The first novel I wrote—one that no one will ever, ever read—was written using The Snowflake Method. The Snowflake Method might be useful if you know how to not write crap. I did not know how to not write crap.
After that and not necessarily related to that, I took a break from writing. I tried to be a game developer as I went through my midlife crisis. That plan went up in smoke when I had to wake up to feed one of my baby girls in the middle of the night. I put on a YouTube video from the Lessons From the Screenplay channel. It compared the character arcs in Logan and Children of Men. After watching this video the embers of creativity started to glow again. I knew what I needed to do to fix one of my old short stories. Actually, I didn’t know but I thought I did.
I was on my way to writing my first readable novel. In that video, the narrator recommended two books. I used the first one, Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland, to expand the short story into a novel. Creating Character Arcs was definitely a step up from The Snowflake Method, but in the end that first draft was missing something.
The other book that the narrator recommended was Anatomy of Story by John Truby. No other book has improved my writing as much as this one. Anatomy of Story is both idiot-proof and not even close to user-friendly at the same time. It’s idiot-proof in the way that it shows you what you need to have a good book. However, anyone who has read it knows that the formatting leaves something to be desired. One of the many examples of this is how the examples in the books scratch that book has steps that aren’t touched upon in the preceding explanations. That being said, one of the concepts within Anatomy that helps books almost write themselves is the four corner opposition. To tell it simply, four corner opposition is a way for opposing characters to become a dynamo of conflict.
We start off with the main character versus three opponents. You might wonder what we mean by an opponent. After all, most stories only have one bad guy. In practice, an opponent could be either an ally or an enemy within the story. Opponent means an ideological opponent. For example, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, Butch is considered the main character but Sundance is the main opponent even though they are partners.
As an aside, I prefer the terms Opponent 1, 2, and 3. Truby uses different terms in the explanations which contributes to the book’s impenetrable density for some. In the visual materials, he uses these terms and I find Opponent 1, 2, and 3 easier to keep track of.
We start off by assigning three adjectives to the main character. These adjectives need to have antonyms of some sort or the 4 Corner Opposition falls apart. Truby recommends that you be as specific as possible with your attributes, but I find that to be impossible so early in the plotting stages. Three one-word adjectives work just fine for me.
Let’s take a look at the best example of this for corner opposition that I can think of, Star Wars: A New Hope. I doubt that George Lucas had heard of this concept before writing the screenplay, but he had never heard of The Hero with a Thousand Faces before writing it either—despite statements to the contrary.
Our main character is Luke Skywalker. So what are his adjectives? First off, he is just. While he wants to run off to join the Imperial Academy to become a pilot, he eventually joins the rebels against the Empire. He is also naive. He almost gets himself killed in the cantina because his guard is down. Last, he is unadventurous. When Obi-Wan Kenobi tells him what must be done with the recording, Luke only wants to go home.
Next, we assign the opposite attribute to each opponent. The opposite of just is power-hungry. Our Opponent 1 is Darth Vader who, at this point in the story, is climbing the ranks of the Empire. He is quick to turn his powers on other powerful members within the Empire.
The opposite of trusting is cynical. Opponent 2 is Han Solo who leaves his friends when they need it most with his reward money in hand. The opposite of an adventurous is, of course, adventurous. Opponent 3 is Obi-Wan Kenobi who is the catalyst for Luke’s adventure.
Moving on, we assigned two more objectives to Opponent 1 to develop the conflict between the other characters. This gives them reasons of their own for also opposing the antagonist. Darth Vader is domineering any and all who disagree with him becomes his targets. On the other Han Solo is freedom-loving. He will ignore any laws that prevent him from doing what he wants to do. The second attribute for Darth Vader is egoistic. He believes that the self is the reason to gain power and, at the same time, the self is the source of his power. On the other side, Obi-Wan is spiritually connected. He becomes one with the force after death. Finally, we assign the last adjective to Opponent 2. Han Solo is skeptical. He doesn’t believe in The Force.
Obi-Wan is faith-based. Being a Jedi is pretty much self-explanatory.
Not only does the engine of the 4 Corner Opposition create conflict in this movie, but it also creates a foundation of conflict for the rest of the trilogy. As the story goes on these attributes change, conflicts are resolved, and new conflicts arise until the close of the final chapter.
Your Humble Scribe,
Brock T.I. Penner