life before the chance slips away.”

    A powerful sentence from a powerful post, David.

    Almost twelve months to the day since MURDERATI folded its tent. And I find you here by chance. It reminds me of all your wonderful posts, and makes me yearn for all the ones that might have been.

    Apologies that I’m not commenting on the post, itself. Because I’m wallowing in nostalgia. But more constructively I’m reading “The Art of Character” for the second time.

    • says

      Thanks, Richard. MIss your commentary as well. A lively back and forth at Murderati. I’m quite flattered you’re reading Art of Character twice. You know the old saw: If I’d had more time I would have made it shorter.

  4. tom combs says

    I think what you’ve shared today is distilled writing wisdom. Thanks for the brilliant post.

  5. says

    What a great essay. It really is amazing how one’s writing reflects one’s state of mind. While dealing with depression I have found my writing has become more moody and less focused. The best writing I personally have ever produced has come from earnestly wanting something, like peace of mind or a less environmentally destructive society–even in nonfiction essays.

    • says

      Hi, BJ: Yes, you can’t escape the weather of your own soul, you can only slog though and hope for a clearer day not far ahead for rewrites. But some of the truth you gather in those darker moments may become crucial to a full telling of your story. There;s no wasted time as long as you’re trying to move ahead honestly, and putting words on the page.

    • says

      You’re welcome, Amymak. I’ve often found that if we change just enough about the character so we’re obliged to discover here, not just observe her, the creative side of our imagination kicks in more fruitfully. Good luck.

  6. says

    Interesting and my first WIP story brought this out. Our characters are our creation. They are rooted in our world of experiences and our desires and frustrations and disappointments in life. If we cannot define what we want in life, how can we define what our characters will be defined. Clarity of self will help define the clarity of our characters as well. Where there is uncertainty we add unnecessary and “rabbit trails” to distract us from the focus others are trying to discover.

    I learned that in my sermon and devotional writing. We are what we write and our readers need clarity over complexity.

    • says

      Hi, Coach: One of the greatest moral rules couldn’t be simpler: treat others as you wish to be treated. And yet it’s stunning how much wheel spinning and hemming and hawing that simple guideline can create. It’s important not to confuse the desire to do good with the fear of all the ways it might be mistaken, or might fail, or might even makes things worse. It’s easy to see clarity of purpose get all muddled up in misgiving, but that’s confusing the objective with the obstacle.

      Anyhoo, I’m rambling. Monday morning affliction. Thanks for commenting.

  7. says

    Your offering here was a mimi-seminar for me. I kept stopping to apply parts of it to my novel. “the yearning defies the stakes’ is an example in itself of a simple-seeming) statement with miles of depth lying beneath. I’ve been consciously working with the inner and outer goals of my character though this revision and have been astounded at how much her dilemma a convoluted re-surfacing of my own inner struggle. But this doesn’t apply only to the Protag. My demons and fairy godmothers come disguised as subplots and secondary characters. But they all come from the same tar pit. Thank you so much for a great start to my work day.

    • says

      Best of luck with the writing, Susan. “Blow on the coal of the heart, and we’ll see by and by,” as Archibald MacLeish once wisely said.

    • says

      What a wonderful feeling, getting that moment of sudden clarity. Hope the rest of the day and week and month are just as productive. Best of luck, Carol.

  8. says

    The yearning defines the stakes. Wow, you cannot get much simpler and much clearer than that.

    I see that my character’s inner struggle, to come out of her shell and fully engage in life, to be active and not just a passive observer, is a direct reflection of my struggle with finishing this book and getting it out into the world.

    Although she at least gets to have her struggle in an exotic location, while mine takes place in my bathrobe behind a laptop.

    A brilliant post, many many thanks.

  9. says

    My first ever novel that I attempted was such a mess. Talk about complicated. And it reflects the confusion in my own mind about the story I want to tell — too many! Over the years, I have learned to focus, but boy, I still struggle with this every time I begin a new project. It takes years for the idea to coalesce into something simple. Thanks for a great post and a great reminder to KISS.

    • says

      Hi, Vijaya: I can’t count how many murdered darlings were stowaways on a story where they didn’t belong. I’ve kept then in order to give them their due in other stories, but part of the writing process is allowing your imagination to sprawl. But then the more critical, editorial eye comes in and has to play judge. Each side of the process needs the other.

