This story packed with torture, prison abuse, and murder might not call to mind the bucolic, tranquil The Great British Bake Off, but the two are a pair. The idea came from Paul the collection six contestant (as opposed to Paul the judge), who was a prison warden. I don’t know anything about that Paul’s qualities as a warden and don’t presume to cast judgment, but I was compelled by the contrast between delicate, communal baking and a job more commonly associated with brutality and dehumanization—a job that, a few centuries earlier, might have been called Dungeon Master.
Having conflicting forces in a story—or better yet, within a character—can do a lot to give the story an engine. The push and pull of opposing forces can create several useful things: plot, from the progression of each force against the other; suspense, which I like to define as suspending in the reader’s head a question whose answer they care about (in this case: which force will win the day?); humor, from the mismatch between one element and another.
That perhaps sounds formulaic, and it can be if used as a rigid tool. But when a writer finds an asymmetry that compels them and leans into it, those elements can emerge organically. Another inherent danger to this kind of story is that it seesaws back and forth without ever gaining complexity, that it never grows into three-dimensional space. I tried to avoid that in “The Warden’s Prowess” by cross-hatching the brutal-vs-soft warden with a separate duality: the warden is in charge of the prison and thus the baker, but only the baker can speak to the divine truths of pâtisserie. Further, there are the conflicting forces between the communal nature the prison has taken on and the every-man-for-himself bloodbath to which the baker’s presence threatens to return it.
But let’s not get too academic about it. I didn’t set out to write the story with a three-point plan. That’s just where I discovered the fun in writing the story. Like a lot of my stories, this one began with something I found funny. Then as with balancing an entree—or should I say a dessert?—you have to balance the sweet with the sour, the rich with the salty.
Like most craft tools, conflicting forces in a story can easily fail if used too plainly as a device. Craft elements can’t be used indiscriminately. But recognizing appropriate opportunities to use them can help writer unlock a lot of new rooms in a story. Pull your characters, themes, plots, etc., in opposing directions, and you’ll get tension in the line.
ETHAN CHATAGNIER is the author of the short story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in literary journals including The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Five Points, Michigan Quarterly Review, Barrelhouse, Witness, The Cincinnati Review, and Ascent. His story stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Million Writers Award. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.