It is definitely just a muscle to exercise and exactly what we do every week in the workshop. There’s a tendency to talk about the surface level stuff, which can sometimes be in the ballpark of the element, but kind of misses the point. Other times, it’s way off the mark and you miss what’s really going on underneath the surface entirely—confuse subject matter with the mental conflict happening beneath it.
Your illustration of panic might be something like:
Tom panics when he sees the hungry lion running after him.
But that’s not quite enough to make an interesting moment from which to write. And it’s not phrased in a way that addresses the justification to panic. It’s just a “paint by numbers” illustration. There’s no mental dilemma happening.It’s half of the potential source of conflict, and if you write from that you MIGHT touch on the part that starts making it interesting. But why risk overlooking it? Finish off the conflicting sources of conflict.
Ask yourself WHY is Tom panicking when he sees the hungry lion? It might seem obvious—because the lion is going to eat him. But so what if the lion eats him? Somewhere in there is a mental justification to panic.
The easy one is that the lion is going to eat him if he doesn’t run, and he doesn’t want to get eaten alive. So then write that version down… THAT’s the mental process at work. The “thinking” happening in that moment of panicking.
Tom needs to panic to outrun the hungry lion and avoid being eaten alive.
That’s ONE side of the source of conflict, but there’s still no conflict. That’s just a justified mental state. So change the context of panicking and you can start to throw the mind into a dilemma.
What’s some other instance of panicking not tied to the hungry lion, in which panicking is bad? Or some other version of good that negates the first?
Tom needs to panic to outrun the hungry lion and avoid being eaten alive, UNLESS panicking makes him clumsy, making him vulnerable.
Now we’re talking.
Tom needs to panic to outrun the hungry animal poised to eat him alive, but if he panics he’s liable to trip and he’ll get eaten.
So now we can see that panicking in two different contexts doesn’t mesh.
One one hand panicking enables him to outrun the predator.
On the other hand panicking makes him clumsy, liable to trip and fall.
It’s important to note as well that there’s no solution here. The point of the beat is to put the mind through that mental dilemma. Then, when you put that dilemma in the context of the OTHER sources of conflict before and after it—your story takes the mind on a specific kind of journey that means something in the end.