On Stories and Storytelling (2)
(Second of 3 Parts)
Obviously, the conflict is the problem to be resolved in a story. If you are familiar with literature, you know that there are three categories of conflict – man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself. Janet Burroway proposed that the following should be included – man vs society, man vs God, and man vs machine. We may also refer to them as sources of conflict.
Sometime ago, in one of my literature classes in the Philippines, I told my students to watch the movie “Titanic.” That was when our topic was “elements of fiction.” Students would prefer watching movies over reading short stories or novels when dissecting stories.
When I asked them to identify the central conflict in the story, most of them answered “man vs nature.” You would understand why that was the answer given by them –Jack and Rose (and all the rest of the passengers) have to survive the sinking of the ship. They were surprised when I told them that there’s a dual conflict in the story. There are two sources – “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” While the star-crossed lovers try to figure out how to stay away from the icy water of the ocean, they also have to contend with an extremely angry Cal and his loyal minion Lovejoy.
That’s how clever some writers are. They push their readers or audience closer to the edge of their seats – to the edge of the cliff of excitement – by inserting a conflict within a conflict. With that, they make the “rising action” more intense. When a writer uses multiple sources of conflict, with all the conflicts equally significant, I call it “layered conflict.” (I am not sure if I was the first to call it this way.)
What if the one who wrote the script for the “Titanic” added an extra layer of conflict? Let’s say that somebody steals the necklace (“Heart of the Ocean”) and Rose asks Jack that they have to do everything to take it back. Let’s say that the thief is a hardened criminal who is willing to kill just to keep what he has stolen. Would the story be more exciting if while the lovers are trying to survive the unfolding sea tragedy, they have to pursue the one who took the expensive jewel and at the same time hide from Cal and Lovejoy?
I told my students that it will be easier for them to explain the conflict of a story by starting with a guide question. In the case of the dual conflict in the Titanic, the questions should be: Will Jack and Rose survive the anger of Cal? Will they (also) survive the sinking of the ship?
In another class – Literary Criticism – I taught my students how to trace symbolism in stories. I also used the movie Titanic for the activity. It was easy for them to pick the necklace and explain the symbolism behind it – that the jewel is a symbol of Rose’s heart and her love for Jack. They gave nothing more about symbolism after the necklace.
So, I told them that for symbolism, they should not focus only on objects. The story – the writer – may try to convey a meaning through events in the story. For example, I asked them if they could see any meaning beyond the band continuing to play while the ship is sinking. What about the sinking of the Titanic? What does it convey?
I told them that the decision of the band to continue playing while the ship sinks conveys two things. Firstly, it shows the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Secondly, that there are people that when confronted by whatever is inevitable, they could face it courageously.
And what does the sinking of the mighty “Titanic” symbolize? It shows how helpless mankind is against the forces of nature.