“The Thieves of Joy” – A Guest Post By Art Holcomb

“Comparison is the Thief of Joy” – Theodore Roosevelt

Good vs. Evil. Right vs. Wrong. Love vs. Hate.

Luke vs. Vader. Werewolves vs. Vampires. Obama vs. Romney.

The Past vs. the Present.

The actual plot of “Lost” vs. whatever the Hell was going on there.

What it all comes down to is Opposition – the classic conflict within Life Itself. It is the basis for all perception and the very foundation of Story.

Because conflicts – the very building blocks of all stories – begin with a single comparison.

Whether it is a cool breeze on a hot, summer day or two armies rushing to oppose each other on a battle field, comparison exposes the differences between all things and, without it, conflict cannot exist. Duality exists in nearly every part in our lives and we enjoy the emotion of experiencing and embracing it’s inherent differences .  All sports, warfare, love, art and human interaction stem from our ability and our inherent need to differentiate between things. With difference comes opposition and judgment about which is better – and with judgment comes the heft and weight of emotion that drives our stories.

The Taoist philosophers believe that the descent of man from his purest state began the moment that he started naming things as he sought to describe the world.  It began with the simplest of distinctions, such as  “Night” and all that is “Not-Night”, “Me” and all those that are “Not Me” and, most important (for motivational purposes), “Mine” and all that is “NOT-YET-mine”. From the earliest moments of life, we learn by comparing.

As a child of the 1960’s, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a poem entitled Desiderata  by Max Ehrmann, which went from being a minor work in 1927 to become a devotional for the Counter Culture Movement.  While the piece as a whole is still worthy of daily contemplation, one passage serves our purpose here regarding the twin fundamental truths about comparison and human nature:

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

This is Human Drama in a nutshell, and an essential truth that you must not abandon in your writing.

So . . . what does this have to do with Teddy Roosevelt?

As creators, we must all be thieves of joy, using the distinct differences and specific desires of our characters to produce compelling conflict.

Because isn’t this what story structure is about? The upsetting of the apple cart? The ruination of the serene?

Each “World-Before-Story” we create in Act I is interrupted by the Inciting Incident, throwing things out of balance, and the remainder of the tale is all about seeking that vital and illusive New Balance. In our finest moments, we force our heroes to spend all of Acts II and III finding a middle ground that they can – and must – live with.

But it isn’t all about the conflict.  The power of contrast and comparison is at play in every step of the process.  Let’s take Roosevelt at his word and explore the power of comparison:

(1) Through Characters – as we write, the differences between now and then, hero and villain, right and wrong must be eventually clear to the reader so that they can choose up their sides in the contest.  What good is a hero that you cannot root for, or a villain to root against?  Your characters are, at their essence, the embodiment of your different IDEAS, and the comparisons you create for them are the way of testing their validity in story form. The specific sides need not be clear from the outset, and must not be in certain genres such as mystery and horror, but the contrasts and the characterizations must be clear enough for the reader/viewer to recognize the differences between the individual players.

(2) Through Scene – each scene must be necessarily different from the next and inhabitable enough to really place the reader/viewer there alongside your character.  The journey should be more of a cross-country drive – with many distinct and unique stops- than an airplane hop across country.  You need to sit inside each scene for a while and look around and truly get to know the place before you write.  Remember: you took your characters here for a reason – make the most of it. And make sure the locations have a character of their own as well and, through your descriptions, their own personality.

(3) Through Dialogue – make sure your characters truly sound different as they speak.  Do this by learning about speech patterns, rhythm and cadence.  Do not resort to accents or caricature to get this across.  Few things are worse than hokey dialogue that the reader must stumble through or the viewer must rewind to understand. Seek to write roles that are natural but different enough from one another that you could tell them apart without attribution.

(4) And through Your Own Voice – your work will be compared to others.  It has to happen in order for you to gain a following. Sometimes it seems that Hollywood and Big Publishing are merging into one great, shambling beast, and even as they cry for new and different voices, they continue to produce books, films and TV that all seems the same. Certainly, the marketplace loves to homogenize through their notion of “the-same-but-different” so that financial risks can be minimized, but that must mean little to you in the privacy of your own creating. Always give them something that can only come from you, and keep refining, improving and submitting until they finally “get you”.  It may take a while longer than pandering to the common denominator, but you’ll smile more often in the process.

By showing the reader/viewer the distinct nature of your characters and their world, we increase their ability to identify with your creations and your art. How well you use comparison and contrast in your writing dictates the power of your work and the efficacy of your message.

Until next time, don’t stop.

Never Stop.

