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Stirring the Plot: Denial

Denial is an subconscious defense mechanism. When you ask a two-year old if he took a cookie from the jar (and he knows he will get in trouble for it), he denies it.

Characters deny things for complex reasons: to protect themselves, to protect people they love, to dodge a painful truth, or to deflect blame or suspicion.

When confronted with an internal dilemma or overall story problem, Dick (the protagonist) can choose to accept something or not oppose it at first. He may deny that aliens have landed or that his wife has lost that loving feeling. He may deny that he has cancer. As events unfold, Dick is eventually forced to accept it.

When confronted by information that counters his belief system or faith in someone, a character’s first response is usually denial. Many stories center on his journey as he struggles to accept the truth.

Dick may deny that he is the only one who can stand up to an injustice or a bully, but the overall story problem forces him to do so.

Jane (as antagonist) can see that her plan is failing and refuse to accept it. The reader will be thrilled that she failed.

Dick (as protagonist) can refuse to accept that his cause is lost and push on until he wins. The reader will be elated when he succeeds.

If Jane refuses to believe that Sally is dying, she may plan vacations and purchase air tickets that will never be used. She may insist on trying every far-fetched “miracle cure” on the market while Sally tries to bring Jane back to acceptance that the end is nigh.

Friends and foes chiming in on the issues make the story problem more difficult for the protagonist to succeed and the antagonist to fail. Their own acceptance or denial can create obstacles.

Friends and foes can continue to deny that vampires exist or a friend’s spouse is cheating even when they see the cheaters together.

Friends and foes can deny they were at the crime scene, withholding critical information either out of fear or out of malice. 

Denial creates conflict and tension as the reader waits for it to resolve. You can use this tactic to drive the story at scene and overall story levels.

To learn how obstacles create conflict for your characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

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