STORY STRUCTURE: PART TWO
THE OTHER STORY QUESTION
The way I add internal conflict is to consider how this person should be affected internally by this plot, or, alternatively, what character is most likely to be changed by the experience of these plot events?
So let's ask: Who is most likely to be changed by going through the experience of challenging authority? compass
Not someone who challenges authority all the time, or wishes he could. But someone who believes in authority, respects it, wants to become a part of it-- he will find the experience disorienting and life-changing.
Not the rebel, but the good boy. The one who started out as an altar boy and never made fun of the priest's habit of drinking the leftover communion wine. The one who never sneaked out of the seminary for a night on the town. The one who truly believes that the cream rises to the top, and that he can best serve his God by being one of the creamy ones.
Let's see what happens when we make our priest the good boy. Let's give him the heroic but problematic quality of loyalty. (If he's just serving authority because he's a sycophant, it's going to be hard for the reader to identify with him. But loyalty to a leader or an institution is something most of us can understand and even admire.)
Say the bishop was his mentor, and got him his job at the cathedral, and has been kind and generous and helpful throughout the priest's entire career. The priest is uneasily aware that without the bishop's help, he'd be saying Masses in some decrepit old church in a dying neighborhood. Instead, he's on the fast track to diocesan success.
Well, according to our plot journey, outlined above, the bishop is the murderer. His mentor did the murder! That sure sets up a conflict, right? And dramatic tension?
Not necessarily.... only if we make the external events heighten the internal conflict, and the internal conflict complicate the external events.
Remember that your readers already know part of the end, even if they don't skip ahead and read the last few pages. They know that the murderer will be unmasked and brought to justice in the end. They maybe don't know who the murderer is, but they know they'll probably guess before your big Revelation Scene. It's the internal conflict, that extra layer of complication, that will keep the tension high enough to keep reading. See, you've added another story question-- an internal one: not just "Will the murder be solved?" but "Will Father Ryan be able to solve the murder even when he's prejudiced by his loyalty to the bishop?"
INDIVIDUALIZING THE EXTERNAL
Hey! You know, asking the question often shows the way to the answer. Let's go over that internal story question again: compass
Will Father Ryan be able to solve the murder even when he's prejudiced by his loyalty to the bishop?
Hmmm. Do you see what I see? "Prejudiced." "By loyalty."
Loyalty leads to prejudice. We're automatically prejudiced whenever we're loyal, because we see the best in those we respect and love. That's the conflict inherent in loyalty-- it can blind us to the truth.
That heroic quality of loyalty becomes a conflict the moment it causes that blindness, that prejudice. And so the events of the plot have to cause that prejudice to emerge... and eventually to be overcome.
So the priest has to prejudge. He just knows the bishop who helped him, the patriarch he respects, the "His Excellency" who has done so much to make the archdiocese work efficiently-- he can't have committed a murder. "He's a man of God. Besides, I owe him!"
Now think of how we can make the plot events force this conflict. Why does he have to prejudge the bishop? After all, if the bishop isn't a suspect, it would never occur to the priest to defend him. I suppose we could make the priest get some uneasy suspicion on his own, without any provocation from outside. But somehow that feels too interior to me, too insular, too much too soon.
Yes, I know I've just been pushing internal conflict, but remember, the internal conflict should be forced to the surface because of external events. Until this story begins, loyalty hasn't posed a problem for the priest, or not one serious enough to make him question its virtue and its value to himself. Only this series of events is significant enough, dramatic enough, to force him into conflict, into an identity crisis-- into a reversal.
Aristotle called it peripetia-- the turnaround. That's when what seemed true turns out to false. What seemed to be good turns out to be bad. What seemed to be right turns out to be wrong. The dramatic tension, the character torture, is most intense when the plot turns around at that moment of peripetia. Afterwards, the protagonist will never be the same, because his assumptions about who he is and where he fits in the universe are proved invalid.
See how scary this is? Let's skip to the peripetia, so we can know our destination. He learns the bishop is the murderer. What does he do now? compass
This is the crisis point of the plot. It's that moment of reversal, when all that he knew before is lost to him. He is forced to change his longheld assumption that the man he respects is worthy of respect... but also that he himself is a man of moral acuity, because this immoral man had him fooled. His judgment is going to be proved flawed, and that central trait of his, the one he cherished in himself (and that we admire too), will turn out to be misguided, if only in this situation. Not to mention he's contemplating betraying the man who has been so good to him.
The identity crisis is: Who am I now, when I'm not the loyal apostle, when I'm facing bringing down the man who raised me up? Am I ... Judas?
To get to this point, to make it really hurt, he has to start out as that loyal apostle, not as the first doubter. If he immediately suspects the bishop, the identity crisis will start too early and thus have much less force. We won't have experienced his loyalty before we're experiencing his "betrayal".
So I think the initial suspicion should come from outside. The police find some clue that implicates the bishop-- his surplice is found on the floor of the room beyond the body? He was overheard arguing with the cardinal before the Mass? Only one clue-- we don't want to stack the deck. Just enough for the police to ask him a few leading questions, like "Where precisely were you just before Mass? Can anyone confirm you were there?"