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

24 Responses to “The Thieves of Joy” – A Guest Post By Art Holcomb

  1. Norm Huard

    Art, your guest post today, as all your past posts here, is an inspiration and a powerful lesson. Today you remind us how, as creators of conflict in our stories, to wield the sword of emotion with all the “heft and weight” of its two-sided blade of contrast and comparison.

    All story is emotion based. If our readers are not feeling, they will not be reading.

    Succinctly, you teach us how to use the power of comparison through our characters, our scenes, our dialogue, and our own unique writer’s voice for the benefit of our readers so they can see themselves in our creations.

    Thank you for inspiring us to never stop honing the skills we need to wield our creative pens.

    Thank you Larry for having Art as a guest poster on your blog.

  2. @Art Thank you not only for your understanding of story, but also for the respect and power for story you bring to us.

    Long live juxtaposition and paradox. The tension creators that refuse to resolve. Both are aggravations to the literal minded but a joy to those motivated by imagination and curiosity. Tension. You can’t call it a story or live life without it. Thank you.

  3. Great advice, Art, Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Art, for this worthwhile post. This is one of those print-it-out-and-put-it-next-to-your-computer columns. Very valuable.

    I particularly liked this advice: And make sure the locations have a character of their own as well and, through your descriptions, their own personality.

    It’s been my experience as an editor that a lot of writers don’t give enough weight to the importance of the location where their scenes take place. They don’t seem to understand that an argument with a person in your living room isn’t the same as an argument with that same person in a traffic jam, where emotions are heightened by location – another reason comparison is important. I’ve often said to my clients, “Where ARE they? Show me some effects of their surroundings on their reactions.”

    Lots of good tidbits you’ve given us!


  5. I used to think there was something wrong with me, because I just loved chucking a rock into the bushes, metaphorically, to see what flew out.

    Then I grew up and realized it was just that I’m a writer. Now, I do it to my characters, and it’s given me insight into when, and when NOT, to do it in real life.

    Good dialog in a story fills me with joy. When it makes me feel, not just think, it’s an immeasurable gift from the writer.

  6. Kate

    Really great post, @Art. So much insight about how to infuse conflict and tension on every page.

    My favorite line?
    With difference comes opposition and judgment about which is better – and with judgment comes the heft and weight of emotion that drives our stories.

    Love it. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Robert Jones

    Great post, Art!

    And great advice from Nann as well…very much worth noting. I might add that, conversely, even happy surroundings can take on dismal characteristics when we are in a bad mood, or life is going to hell. Thus, places a character might normally find comforting in can have a dark hidden, or oppressive side…just like people. Settings, after all, are a reflection of life, tastes, choices. Conflict and contrast can be reflected just as easily. Movies have lighting engineers and stage managers for these things, but a writer can do even more. We can get inside our character’s heads and bounce their emotions off of whatever whatever stage we place them on.

  8. MikeR

    For me, the excitement of both reading and (now …) writing lies especially in this: “Take me (then and) there.”

    Fiction allows the writer to transport the reader to a different time and/or a different place. This time-and-place of course might be fantasy, filled with dragons and gargoyles and animated Disney-creatures whose eyeballs are half the size of their head … 😉 … but they can also be real. What was real then. What might be real someday. There is no way other than the imagination, lead by the writer, to enable someone to enter that world and to occupy it as a compelling story swirls around him.

  9. Robert Jones

    This might interest some folks, or seem quite elementary to others, but in planning my scenes, I’ve made a list of points to end a scene on whenever possible. Most scenes should end with tension–some in minor, others in a more major way. If every scene is supposed to move the plot forward, and plot thrives on conflict, then scene endings are quite important. And having the main character going off to ponder his/her situation over a ham sandwich, or something equally innocuous, is not conducive to keeping someone reading all night. That’s a point where the reader’s mind wonders and thinks of sleep.

    Here’s the list I’m compiling, maybe some others have ideas to add to it:

    1) A question is raised and left unanswered.

    2) A revelation…it doesn’t mean you need to reveal a large chunk of the plot. Discoveries, large and small, are made throughout a story. Ending a scene when new information is revealed, or a clue is discovered, is a hook for the reader to continue. Best to cut the scene as qickly as possible after such a revelation/discovery whenever possible. Don’t have the character mulling it over for several pages and allowing the reader’s adrenaline to wane. Use the immediate excitment to get the reader moving into the next chapter instead.

    3) Something is about to happen. A character heading into danger–either real, or imagined. A confrontation, preferably one the reader is looking forward to, is either about to happen, or has reached a critical point.

    4) A twist. Something unexpected, or the opposite of what was expected. This could come in the form of an answer to something, but since it is the job of the writer to withhold answers as long as possible, the answer I’m thinking in terms of here is something a character (and hopefuly the reader) did not see coming.

