What the Lion Did

The September 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun contains an intriguing article by Andrea Miller entitled “Pure Fiction.” Miller talks with three novelists, two of whom practice Zen or Buddhism. The third, although not a Buddhist, has been influenced by Buddhism. All three writers, and Miller, make interesting connections between Buddhism or Zen and fiction, but I was struck by a minor comment about plot and conflict. In discussing his novel Exiles, Cary Groner remarks that in writing the book, he learned how to create suspense. Among the things he learned is that sometimes when a character solves one problem, he creates a new one.

A brief word here about plot and conflict. In simple terms, plot is the path a protagonist follows in order to achieve his or her goal. Conflicts are the many obstacles he encounters along the way that prevent him from reaching that goal. This is Novel Writing 101. But I was intrigued by this slight twist Groner gave it—that when a protagonist resolves one conflict, he might create an even worse one for himself.

Because the universe works in mysterious ways, less than an hour after I read that article I watched a snippet of a movie that demonstrated this approach to conflict. My teenage daughter was home sick, sick enough that she was willing to watch a kid’s movie. When I went into the living room to check on her, Madagascar 2 had just begun. I’d never seen it and watched the first few minutes. To synopsize: a lion cub is lured off an animal preserve and grabbed by some poachers. He is stuffed into a wooden crate that is nailed shut and then tied with rope into the back of a pickup truck. Truck takes off, but not before Daddy Lion hears his cub calling and runs after him. He catches up with the truck and leaps into the bed. With one swipe of his paw, he cuts through the rope holding the crate into the truck. At that moment, a poacher leans out the passenger window, aims his shotgun, and wings Daddy Lion. Daddy Lion is knocked off the truck. As he gets up, preparing to give chase again, the truck careens around a corner—and the crate, no longer tied into the truck because Daddy Lion cut the rope, goes flying out of the bed and into a river. Daddy Lion continues chasing the truck, never realizing his son is no longer on it.

Huh, I thought. Look at that. A protagonist solved one conflict, only to create a worse one.

I didn’t stay to watch any more of the movie. It was enough to see a clever plot device in action.

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2 thoughts on “What the Lion Did”

  1. Hi Bett, I really liked this piece. It is fascinating to think that a protagonist can solve one problem only to create another. I’ve been working on a short story that I now realize (by default, not insight, unfortunately) that this is what the protagonist has indeed done. This will help me smooth out some rough spots that have nagged at me for some time. THANK YOU!

    I’m looking forward to reading further entries in your blog.

    Best regards, Bob Cabral

  2. To add to your excellent insight, elizabeth, I suggest the writer look even further to see what force caused the reaction that led to the new complication. In this case, the lion cub’s latest dilemna appears accidental. If the case had been otherwise, the protagonist’s reactions might have redirected. So for every action there is not only a reaction, but one perhaps directed toward a new villan. I appreciate reading your easy style.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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