I love compelling fiction. Whether on page or screen, I never grow tired of the thrill I get when the story hooks me. You know the moment—that point where you’re so into the story that you become part of the story. The best writers grab us early and convince us to hold on until the end. I’ve got to admit, it’s a rush like no other, and the authors who do it well keep me coming back for more. My role as a writer is to figure out the secret and apply it to my own work.
In his book Conflict and Suspense, James Scott Bell explains that conflict is at the heart of riveting fiction. Why? Because conflict is at the heart of life. Everyone experiences it, struggles with it, and strives to overcome it. Of course, it attracts us. Watching the fight and seeing someone win gives us hope, and hope does not disappoint. Neither does good fiction, so for the next few weeks I’ll be examining Bell’s foundational elements of conflict: a Lead worth following, Objective (with death overhanging), Confrontation, and a Knock-out ending, (LOCK).
This week, we’ll take a look at notable lead George Bailey from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. On the surface, George doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a strong lead. He’s a skinny kid with a quirky voice, minimal formal education, and a hearing impairment. What makes him a lead worth following lies in the character traits he exhibits throughout the film. These traits—the humor, the enthusiasm, the kindness—make us like George immediately. James Scott Bell refers to this as being “hooked by heart.” George is the kind of guy we’d want for a friend, so we’re eager to find out how life works out for him.
Not only does George find a place in our hearts, he gives us a glimpse of his own, and in doing so exhibits the traits of a true hero. He shows courage in saving his brother from a frozen pond; he exercises responsibility as he works with his father at the Bailey Building and Loan, and he sacrifices his own dreams in order to help his family and his town. We no longer simply like George Bailey, we love him, and we want to see him succeed. He may not be the masked man in the cape or the prizefighter in the ring, but he is definitely a lead worth following. By the time the movie ends, George’s dashing, war-hero brother doesn’t even create a blip on our radar screen. It’s George Bailey we want.
Who are some of your favorite leads in books or film? What makes them so appealing? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments and tune in next week to find out how the objective impacts conflict.