    5) A threat that was not apparent prior in the plot. The stakes are raised in some way.

    In first person, when cuts can’t happen (switching to another character, or place), or a first person limited POV that can’t be shifted, think in terms of interruptions, or delays that keep the hero from doing, or discovering something.

    I’ve made similar lists of things that show fear, or represent my theme, subtext, whatever things that are conjured from those buckets Larry has supplied us with. Then I can keep these things next to me when writing so that I’m constantly aware of them. If they’re in my mind, when I sit down to write, hopefully they’ll premiate the writing and actions of the characters who have been living in the circumstances of the world I’ve created for them to exist within.

  10. @Robert — thanks for this (and thanks for all your contributions here). These are great points.

    I like to regard scene endings (not all of them, but especially those that are part of a narrative sequence) as a “cut and thrust” – literally cutting from one and thrusting into the next. Your points support that visualization. It’s an expansion of “mission-driven” scene writing (my favorite writing “tip”), taking it toward “nuance-driven” execution. Thanks for sharing this. L.

  11. Robert,

    Thank you for that list. What a great idea!

    I was at a writing convention in a hotel one year, and in the midst of a discussion, a woman said to me (seriously), “I hate when you write cliff-hangers at the end of your chapters. I really wish you would stop doing that.”

    I said to her, “I’ll give that some consideration…maybe.” I laughed at her expression all the way back to my room.

  12. Robert Jones

    @Nann–That’s hilarious! Love and hate, both pretty much a win for a writer though. It’s a strong emotional response, so congrats, you still scored. I keep having to remind myself of that.

    Thank you, Larry. Glad to share 🙂

  13. Sara Davies

    It can backfire, though. I’ve read books that used that technique, kept me glued to my chair turning the pages…then went off on a tangent and left me with an unsatisfying conclusion. When an author deprives me of sleep and bathroom breaks, it better be for a good reason. I have a long memory and I do hold a grudge. 😉

    @Nann: Loved your comment about place. As Jerry Cleaver writes in “Immediate Fiction,” the words “It’s over” don’t mean the same thing in a movie theater as they do when a mugger has a gun to your head. Location, location, location.

  14. Robert Jones

    @Sara–I’ve been there as well. But I blame the author, not the technique.

    I’m trying to look at this in both action/suspense and more literary dramas. If every scene has its mission, then it could also be said that every scene has its points. Some very lethal, others more blunted to tease, annoy, or instigate. We read an awful lot about starting scenes as close to the action as possible, then getting out rather quickly thereafter. And I think most people look at the word “action” as if it has to mean an argument, fight, or car chase–God forbid!

    I think if we define action, point, and mission, they would be pretty much what any given scene contributes to the story, what is happening on the stage you’ve set, and what’s the high point within this micro-drama we call a scene. Every scene has one. It either establishes something within the context of the story, characterizes, or involves an action that either sets something in motion, or a reaction to what has already been set in motion.

    That may be over simplifying.

    Put another way, if the “Concept” of our story encapsulates the dramatic thread of our story as a whole, then each scene has its own mini-concept. Micro/macro, drama within a drama. Finding the heart of each scene, the core, will hang a red flag from its main objective that screams, “Mission!” And that mission will become the core drama, point, or action, of that particular scene. The part we cut into as quickly as possible, then strategically cut out of, leaving the reader with whatever thoughts and emotions that scene was designed to impart.

    So, just when you thought you could dive into writing and swim safely, having dealt with the great white shark of the larger Concept, we discover a lot of little sharks infesting the waters of plot. However, the more aware of their presence we are, the better we can define their teeth.

  15. Sara Davies

    @ Robert….

