Mephisto Prospero contemplating the Two Strings Technique
Two Strings: Two separate issues need to be going in each scene.
In art, we create the illusion of three dimensions with contrast. A single line forming a circle looks two-dimensional to the eye. Add shading around one side and suddenly it looks like a ball instead of a circle—as if the light were shining on the one side casting the far side into shadow. Our eye recognizes this contrast as the way 3-D objects look and assumes that the object on the paper is 3-D, too.
What applies in art is also true in writing. Contrast is what makes the written word spring to life: contrast in theme, contrast in plot, contrast in setting, contrast in character.
The same way that shading tricks the eye by reminding us of what we see around us, contrast in stories reminds us of real life. In real life, things are untidy. Very seldom is anything accomplished without some difficulty. You get a new job, but you do not care for the location. You meet a nice man, but he has a girlfriend who lives far away he has to break up with before he can really see you. You love where you live, but you miss your family who live somewhere else.
These tensions, between what we have in life and the way we would like things to be, are what keep us striving, what makes our life dramatic and interesting—interesting to others, I should say.
This is a very important point, and we should get it out of the way first thing. Writing, stories, drama, is about what is interesting to others. What is interesting to read. What is interesting to hear about.
It is NOT about what is best to live.
Having a good life – getting a job in a place you love, meeting a great fellow who is free to date, having your family move to where you are – is wonderful for those who are living it. However, it doesn’t make interesting drama. (Unless it comes at the end, after a struggle to achieve it.)
This is why so many romance novel publishers have a rule that the book ends with the wedding (or a short epilogue).
So, this is the first lesson of writing:
Books are never about the way we would really like things to be.
They are never about happy people being happy. They are never about things that are just going well. They are never about creative people producing their art without obstacles.
They are never about Heaven.
You can visit Heaven in a story, as part of the contrast between what we desire and what we have, but you could not set the whole story there.
Drama comes from conflicts, from overcoming obstacles. So what makes an obstacle in a story?
Obstacles come when there is a contrast between desired outcomes. The desired outcomes can be two desires internal to the character, such as I want to go away to college but I also want to be near my family.
Or they can be an internal vs. an external, such as: I want to get medical help to my mother vs. the physical dangers of getting there since the road washed out.
Stories come to life when that contrast becomes apparent.
So, now that we have established that stories need conflict, you may ask: “But how does all this apply to my writing? And what did you mean by ‘Two Strings?’”
Have you ever heard writers talking about how they got the idea for their latest work? Often they’ll say something like: “I had this idea for the longest time about a band of clowns traveling through the desert. But it wasn’t until I came up with this second idea, of a type of sand worm that only eats clowns, that the story really came alive.”
Okay…that’s a horrible example. But, hopefully, you get the point…which is: it took two different ideas to bring the story to life.
A real example a friend recently shared was: for a long time he wondered about what if one of the tribes who left the Tower of Babel went into space? Then, one day, his little daughter was playing princess, and he thought: what if she really was a princess? What kind of culture would hide its royalty away among normal people?
These two ideas were the seeds for his novel.
A writer can have a really great idea, but until it becomes the intersection of two great ideas, it remains static, lacking in interest. And while it is static, it is hard to write about and not very interesting to read about.
This is why stories that read like travel logs tend to be dull. The author has one good idea: put onstage interesting places and people, but no second idea to tie them together and give motion to the plot.
More often, however, a book has two overarching ideas, but does not necessarily have two strings to every scene. So the book is interesting, but some scenes drag.
Which brings us back to the question: what do I mean by ‘string’.
By ‘string’, in this case, I mean a concept that adds interest to the scene.
Or, put more simply: every scene should have two things going on in it.
It’s that simple.
When we make up stories to write, we often start with an idea: I want to tell the story of a Hobbit name Frodo; I want to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson; I want to tell the story of a prince who marries a princess.
Write about them doing…what?
That one idea by itself is never enough. A single idea is like the circle made out of a single line. It may be well-drawn, but it is still flat. Without shading, it does not come to life.
What is needed is a second idea to provide the contrast that brings the story alive: What if a Hobbit were drawn into a war story? What if Jefferson’s story were told as journal entries? What if the prince has been turned into a frog?
Note that the story of Jefferson does not necessarily need a second plot idea. Jefferson’s life already has events and conflicts. What it needs is an approach. Something that helps the author frame the story, to choose which events to mention and how to bring the biography to life.
( Years after I first wrote the above paragraph, I picked up an easy reader book on Jefferson for my son. The author chose to tell about Jefferson’s life from his interaction with food; food he ate, food he encouraged others to eat, like tomatoes, food he brought to America from France. It was interesting because the overlap between the known figure, Jefferson, and this unusual take, food during Jefferson’s time, contrasted to make this short reader fascinating.)
