Story is about conflict.
Conflict is about competing interests or desires.
How do you get competing interests between characters?
It’s deceptively simple. You simply have to get characters to think that their story is different from everyone else. And then you have it that way.
Here’s an example for all you audio drama fans out there. I’m a huge fan of Alice Isn’t Dead (and currently loving the heck out of the novel written by Joseph Fink). This podcast is a great example of two genres competing for dominance.
On one side is our narrator, a lone trucker searching the empty highways of America for her missing wife Alice. For her, it’s a romance trying to stay alive in the wilderness. On the other side is the Thistle Man and other walking nightmares, who appear normal from a distance and monstrous up close and feed off poor travelers at rest stops and small towns across the nation. As you can see (or, since it’s a podcast, hear), we’ve got a protagonist who wants romance and an antagonist who wants horror.
This clash of needs, simple on paper, creates a powerful 3-season story.
Or take a story like Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy lies in the competing needs of the young lovers and their families. Romeo and Juliet want to be in love together, be it in life or in death. Their families want to win their ancient grudge match, which turns every interaction into something akin to a street fight or a political drama. If not for the family feud, there’d be only an awkward teenage romance for our couple. Instead, unable to escape their turmoil (and perhaps making poor decisions because of the extreme war), the two end up dead by play’s end and their families bitterly reconciling after the fact.
There’s always more than one story at work. Luke Skywalker thinks he’s on an epic quest to overthrow an empire and honor his Jedi legacy; Darth Vader thinks he’s a broken-hearted warrior restoring order to a galaxy that’s falling apart. Captain Kirk is out to regain his command and reconnect with his former lover and his son on a distant outpost; Khan Noonien Singh mourns his fallen wife and crew, and he seeks revenge on the captain who marooned him.
Depending on who wins the story determines the overall genre for the story. Gatsby loses his love interest and dies in a swimming pool, so that makes this a tragedy. Portia gets Antonio and Bassanio out of trouble with the law, so that makes their tale a comedy. It’s a question of clashing ideals, clashing desires, and clashing methods for success. It’s what makes every conflict so real in the great stories.
On a final note, I’ve found that this is actually a great way to build loglines as a writer. Loglines are those one-to-two-sentence elevator pitches, ones that usually start with “In a world where…” But in this case, it’s about telling your audience what kind of genres (or competiting interests) they’re in for.
Let’s look at a story like Hamlet. Consider this logline for the play:
When a ghost informs him of his father’s murder, a brooding prince must wrestle with how to avenge his father’s killer—his own uncle and the new king of Denmark.
What does this logline tell us about the story? First, that it is a revenge play. Second, that it has supernatural elements (i.e., the father’s ghost). And thirdly, that the antagonist is both Hamlet’s blood relative and a usurper to the throne. Again, remember that Hamlet and Claudius’s desires are from different genres. For Hamlet, this is a revenge plot, but a tragic one because it’s unfolding within his own royal family. For Claudius, this is a political drama in the vein of House of Cards, where he accrued power through lies and murder, and he fears his nephew’s interference in the new regime.
So, learn to change things around. Look for antagonists to be more than just cardboard cutouts or walking excuses for the hero to run into trouble. Tell us their story, even if we never see things from their perspective. And then, once you know what the hero’s goal is as well, you’ve defined both your contributing genres, your core conflict, and set up the ground for a (hopefully) great-selling pitch.