  10. says


    With my students and clients, I often find the problem is the opposite: In a given scene they can say what the focal character wants, but that desire is obvious, easy, defined by the requirements of plot circumstances, or in some other way expected and dull.

    I have a workshop exercise called “Reversing Motives.” It starts with a scene, then asks “what does this character want?” But it then asks, “What *else* does this character want?” We go down several levels of need.

    At the third level of need I havde students rewrite the scene opening with that motive (i.e., need, want, desire) first, foremost and conscious in the mind of the focal character. The result is almost always a more vibrant scene.

    The puzzlement you report I think is a reflection of the fear that fiction writers feel when they write, which in turn causes them to write safely. The reversing motives exercise works because its a simple and natural way to take folks a little out of their comfort zone.

    I wouldn’t urge writers to make their characters more “complicated”, which as you so rightly point out is a way of avoiding core, gut emotions and truths. But I would advise authors to recognize that their first choices in crafting a scene often are the safe choices. Keep it simple, yes, but shake it up.

    Good post, as always. Thanks David.

    • says


      I agree wholeheartedly, and I think my own first resistance to simplicity was that I equated it with dull.

      But the proper response is, as you say, look deeper, not create a thicket of wants that essentially serve to paralyze the character.

      By deeper want, though, I think we’re approaching what I call the yearning, which the character often does not recognize or refuses to accept at the beginning of the story. Only once death, loss or failure loom does avoiding this truth no longer become an option.

      This yearning reflects the person he truly wants to be in the world he wants to create for himself. It reflects the fundamental want of his life (as he sees it at the time). And at some point in the story he comes to realize if he shirks his responsibility to that yearning he will die in some crucial way. That’s why the yearning defines the stakes, and the stakes are always life or death if seen in these deeper, defining terms.

      But the outer goal, the “desire line” as it gets called, the track of action that propels the character through the story, may remain quite simple to state. Farmer Dan Evans needs to get the criminal Ben Wade to the train station for the 3:10 to Yuma. That’s his desire track, and it couldn’t be simpler. But his yearning speaks to his need to preserve his honor as his farm fails, to show his son what courage means, and to gain whatever small amount of money he can to hold off the bank trying to take away his land.

      I think we’re taking two paths to the same end. When your students look for the second or third level of need, they’re plumbing for the yearning.

      Thanks for the thoughtful back-and-forth. Always enjoy your comments.


    • says


      One other thing that occurred to me after I finished my first post reply. I often find that those students who naturally complicate at will often don’t make strong choices. The complexity is a way to avoid having to make those strong choices, choices that speak to deeper, more volatile, more threatening but thus more meaningful wants, with far more troubling consequences.


  11. says

    Thanks, David. This is the best discussion I’ve read about that deceptively difficult question, what is your story about? You must have been a fly on the wall of my brain and heard me think, it’s complicated, I don’t know, and other lame excuses.

    And how did you know my characters were confused, ignorant, or misguided, but eventually figured out their own story before I did? Finally, I listened to what they’s been trying to tell me, and so now I know the answer, too.

    Maybe the Greeks were right about the muse, and we are mere typists.

  12. says

    Fascinating meditation on character development. And good advice too! Yes, too often one starts the story too early or choosing a character that is too introverted – the way we tend to be as writers, or else, why would we be writing?

    One of your commentators made a good point: characters simply develop as one writes about them. Or to go back to one of Stephen King’s images that he uses in his book about writing: to explain how a novel develops, he likens it to digging up bones, one at a time. At first you’re not at all sure what kind of fossil it’s going to be, an aggressive pterodactyl, a slow-moving brontosaurus (or whatever, you get the idea…) – then as you keep writing, the character grows…

    But I have to admit that this approach requires serious editing afterwards: too many long passages, unnecessary complications (yes!) and often, the start of the story is, as you say, too early…

    • says


      Well, writing is rewriting, and the deeper truths of any story seldom reveals themselves at first glance. It takes time, patience, and focus to get to the real core of your story. Just the way it is. Good luck!


  13. says

    Good stuff here, Dave. And yes, I’ve completed several novels and have never been sure of my protagonist’s objection. They still sit, unpublished, on my hard drive. I’m in the midst of plotting my next novel, a YA set in a time when the world may end at any moment. However, I want it to be something other than the “boy saves world” apocalyptic novel. I wanted my teenage boy to want what every other boy wants–to kiss (and possibly more) a girl. As I read your post, I knew I was on the right track, but the setting forces me to dig a little deeper. What my protagonist really wants is to live the childhood that he is being denied. All before the world ends. I’ll work on it, but I think you’ve helped me see the trees and the forest. Thanks again!