The moment the second idea, or story string, is discovered, the story comes alive. You “pull on the strings,” and the events begin to move in the author’s imagination. They stop being static and come into motion.
When they come alive for the author, they are far more likely to come alive for the reader.
This is true for a novel. This is true for a short story. This is true for every individual scene.
Ever read a book that has long passages that just don’t seem to go anywhere? The characters you like are on stage. They are talking about some interesting subject, and yet the scene seem flat, static? That is a scene with only one string to it. The novel may have two (or many, many more) ideas dynamically contrasting to produce a great story, but that particular scene is only accomplishing one thing.
So, what do I mean by “two strings”?
In particular, I mean that two things get accomplished in relation to forwarding the story. A story is a collection of different kinds of qualities, such as: plot, backstory, description, and character development.
Plot moves the action of the story forward. Backstory is the events that happened before the story opened that have an impact on the events and characters. Description, if done well, makes the story more vivid and alive in the imagination of the reader, helps them picture the location and to feel more immediate. Character development helps the reader know who the character is, which, in turn, leads to a greater appreciate of the character’s struggle…i.e. the story.
But any one of these things in a scene by itself, and the scene begins to feel thin—or worse—static, as motionless as a winter pond.
The key, then, is to mix them. Have two things happen in every scene.
Either touch on the threads of two different plotlines, or have the plot motion contrasted with a bit of character development. Or spruce up the description by having a hint of plot or character development come out from how the room is described. Etc.
The key is to have two different contrasting purposes to the scene.
So, how do you do this?
Just go down the list. Can you have a plot twist, something that ups the tension and forwards the motion of the plot, in the scene?
Can you add a description that has something interesting to it. Do a little research about your location or some aspect of the situation and add a few pertinent details to the scene in such a way as to spark interest?
Can you have your character’s reactions to the information in the scene be atypical? Can the banter between them give the scene sparkle—perhaps hinting at a rivalry or romantic tension?
Can you slip part of your background situation into the dialogue in such a way to surprise the reader?
A brief aside: writers are often told to avoid flashbacks and info dumps about background info. But this does not mean ‘don’t include background info’. It means: don’t include it up front. What you want to do is wait until the reader is curious enough about the situation and the characters that what would have been an info dump becomes revelation—exciting insight into the characters and their motivation. When you reach this point, adding background revelations become a great way to add a second string to a scene.
One of the easiest ways to bog down is with character development. You write a scene, perhaps a conversation, where amusing conversation happens. You love the scene. It shows you how funny or compassionate or over the top your character is.
But it drags.
The reason, usually, is that nothing in the scene affects the overall flow of the story. If you took the scene out, you would miss the cute bits you wrote, but the reader would never know it was gone.
The best way to bring life to this kind of scene is to add a plot thread. Have some revelation in the dialogue that unexpectedly moves the plot forward. That way, you can save your delightfully written character scene AND not bore your reader.
Another pitfall is the scene that reviews what the character knows to date. Donald Maass calls this something like “the dreaded cup of tea” scene…claiming that these kind of scenes usually happen when a character is driving from one place to another or sipping a cup of tea…and they stop to ruminate on what they know.
It can be important to review what the character knows and to show the character’s reaction, but there are also ways to make that more dynamic.
The first trick to that, of course, is conversation. Put it in dialogue. Another trick might be to put it in an unusual setting. If the character is not drinking tea, but is wandering through a museum of strange objects or crawling through a cave…some situation that, in and of itself, brings interest and tension…it will be easier for your reader to stay engaged.
Description alone, however, is another pitfall. A common mistake for fantasy writers is to invent a background that’s really neat, but not really have much happening in it. So the reader is treated to a travel log about this intriguing place, but soon loses interest because nothing is happening.
The reason this is such a big pitfall for fantasy writers is that having something happen often means ruining and tearing up the very place you were so proud of inventing.
My husband recently shared a scene from a book he was reading that makes a good example. The main character walks into his office and is questioned by his boss. The boss asks him all sorts of questions about his background…because they have discovered that there are alternate worlds, and people from those worlds are impersonating people from our world. The boss wants to confirm that it is actually him.
This scene had three strings: the plot string of introducing the alternate realities, background info string of putting on background info about the main character…through the questions that his boss asks, and the character development string of showing how the main character reacted in the tense situation of having his identity questioned. These three strings, working together, turned what could have been a very dull scene—we find out a bit about the character’s history—into a compelling scene.
Books that really shine have an interesting contrast in every scene, sometimes even every page or paragraph. (Donald Maass claims you can even do it with every line.)
The same way a good artist can learn to draw all figures with proper shading and perspective, if we writers can master the technique of Two Strings, we can bring our works to life.