The debate portion of a story wraps up Act One. It's the final decision-making your protagonist must go through before committing themselves to whatever events make up the meat of your premise. That exact point of decision is how your story "breaks into" the second act.
As we discussed in last Wednesday's post, the inciting incident is the first push that gets the story moving. Then the catalyst gives it a second push that places your protagonist in a sticky spot -- the debate. Once the catalyst has appeared and done its damage, the protagonist literally cannot go forward, or choose to withdraw, without first making a tough decision that has been forced upon them.
The protagonist certainly played a part in getting themselves to this point (that's part of being a proactive protagonist), but as I'd mentioned in the post last week, the best catalysts are largely out of the protagonist's control. This aspect is vital if you want the choice they have to make to be as difficult as it possibly can. If the choice is not difficult, you leave your audience with a distracting feeling of "Why are they doing this, when they can just [fill in the blank]? That would be so much easier! RAR!"
The debate area of your story has the potential to either amp up the tension and keep the reader turning pages faster than they were before, OR... it can make them want to stop reading and possibly throw the book across the room.
This part of the story is crucial to getting your reader into the middle. So how do you make it enticing and irresistible?
As the name of this section implies, the protagonist is faced with a two-sided choice. She can either go this way or that way, and that's pretty much the extent of her options. Before you can understand how to create the best/most difficult two-sided choice for your protagonist, you must first have a clear antagonist in mind.
And before we go any further, I'd like to clarify that antagonist does not equal villain. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, and the antagonist is not always a physical being or entity. The antagonist could very well be something within the protagonist that she is fighting. Or perhaps something that happened in her past that she now needs to come to terms with. Etc, etc, etc.
Or, yanno, it could be your typical evil villain. Lots of possibilities.
In basic terms, your antagonist is whatever your protagonist must overcome by the end of the story.
When your protagonist gets that second push from the catalyst, she should already have a sense of the core conflict at stake in your story. She won't understand the full scope of it yet -- if she did then there wouldn't be much point in putting her through the ringer to get her to the end -- but it's already in motion so she knows a bit of what's involved. And whatever bit she knows about the conflict when she gets to the debate has to have a certain level of importance in her life, or else she won't feel pinned between a rock and a hard place -- forced to make a tough choice.
The first way to amp up the debate is to involve the antagonist somehow, either directly or indirectly.
Let's look at some examples of how this is done.
In The Wizard of Oz, the catalyst is the tornado that snatches up Dorothy's house. Once she has dropped into Oz, her choices are extremely limited. She either stays in Oz or finds a way home.
Before she can even devise a way to do this, the Wicked Witch of the West appears and amps up the debate. Dorothy is pretty much already set on finding a way home, but when the WWW tries to take the ruby slippers and good ole Glinda transfers them to Dorothy's feet, a new and frightening element has been added to the mix.
Dorothy really has to think now. Does she want the WWW as an enemy? Of course not. But the alternative isn't much better -- to give her the slippers, granting the WWW even more power, which she will likely use against Dorothy anyway.
So. What does Dorothy do? She decides to take a chance. She keeps the slippers as a means of protection and journeys forward to find the Wizard, despite the fact that doing this means the WWW will be trying to stop her the entire way.
The above is an example of an antagonist's direct involvement in the debate. And it should also be noted here that the antagonist wasn't introduced until the debate. Holding off on the antagonist's introduction in the story if they are directly involved in the debate, is a highly effective way to amp up the tension at this crucial part of the story. It's not the only way to do it, but it does work.
In the movie Inception, the antagonist is indirectly involved in the debate. Everything about this particular story is complex, and the debate is no exception. But in order to understand the technique used here I'm going to have to reveal some things that might seem spoilery if you haven't seen the movie yet. (Although, if you haven't seen the movie yet, I'm quite honestly shocked and appalled.)
The audience doesn't clearly understand who or what the antagonist is until they've seen the full story arc. So to make the debate still seem effective, the writers had a tricky task ahead of them. There are actually several things that work together as antagonists in this story, but if I had to choose a single person or thing, it would be Mal, Cobb's dead wife.
Mal is introduced very early in the story, in the very first scene, the inciting incident. But even though we know she's a major player, her involvement in the debate is seemingly nonexistent if you don't know the full story. When we get to the debate part of this story, we can clearly see that the "high stakes" for Cobb is to be with his children again. But we don't realize that Mal's previous actions are what caused Cobb's current separation from his children.
So her involvement is indirect because she caused the hardship that the protagonist is trying to fix. But we don't realize this until much much later.
The actual debate is between Cobb and Saito, regarding a job that seems impossible. Cobb knows it can be done but it's extremely dangerous and there's no guarantee they'll succeed. In fact, the odds are overwhelmingly against them. He's only done it once before and the results were disastrous (not surprisingly, we find out later that this is what caused Mal's actions that led to Cobb's children being taken away from him).
This is where the second way to amp up your debate comes into play -- giving both sides a vital need that only the other can provide. If they hadn't done this in Inception, the debate would have been seriously lacking tension.
Saito is the one who prompts the debate in this story, by making the initial offer to Cobb -- do this really difficult thing for me and I'll get these goons off your back. Saito can't do it without Cobb. He needs him.
Cobb's first reaction is that it isn't worth it. He feels he can take care of himself just fine without Saito's help. That's when Saito amps it up by offering something Cobb would have much more difficulty refusing. He promises that if Cobb does this job for him, he'll make sure Cobb can be with his children again.
And there it is. Now everything is in place for Cobb to make one of the toughest choices of his life. Once he decides he's going to do the job for Saito, the story breaks into the second act and the meat of the premise begins -- the main draw of the movie, living in and controlling people's dreams.
Mal continues to fight against his efforts through the entire story, but it isn't until somewhere in the second half of the second act that we get further explanation of her involvement. She is a very complex antagonist. Which is appropriate, I suppose, for one of the most complex movies I've ever seen.
So if your debate is feeling kind of blah-dee-dah, or not getting the reaction from readers that you intended, see if you might be missing something vital:
1. The protagonist has been shoved into a corner and the only way out is to make a tough choice.
2. A clear antagonist. Clear to you, the author, always. But not necessarily clear to the reader at this point. Whether they are clear to the reader or not, during the debate, highly depends on the individual story.
3. Either direct or indirect involvement of the antagonist.
4. People on both sides of the debate have a need that only the other can provide. This is a large part of what makes the choice as difficult as possible for your protagonist.