    • says

      Hi, Ron:

      I think you have a wonderful set-up. The boy has a very strong desire line — to survive as long as possible in a world that may vanish any moment. He must find food, secure shelter, and defend himself against competitors 24/7.

      But the girl speaks to something deeper. The prospect of physical pleasure, of human concern and tenderness, amidst all this ruin — it speaks for a reason to live, not just survival. His desire is to find food and shelter and survive one more day. His yearning is to find a place with this girl where pleasure, tenderness and happiness are still possible.

      The key: Don’t make him wake up to his true yearning too soon. Have the girl confuse him, fight with him, steal his food, etc. Only when he thinks she might die, or vanish forever, does he realize his own will to live turns to dust as well.

      Good luck with this story. We’re in the midst of an apocalyptic renaissance. Go with God.


  14. says

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately; I’ve made a ‘perfect’ situation for my character to be in, with lots of obstacles to overcome–but it all falls flat because I forget to ask myself what my character’s motive is and why. It took a while to actually find it but when I did, it was as if a whole new world had opened up and I’d actually gotten down to the story. Now, after reading this post, it seems I’ll have to take that even further.

    And ‘the yearning defines the stakes’? Pure gold.

  15. says

    I love everything about this.

    I’ve learned to be disciplined about framing subjects and themes, but I always struggle against the impulse to complicate story lines. I’m one of those people (and readers) who likes when there’s A LOT going on at once, whether in life or in a book, and it’s taken me years to internalize that fact that this isn’t always a good thing.

    • says

      Hi, Mari:

      By no means am I advocating a single-minded devotion to simplicity. But I think complexity comes most dramatically and effectively from the conflict created by other characters opposing your main character’s path ahead, and motivating that conflict in strong desires and yearning on the part of those other characters. Also, the interplay of circumstance, luck, fate, all these things can add rich, textured complication that feels organic and interesting.

      What I’m getting at here is complication as an eversion to deeper, more troubling emotional truths that compel your main character. Too often I see students running off in a new direction before they’ve dealt meaningfully with something they’ve already presented.

      A great way to understand how to build complexity from simplicity is to analyze classical music, especially Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. They each take very simple three-note motifs and through development, juxtaposition, inversion, etc, create marvelously intricate and complex aural tapestries.

      But each element of that complexity is simple but strong. That’s the point to keep in mind.

  16. says

    Great post. I am editing and have found that what I was struggling with in drafting this WIP was an imbalance between what my MCs want. And then in looking at it more closely, for one, I could define what he wanted easily. For the other, it was vague. So, that’s why I’m “big picture” editing. I have to be able to break it down myself before I could ever convince a reader that theirs is a story and struggle worth reading.

    • says

      HI, Ainsley. Yes, if one of the opponents has a weakly realized want, the conflict can’t help but suffer. Good for you for recognizing that. I’m sure this next rewrite will be stronger and more compelling because of this deep, honest work you’re doing.

  17. says

    David Corbett–
    Sometimes, comments traffic in empty compliments, for the purpose of exploiting the chance to give exposure to the commenter’s work, website, etc. Not this time: what you’ve said is truly useful, and I thank you.
    I have been guilty of just what you describe: seeing what I’ve written as too nuanced to be quickly summarized for others. Wrong. The challenge is to take something with edges and extras and convey the essence of it in a few words.
    Only recently, I came to see how to do this (another approach to be added to yours). I learned it after I Googled “high concept” and read a clear, short essay that explained what the term means. True, not all books or films are high concept, but trying to use the idea and its requirements can be helpful in making simple what isn’t. I recently finished a novel. Not knowing what the term meant, I had no intention of writing a high-concept story. But when I applied the essay’s principles, I realized that, yes, that was exactly the kind of book I’d written. I was able to simplify and compress what I’d written, in a way that would make sense to Einstein’s six-year-old.

    • says

      Hi, Barry:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Yeah, “high concept” gets a bum rap because many of the stories that wave that flag are based on concepts that are anything but high. Cartoonish premises don’t make for great drama, no matter how succinctly their story lines can be expressed.