What's a loyal apostle, a good boy, likely to do when his mentor's honor is challenged? He's going to rise to the defense, isn't he? After all, he knows the bishop. The bishop's a good man. A pacifist. And anyway, bishops don't murder! He'll tell that homicide detective to stop being stupid and go look for the real murderer. He'll tell the avid reporters how the bishop took him out of that orphanage and placed him with a nice devout foster family and got him a scholarship to the Catholic high school, that a man so good couldn't do anything so bad. If the police get too difficult, he might even tell the bishop not to worry, that he'll investigate on his own and track down the real murderer. After all, he'll say, "I owe you one."
ON THE ROAD TO REVERSAL
Once we've given him motivation to investigate, we've put him on the road to conflict.
Once we establish his belief in the bishop, we've set up for that painful moment of reversal.
He'll resist it at first. He'll be looking for evidence to justify his loyalty, not destroy it. And he'll find it, since he's prejudiced. He'll find the housekeeper who admits guiltily that she just washed that surplice and must have dropped it as she was putting the vestments away in the cupboard. He'll get the cardinal's secretary to recall that the overheard argument was actually about whether the Bulls would repeat their championship this year.
Maybe he'll even track down some street junkie who is known to have used the cathedral as a shooting parlor.
He'll be triumphant, and the bishop will be grateful. And all will be well.
Except, of course, he's wrong. The bishop really did commit the murder. And he's going to have to start suspecting it... probably right about the middle of the book, just when the readers are thinking, disappointedly, "You mean it was just some stupid junkie?"
Keep in mind his privileged position at the cathedral gives him access to information the police won't have-- employee gossip, secret financial records, knowledge of the bishop's nature and activities. What does he learn, in his attempt to vindicate the bishop, that winds up implicating him?
Whatever it is, it will have to be compelling enough, and dramatic enough, that he will start to doubt what he was certain was the truth-- and once that filter of delusion is cracked, it's only a matter of time before he starts seeing the other evidence in a new light. Still, it's going to take more than a few doubts to make him consider that everything he believed about himself and his mentor is no longer operative. What can be a good dramatic way to force him into that despair we call the Dark Moment?
I say "dramatic" because it usually does take something extreme to force us to change the habits of a lifetime-- and remember, supporting authority loyally has been his habit all his life. In fact, it's a central value in his life. (By the way, these days editors and readers appreciate events which are as heightened and intense as possible within the context of the story-- that intensity contributes to the degree of reader involvement... but that's another article.) What can cause him to question and ultimately betray that central value?
You could go with the tried and true and have someone take a shot at him-- imminent death, as Dr. Johnson pointed out, has a way of concentrating a man's attention. But I wouldn't do that. I see the priest's conflict as one of values, not merely survival. It takes a value to trump a value-- so what event could cause this valuer of loyalty and authority to decide another value is actually more important?
Right. The street junkie is arrested. Sure, he's a sad excuse for a human being, and he's probably guilty of plenty of crimes... but not this one. The priest finds himself in a conflict of values-- between his comfortable and central value of loyalty, and his heretofore untested appreciation of justice and truth. (Values must be tested... or they're mere posturing. It's easy to say "Honesty is essential" if you're never faced with a good reason to lie.) Now he's got conflict. Does he reveal what he's learned and release the junkie, or stay quiet and earn the gratitude of the bishop forever?
DEEPENING THE DILEMMA
To tell you the truth, this might be where I go back to the beginning and texture a bit, just to heighten this eventual conflict. I might make the cardinal a bit of a bad guy, so that his murder isn't so clearly an outrage against goodness. Maybe he's a dictator of sorts, one who opposes something important the priest supports, something nice and liberal like a homeless mission. Or, for greater coherence, I might make the cardinal's sin have to do with that issue of truth and/or justice-- maybe he's been lying about that budget surplus so he can de-fund all those liberal programs the priest supports, or denying the right of the convent sisters to speak to the press about conditions in the parochial schools. Maybe the bishop even breaks down and confesses that he did indeed kill the cardinal, but accidentally-- he only meant to shove him away from the telephone to keep him from calling security to arrest the nuns protesting on the cathedral steps.
My purpose would be to make the priest's eventual decision more difficult by making the bishop more worthy of loyalty. If he has killed the cardinal in order to usurp his position, the priest's loyalty is going to seem misplaced, and his judgment horribly flawed. How much conflict can there be, if he discovers his mentor is not only a murderer, but venal and greedy besides? His loyalty was to an illusion, and once the illusion dissolves, so will the loyalty. But if the bishop is pretty much just as good as the priest always assumed, except for this one lapse, the priest's dilemma is more purely loyalty vs. justice, and his Dark Moment that much darker, because a good man, not an evil one, will be destroyed by his actions.
The choice the priest makes will determine not only the bishop's fate, but his own new identity, as a man who values truth more than loyalty, justice more than authority. The internal story question has been asked and answered through the choices made and actions taken by the protagonist.
In this way, the plot events have significance beyond the external (a murderer is brought to justice): They have caused a fundamental change in the protagonist, and he can never go back to the person he was before. This will transform a conventional story into something at once more individual and more universal, for the uniqueness of the human being is the ability to change in response to experience and choice. A story that demonstrates such a change will, quite simply, resonate on a deeper and more profound level.