    You kill me. That sounds great, but my outline is based on the need to reveal information. As a result, when I get in there, and try to find a way to put that information into action, to demonstrate or show *information*, it’s hard to connect to the dramatic thread. I’m solving problems on the fly – how to *show* information so that it serves a dramatic purpose. Most of the information directly connects to the core story – arguably some of it doesn’t but is for emotional effect. Every scene has its own rise & fall pattern, and a mini-agenda: what the character wants, what she discovers that leads her to ask more questions, which leads to an answer that is generally more disturbing than the last answer, which in turn leads to more questions. I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong or if it’s just hard to get right. What I hear out there in the world is that it’s perfectly normal for writing to be a struggle, and to not panic when it gets challenging – to expect it as part of the process. I said this to you before – what sounds good in an outline doesn’t necessary work on the page, despite having had a general three-line summary of what the character would want, fight against, and do to solve problems in each scene. Some scenes are less conflict-heavy than others – bickering vs. car bombs, for instance. I’ve taken to sketching scenes out long-hand so the inner critic is forced to shut up while I give shape to what happens. There may be no solution other than to tough it out. I’m not sure where the balance point is between planning and writing a scene. Sometimes I have to write it to plan it, see how it works, or if it works, because if I don’t see it, I can’t feel it. And it usually doesn’t – some of it’s OK, a lot of it’s crap – and half the time I can’t tell the difference. Is this normal? So I’m 3/4 into Part 2, and it’s too short, and doesn’t flow logically the way I thought it would. Have to go back and re-organize. It’s difficult to be searching for a process while trying to write. Not searching for the macro story, thank god, because we solved that problem here. But still gotta find the micro-story, scene by scene. It feels inefficient. Little sharks – you got that right. I was working 12 hours a day for a while there and am suddenly burned out and losing my eyesight or something, but I notice sleep is not really optional. Reminds me of a scene in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” where a tournament chess player is huddled, bleary-eyed over the board, on the verge of tears, hands shaking, muttering, “I think…I think I can win a pawn.”


  16. Robert Jones

    @Sara–If I’m making it sound easy, then I’m overlooking, or over simplifying something…because it’s not easy. As you well know. On the other hand, I believe it’s right. Right and easy are rarely synonymous.

    It sounds like your idea of revealing information in the form of “answers that lead to more questions,” would be a really good approach. There are a lot of cerebral stories, or cerebral moments within stories, but the mission abides. The waters may be still, but the shark is lurking beneath the surface. Sometimes just knowing it’s there is enough to infuse tension.

    I almost want to tell you to watch some episode of Star Trek: Next Gen and observe how cool Patrick Stewart acts on the surface, how this calm plays in contrast to the information being imparted. Like your story, the water is rising constantly and it often comes in the form of new information within the confines of the ship. Sometimes just by inserting doubt into a situation where cool heads need to prevail can carry a weight, a “What if we are wrong?” when juxtaposed with the overall stakes. And there is almost always someone to point this out, or panic in the face of logic. That someone doesn’t have to be the main character. But the hero certainly feels the pressure right along with the reader.

    Looking at that in terms of the confinement of your lab, or other settings within your world, it’s an example that might be applied. I’m sure there are many others. But people did not look at Next Gen as boring, or so overly intelligent the general audience had difficulties relating to the characters, situations, or the way information was inserted. So there may be parallels that help you find your answers and how to portray your scenes.

  17. Robert Jones

    @Sara–In looking over my current piles of scenes for each part of my story, I have to say that I wonder how equal each part will play out in page length when it’s written up in draft. A question each of us will face over and over from project to project. However, one thing I’ve learned from my days of running through drafts as a natural part of the process, is that you quite often think of more things to add to a scene when you go back over it.

    So long as the length doesn’t vary to a lengthy degree, a bit of padding here and there, some editing in other parts, and it can be made to equal out. But what if the difference in parts is too wide? Then some additional scenes may be needed.

    I’m doing my best to keep the number of scenes in each part fairly close in number. But it’s almost always destined to work out that some aspects of the story is going to have more detail than others. Sometimes detail can be cut, and should be, if the story can survive without it. But if those details are all necesary, then it stands to reason that building up the less meaty parts would be the way to go. For me, the most common cause is writers naturally give great thought and detail to their favorite parts of a story leave other parts a bit thin. That’s usually means a problem in the planning stages–like the carpenter racing ahead on completion of a building before the plumbing is installed.

    Another solution might be adding a subplot that expands on some aspect of the story. You mentioned previously cutting several subplots. Can one be made to fit back into the scheme of things in an important way? That’s one benefit of having all those innitial thoughts and facets of story. There’s always something to be added, and you seem to have choices aplenty.

    Things are always different on paper than in application. So I’m thinking about this as if it were a house. Walls might be knocked out, rooms expanded on, and over the course of their history, a house will often have features added the innitial design did not take into account.

    So I think your problem is one most people in the designing process will encounter to some degree. Addressing it here, as well as the solutions you discover, will no doubt be helpful to folks. I wish more people would share these things and discuss them here. Or if afraid to discuss their problems, would at least post their solutions.

  18. Sara Davies

    @ Robert –

    As usual, I really appreciate your thoughts and insights. The big learning key for me is to get comfortable with what’s unresolved to the point that a lack of resolution doesn’t send me into a state of panic or paralysis.