      But that doesn’t mean truly dramatic and interesting stories defy concise conceptualization. It’s one of the first things I require of my students: state in a s few words as possible your core story idea. We all learn a lot from that exercise, about our stories and each other.

      Good luck with the latest book.

  18. says

    Thanks for the great tutorial. So much of this post, and the comments, resonated with me it is hard to pick just one or two points to comment on. Your third question about writing problems also being personal problems made me want to say, “Hello, my name is Maryann and I’m a procrastinator.” I see a definite parallel between being disorganized and easily distracted in all aspects of my life and my writing. I have to make conscious decisions to pull myself back on track.

    • says

      Hi, Maryann:

      In truth, how could writing problems NOT be personal problems. Who else is doing the writing? The trick is to become aware of how we make the same mistakes on the page as we do in life. It;s amazing how liberating that can be.

      Best of luck:

  19. Poeticus says

    Nine years ago, a writing workshop professor introduced me to Freytag’s pyramid. That dramatic structure is amenable to geometry fascinated me no end. The essays accompanying the introduction missed the point for me, though they led on to seeking out Gustav Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, in which the original principles of the pyramid are expressed, not derivative misunderstandings and misinterpretations, I suspected.

    No accessible editions of the book were available from anywhere at the time, even interlibrary loan. Meantime, I dug into The Poetics of Aristotle and many other poetics texts. Okay, causation, the Cartesian horizontal x axis of Freytag’s pyramid, opened up for me. Another two years on, the book was digitized. Huzzah! The vertical axis is tension. Wow oh wow!

    If two axes, why not three, I asked. What potent motive force could this third axis be? Conflict immediately came to mind. The professor who led me to Freytag disagreed: literary term definitions were and are still part of the professor’s writing workshop lectures. Dramatic conflict is the diametric opposition of forces in contention, related to stakes and outcomes. Life or death, for example, acceptance or rejection, salvation or damnation, riches or rags, success or failure, generally, etc.

    Studying dramatic structure from a multi-act perspective—names and functions of act divisions—inspired by Freytag to reduce acts to first principles, revealed a kernel that led to a globe shaking epiphany. Freytag names the first act Exposition. How can that be valid? He defines exposition as introductions. That writing mentor-professor defines exposition as backstory. The two definitions are not, per se, at odds. Introduction acts during Freytag’s era were largely backstory, though on a threshold of change from Realism’s core reality imitation convention influences.

    Today, of course, for writers generally, exposition means dull, untimely summary (diegesis) and explanation (exigesis) blocks–ancient terms contrasted with mimesis–: both text block walls of words and blocks, impediments to reader satisfaction. Yet dictionaries retain exposition’s definition as setting forth the meaning or purpose as of a writing; in other words, introductions, setup, outset.

    Freytag names a second act rising movement, third act climax, fourth act falling movement, fifth and last act catastrophe. He was, of course, speaking of classic Aristotlean tragedy, which like Aristotle, he considered the pinnacle of dramatic arts. What then for Aristotlean comedy? J.R.R. Tolkein labeled a final act eucatastrophe, intended to cover both tragedy and comedy.

    That writing mentor-professor gave me the term denouement for a final act, French circa 1700, meaning “the final outcome of the main dramatic complication of a literary work; the outcome of a complex sequence of events” (Webster’s). “Outcome,” twice, “complication,” “complex.” More dictionary digging for precise definitions led me to ask, what then is a dramatic complication and might it lead to locating that evasive third axis.

    Of course, the third axis is perpendicular to the other two, obviously the z axis. A Freytag pyramid face graph is a triangle. The opposite faces invert the triangle, the peak pointed down. This graphs three-dimensionally as a tetrahedron. Locating a name and principles for this third axis consumed research and meditation time for a year. In chemistry and medicine I found the answer I sought: Antagonism. Muriatic acid and sodium bicarbonate are antagonists of each other; mixing them changes both. Antagonism is an agency of change. Change or transformation–character change–Aristotle claims is crucial to any dramatic work for satisfying audiences.

    What then I asked are antagonism’s identities, like causation is cause and effect and tension is empathy or sympathy and curiosity. I spent months developing a satisfactory answer. That writing mentor-professor had left clues, though I’d graduated BFA and moved on. Research was no direct help. The answer came down to unraveling vague traces here and there from writing community discussions, poetics texts, rhetoric texts, and dissecting narratives. Want, what a focal character wants. That was not the end all, be all.

