For years now, I’ve preached about The Five Requirements of Story. It’s been a pillar I’ve stood on and has driven everything from the way I edit and coach, to my personal writing and marketing.
As much as I’ve had faith in these requirements, there has always been a bit of resistance and confusion regarding the fourth requirement, the Predicament. The predicament could sometimes be difficult to explain or point out and the writer’s eyes would glass over. They would nod their heads… yes, they agree and understand, and we’d move on.
(Note: they didn’t understand.)
The difference between the predicament and conflict was causing some confusion. I write about the third requirement in a past article if you’re interested. It’s a nice overview, but it doesn’t go into enough depth about what the predicament is for and what it can do.
Going deeper just didn’t feel well aligned with trying to teach new writers the techniques they need to continue writing great stories. They need these requirements to be easy to understand on the surface, so that when we dive deeper into each requirement and how it applies to their story it all fits together and makes the most sense, without causing a ton of overwhelm.
Think of the requirements as the thirty-thousand-foot view of a story. Too many things to look at and they all get lost. But pick three or four things, then zoom in one at a time, they make more sense. When things make sense, they’re easier to identify and therefore execute.
Sometimes the predicament is easy to spot upon a little closer inspection. Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise has a clear predicament that is butted up against the climax. A lot of this can be contributed to its genre.
Throughout the movie, we’ve seen John McClane go through an array of building conflicts, including taking down a helicopter with a car and facing off with a Herring fighter jet. An essential of the action genre is that the hero is at the mercy of the villain and that the hero must save themselves. John is captured by the bad guy with no hope of escape. This is the lowest of the low that he can get. He’s caught, his daughter can’t help, and the sidekick is injured and incompetent in these types of situations. This is the predicament because it is the last in the sequence of building conflict and it raises a question, will John get out, or won’t he?
The climax then answers the question.
Spoiler alert! Yes, he gets out in the most unpredictable way by shooting himself through the shoulder and through the heart of the bad guy.
There are no moments or beats between the predicament and the climax.
But this isn’t always the case, especially in books.
Movies have movie time they can rely on to speed up the drama and decision-making of the characters. Books, on the other hand, have the opportunity to explore character decisions on a deeper level. And a lot of times they can’t be made in a split-second decision to pull a trigger.
Imagine you have a character-driven story about an alcoholic mother who needs to sober up to be there for her kids like they need her to be. Her want is to be the cool mom, maybe she drinks to unwind or it’s leftover from her college days. Eventually, the drinking gets out of hand.
Throughout the book, you’ve shown building conflict, and there have been some complications. Some of these have been terrible, maybe she missed her daughter’s high school senior play, and some have been great, maybe she bumps into an old friend she used to party with and that friend is now sober.
Naturally, this will progress to her having a last major conflict (formerly the predicament) that results in her doing something really terrible while she’s drunk, whatever terrible thing fits your vision of the story.
But she’s drunk, she obviously can’t see the error of her ways (all is lost moment) nor does she have the state of mind to do anything about it. Meaning, the predicament and climax cannot be butted up against each other.
She needs time to sober up and reflect.
Whatever this terrible moment is, the reader can see no way out of it for her. It’s the worst thing that can happen to your mom character.
Something then needs to spur her to use her gifts to make it right. There needs to be a passage of time and pages for her to rally her to move, gather herself up, and make it right. The gathering, the rallying, is the minuscule ball of packed snow that is rolled around and builds and builds until it’s boulder-sized.
Then she acts. She uses her gifts to get herself out of the situation she’s put herself in (or doesn’t, depending on the genre).
My previous assessment and theory of the predicament needing to be right before the climax doesn’t apply here. There needs to be time for reflection, decision-making, and action.
At its core, the predicament is a conflict. It’s the last in a long line of smaller conflicts that have been built over the course of the book. Like all the other conflicts, it’s meaningful to the story and characters and it drives them to make a decision.
And honestly? I haven’t run across a manuscript yet that is missing this last big conflict unless the entire climax is missing as well.
Because it’s rarely missing, I almost lumped the predicament with the climax, after all, this last conflict is what spurs the climax. It’s the lowest of the low for the character and it forces them to act. This would work if all books were action dramas and this last conflict was butted up next to the climax. But they’re not, so there needs to be some room to breathe between the last conflict and the climax now and then. Characters need to gather the strength to climb to the peak after they’ve just fallen into the deepest chasm.
Writing a compelling, emotionally connected story is complex, and it’s best to take things one step at a time. More advanced techniques can be implemented the closer you zoom in after you’ve learned the macros.
I hope this takes a bit of the pressure off of knowing what the requirements are and how to execute them. Let me know if this cleared some things up for you!
You can find my original article on The Five Requirements of Story HERE. I’ll keep it and the related articles up for a while so you can browse them at your convenience. I’m slowly going to be updating them throughout the year.
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