    Got some feedback that suggests I need to add more to Part 1 in this version – not enough set up to explain actions in Part 2. And yes, some old sub-plot stuff maybe can go into Part 2 if it doesn’t go too far afield of the central drama. I wanted to provide a context in which everyone has an agenda that is not the main character’s agenda, but she’s forced to work within a scheme or system that is not of her own choosing. I like the symbolism of background chaos – while someone’s dealing with their tiny personal problems, the whole world is exploding outside the window. Don’t know yet how to integrate old plot lines. I wrote a lot of Part 1 material for multiple characters (including an entire Part 1 for one of them). Part 2 as I have it now is HALF the length of Part 1. Not good. But it can be fixed.

    Whatever isn’t working…can be fixed.

    I get the best results from advice that involves what can be seen, measured, and verified on the page.

    Maybe other people are just in a different place.

  19. Robert Jones


    Everything I did before seems to be shifting and evolving this time around. So how things will measure up on the actual pages is something I haven’t gotten to just yet. I suspect, like every other aspect of what I’ve done with this story, there will be interesting new discoveries and crazy days of frustration until I get the whole structure and physics thing down…and by then, Larry will have issued us the Unified Story Field Theory to chew on, or Quantum Storytelling 404.

  20. @ Robert — hey, I’m always looking for new titles. “Quantum Storytelling 404″… that’s killer. Maybe the third entry in a trilogy of writing books, on the stuff we learn after we think we’ve learned it all. Still learning on this end, that’s for sure. L.

  21. Sara Davies

    I like it, too. It’s cosmic. 😉

  22. Robert Jones

    @Larry–You know I would buy it. I’ve been wanting a little more 404…but there’s a lot of 101 to digest. Getting there, little by little. Glad you liked the title. Feel free to jump on it. Seems little enough to contribute after all you’ve given us.

  23. Stumbling on this post and the ensuing dialogue has definitely increased the caliber of my day …now 8/10 from a previous 7 and it is still only 8:32 a.m. When writing and crafting characters into believable, emotionally invested works of art, we agree on the complexity of the work. Nann talked about avoiding discordant characterization by fitting their reactions to the setting. Thank you. Sarah and Robert added much food for thought, also. Thank you. I have a little piece as well for the discussion. I would say that difference/ tension is key as long as the essence of the character matches seamlessly in response to the struggle, obvious, yes. I would also question the premise that we seek difference/ tension as the driving force for exploration in the story. You only live once in I go. I am talking about a shared or dual arrangement for tension. The conflict and tension is not lead by differences but is a result of our battle to really drill down to find the connections. The tension rises higher in the disconnect, right , as you said but connection is what leads us there. When the connection is ever so slight or small , it is less discernible, hidden yet there and more difficult to bring forward and nurture in the character build and degrees of plot/conflict. Also by exploring connections as a part of difference we are asking ourselves, as writers and posing the question to readers when do we refuse to connect? Enter the creation of the unscrupulous, toxic villain or villainous, do we need the connection or do we want to be different, glaringly different. is the plot about difference or avoiding connection. Both! The choice to avoid a connection is easy here. Engaging in battle is the obvious choice but what if we design a more subtle villain or protaganist, for that matter. Can we be even more subtle than that for great story telling. We don’t know unless we dig a little harder. Why do some of our characters connect with the villain? Again it is the question of connection not difference that leads the conflict/tension although they are both key to great story telling in my humble opinion. This opens to our readers an opportunity to explore the palet of human behavior through the varied styles of our fictional accounts and the complexity of connection as related to surmounting difference. It is the conflict involved in working towards that connection that is the story and how that connection will release us from further conflicts or that collaboration will bring something new and better. Peace, catharsis and change are deeply rooted in conflict and plot development with a healthy dose of what you are proposing, difference. Thank you again for this discussion opportunity, opened by Larry,grateful to you, brilliantly offered up by Art, great thanks, and explored by us, fun!!! Back to writing now. 🙂 Ahh a connection. 🙂

  24. Robert Jones


    Disconnection might also be said as something a character doesn’t want. The opposite of what they want badly, their goal, objective…could well be defined as conflict. But what a character wants to disconnect from, subltle, or not so subtle, could make for sort of an anti-goal.

    Someone DOESN’T want something to happen badly: leads to dread, fear, paranoia. An abused spouse, or child, doesn’t want to connect with ex-lover, or parent. Someone who snitched on a killer who is up for parole, doesn’t want the killer to go free. Maybe the killer lived next door, maybe a strong past association that they want to “disconnect” from…like being a family member, or best friend who knew the killer’s habits and guided the police in how they might catch him.

    I think that’s pretty much a staple for suspense. In which case the goal is survival. Or, if you prefer the more subtle, character based drama, maybe the goal is simply living free from someone’s damaging influence.