    Want must have opposing force in order to be complicated: dramatic; a want must be of a suitable magnitude to compel proactive complication resolution or accommodation, a want satisfaction. Dissecting Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago wants to catch a big fish. Why? Externally, he has had a run of fishing misfortune recently. Internally, he’s aging and fears he’s past his prime. Problems related to each other. His empathy-worthy problems cause him to want. Problem suits the bill. The problem came first, then the want.

    This then, for me, is the third axis of dramatic structure: Antagonizing events cause empathy-worthy and curiosity-arousing problems and wants wanting satisfaction. Antagonism, Causation, and Tension. ACT. How delightfully convenient that the acronym suits the function, to act and dramatic division acts.

    Epiphanies from that third axis discovery came fast and furious. In the first place, an exposition act’s crucial necessity is setup, outset, introduction of a main dramatic complication, which is simply a problem and its opposing wants wanting satisfaction, both an internal, intangible, and an external, tangible dramatic complication. Unraveling what makes appealing dramatic complications finally boiled down to moral crisis.

    Santiago’s antagonizing crisis, for example, he is salao (Spanish idiom meaning cursed, derived from salar, to salt), an old salt, cursed by mysterious spiritual forces because he no longer catches fish. He has become an outcast: problem. The only way he can redeem himself in his communty is to catch a big fish: want. His moral crisis dilemma is he’s of an age he’s no longer in his prime problem, ripe for putting out to pasture or worse, and he must prove to his society he still has life to live, want. Will he be a drain on his community’s resources going forth? Or will he continue to contribute meaningfully? (Spoiler) Pyrrhic victory ending, though Santiago is crushed by defeat.

    Not just, in my opinion, introducing a want, but a problem and want wanting satisfaction, usually, antagonizing problem first for at least empathy development. Want by itself too easily is a selfishly self-involved and unlikable trait.

    • says

      Hi, Poeticus:

      Not all wants are born equal, and a purely selfish want will, as you suggest, fail to arouse empathy and gain the audience’s support. But we do empathize with those who struggle mightily against seemingly insurmountable odds in pursuit of a meaningful goal. We root for them. We see in their plight a reflection of our own.

      You reminded me of a few things I took out of the essay, but which your remarks have encouraged me to include here:

      Mistaking confusion for complexity often results from difficulty admitting what we ourselves want—not just from our stories but our lives. Especially when it gets down to defining what we believe makes life meaningful, there’s often a lot of hemming and hawing (at least when we’re young).

      But even older writers (like me) sometimes shrink before this question, as though, by answering it, we somehow diminish ourselves by seeing how simple our desires are: a good marriage, a safe home, a happy family, respect from our peers, fame, money, love, revenge against those who said we’d never amount to anything (a big one with writers). Or we avoid the question because, by answering it, we’ll be obliged to admit that we lack the thing we most want in our lives.

      Beyond the personal issue, however, many writers often misunderstand desire because they’re mixing it up with all the countermeasures, hedges, secondary desires and replacement wants that come into play because of the fear the desire will be denied. In short, they’re confusing the Objective with the Actions taken in the face of the Obstacle.

      Some, intoxicated by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, get mired in the briar patch of mixed motives, seeing self-interest and altruism in an interminable feedback loop, creating postmodernist paralysis. Agreed: characters equivocate, obfuscate, prevaricate and, yes, even complicate. But writers cannot.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

  20. says

    This post is so perfectly timed. I’ve been struggling with writing my current novel because I got so lost in the vortex of trying to come up with an incredible plot twist that I forgot the main point of the story: what my protagonist wants and why, and what’s stopping her from getting it.

    I heard myself telling my husband, I think I just need to keep it simple and stop complicating everything. The best stories have a simple and clear premise. Once that’s nailed down all the other stuff is gravy.

    Thank you for the reminder and the kick I needed. Or rather – thanks for throwing me a rope!

    • says

      Hi, Simone:

      I much prefer throwing ropes to kicking. Glad to be of whatever help I can.

      There’s nothing wrong with plot twists. Just motivate them from the same deep place you’re now going on behalf of your character. Or have them suddenly geyser up from the story world you’ve created. Phony twists fool no one. But as Donald said, sometimes you have to peel away a couple layers of the obvious before you get to where the unexpected lies.

      Good luck!

  21. says

    Nice article, great reminders. Thanks for this.

    Often writers develop the one or two elements of a story that really excite them, neglecting other aspects of the telling.

    In genre, this sometimes equates to an unbalanced focus on world-building or a narrative that is really just a sketch of their idea.

    Generally speaking, eloquent expression of what a protag wants creates characters that a reader will relate to, as well as a more compelling tale.

    In my opinion, anyways : )

    Additionally, I think we have to learn to discuss our stories in a brief, approachable way, so that the people we are speaking to can decide if they are interested enough to read it or not – for which “it’s complicated” really doesn’t help! (..and I’m severely guilty of doing that myself lol)

    • says


      We’re all guilty of not being able at first to state our story in a concise form. We’re still seeing all the subplots and nuances. So it takes some time, as we’re distilling what it is that makes the characters act and clash, that we gain a deeper understanding of what the heart of the story really is.

      No crime in taking a while to get it right. But yes, we need to get it right.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  22. says

    David, this is a great post on so many levels with a string of insightful statements functioning like stones to cross a swift river. Invariably, when I lose focus, I find myself in the drink. Complicated, indeed.

    I particularly appreciate your pointing to the necessity of the writer knowing himself as the path to knowing the struggles his characters face. I find this is the terrifying pleasure of writing. I just finished a manuscript in which I was apoplectic to enter all the places the main character had to go to meet his yearning. We learned together.

    The way I learned the theater prompt for actors was, “What does the actor want and how is she going to get it?” The exploration of ‘how’ is what imbues the moment (or paragraph) with emotion, stirs conflict, and creates the complication. This ‘how’ changes moment-to-moment under the umbrella of the objective and creates the beats to a scene.

    Thanks, as always.

  23. says

    Hi, Tom:

    The prompt you give for the actor includes both the Objective and the Action(s). But some Actions can’t be determined until the encounter with the Obstacle. But I agree: Complexity doesn’t come from the desire. Emotional depth and truth come from the desire. Complexity comes in the variety of Actions the character must employ to overcome the Obstacle(s) and continue his pursuit of the Objective.

    The scene I normally use when teaching this is the first scene in Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche uses several different actions — shaming, judgment, guilt-tripping, flattery, deceit — in trying to get Stella to invite her to stay. But that underlying Objective — to be taken in as family — remains the same throughout the scene, pushing Blanche forward.

    Good to hear from you.

  24. says

    Useful article. I found your reference to mathematics (which I studied to degree level and loved) is helpful because I think character motivation is BOTH complicated and simple (as is mathematics). It’s complicated because human beings are complicated and we want our characters to seem real, but it has to be simplified – or at least focused – or the fiction is an unsatisfying read. My struggle with a lot of advice on nailing the motivation is that it comes from a place that wants to make fiction formulaic – and it may be snobbish, as you say, but I think some fiction of this type IS dull – but it’s very difficult to translate the complexity into advice a novice can use. I think you’re doing that here and it’s one I’ll come back to. Thanks.

    • says

      Hi Annecdotist:

      If you studied math then you know that the simplest proofs are the most convincing. And to understand why, for example, an Abelian group of order p where p is a prime number must be cyclic, you don’t examine every possible candidate for p. You pick one — my professor always chose the “random” prime 17, his little joke — and you see how the thing works.

      The same is true of characters. Of course, we all want everything and we want it sooner rather than later. Try writing that. Get back to me when you’re finished.

      But we do have a sense of what will make us happy (yearning). In many ways it’s inexpressible but the more concretely you can visualize it — I often use a piece of music to capture a character’s yearning, like Vaughn Williams’s The Lark Ascending — the better off you’ll be.

      In stories an opportunity arises to take some positive step closer to that yearning. The path of action is known as the desire line.

      Desire automatically places us in motion, because if the object of desire is already in hand it’s either trivial or you have no story.

      Desire also automatically places us in conflict, because if there weren’t obstacles in our path we’d already possess that object of desire.

      The movement and the conflict create the complexity.

      Thanks for commenting. Good luck with your writing.

  25. says

    This is information that explains what can be complicated if put a different way You’ve simplified it and given good examples to make it clearer. Thank you for this valuable and useful information.

  26. says

    It’s almost as if you were in the preschool carpool lane with me this morning. Was just trying to nail down what my story is really about and just couldn’t.

    My excuse? It’s complicated.

    Sigh. Thank you for this article.