Conflict is Collision

The greatest role of dramatic writing is conflict. The most elaborate plot in the world is useless without conflict to give it tension and excitement.

So what is conflict? Conflict is the collision of the character’s desires with resistance from the forces of antagonism, be they other characters, the environment, the hero herself.

Some writers see conflict as a war between two opposing forces, but it can be more subtle than that — a change in a relationship, perhaps. People cause most of our problems, and interaction with people — connecting, confronting, disconnecting, alienating — shape the true concerns of our lives.

If the conflicts are plausible and appropriate, the reader’s tension level increases, and as the character gets closer to her goal, the tension should increase further because the stakes are higher. Tension created for its own sake is cheap. There must be a relationship to what has gone before; character’s efforts must have meaning.

For the tension to tighten, there has to be a reason why the stakes are higher, and that reason should be tied to consequences. Perhaps a bomb is about to go off, or perhaps the enemy is getting stronger. These time constraints put the hero under pressure, and the consequences of not reaching the goal becomes more dire. That bomb ticks louder and louder, the writer’s sentences grow shorter, and the reader eagerly turns the pages.

That, in the end, is what writing is all about: connecting to a reader. And readers want conflict. So it is up to us to create it in our writing, no matter how much we want to avoid it in our lives.

On Writing: Accomplish Your Scene Goal and Get Out

I’ve been on a hiatus from my apocalyptic novel, but now that I’m back, I have no more idea of how to write my current scene than I did a month ago when I abandoned Chip, my hero. After Chip hiked through his changed neighborhood, encountering one horror after another, he rescued a pit-bull from a raging river. He met the dog’s owner, talked to him for a few minutes. And that’s where I left him.

I’d been looking forward to that particular scene, thinking it would be easy to write because I would have two characters to work with. I worried about Chip spending too much time alone, but some of those solitary scenes turned out quite well. The changing environment, a defunct plumbing system, and a few of out-of-place and out-of-time creatures gave Chip plenty of conflict. Maybe too much conflict. By comparison, the scene with his mentor (the dog’s owner) is flat. It was supposed to be a high point, but it’s going nowhere.

In the mythic journey scenario, mentors help prepare the hero to face the unknown. They give the hero gifts, which the hero must earn. (Chip earned his gift by rescuing the mentor’s dog.) Mentors act as a conscience for the hero, though sometimes the hero rebels against the nagging conscience. Mentors motivate. And they plant information that will become important during the climactic moment. You’d think, with all that to work with, the scene would just burst out, fully formed. But it’s not happening, which is why I’m sitting here at the computer blogging instead of writing.

Maybe I need to think of something else to give the scene spice. Maybe Chip doesn’t like the mentor, or maybe he doesn’t like the advice the mentor gives him. And maybe I need to rethink the dialogue.

Despite all the writing books that say you need short bits of dialogue, if there’s nothing to be gained by all that back and forthing, it’s better to string one character’s dialogue into a longer speech rather than have the conversation come out sounding like an interview. And if there’s no way to make a scene more interesting, it should be cut to its essentials. Accomplish the scene goal, and get out. In this case, there’s no reason to prolong the meeting with the mentor since Chip will never see him again.

And maybe I should stop over thinking the scene and just write something, anything, to get me back in the habit of writing. If it doesn’t work, I can always fix it during the rewrite.

Writing the Perfect Character

I never heard of a Mary Sue character until last week, and now it seems as if everywhere I go online I run into an article about Mary Sue or her male counterpart Marty Stu. These highly idealized characters are often author wish-fulfillment, being unrealistically bright, beautiful, and able to do anything. Though the author considers the characters to be perfect, they are not. In fact, I’m not certain it’s possible to write an unflawed character, because the arrogance of perfection is a flaw in itself. Mary Sues are annoying, which is another flaw. And Mary Sues are flat. Physically, of course, they are curvaceous or muscular or both, but they are uninteresting. Which, of course, is another flaw.

To me, a purposely flawed character is just as bad, an anti-Mary Sue. If a character is well drawn, if the story is well told, the flaws will show up naturally. A character must lose occasionally. Where is the suspense if every time a character attempts to do something she succeeds? And in that loss is a shadow of the flaw, because the loss must be realistic. Did the character lose because of arrogance, assuming she knew what to do when she didn’t? Did the character lose because she wasn’t physically fit or knowledgeable enough? Did the character lose because she didn’t plan correctly, because she was unfocused, because of her inner conflicts?

Losses force a fully-realized character to change so in the end she can succeed. A Mary Sue doesn’t change. She cannot become more perfect, and if she becomes less perfect, she becomes flawed and stops being a perfect character.

Depth of character is revealed in the choices someone makes under pressure. Pressure is risk. Risk is conflict. Mary Sues, being perfect, do not feel pressure, do not truly risk since they cannot lose. Without the element of risk, without conflict, there is no real story, only a string of episodes. Just think what Superman would be like without his Krytonite — totally uninteresting and flawed in his perfection. But Kryptonite, to me, is a purposeful flaw, put there to make Superman more interesting, which makes him seem even more of a comic book character. Oh, wait. He is a comic book character!

So, to keep your story from being comic-bookish and to keep your characters from being Mary Sues, put your characters under pressure, give them much to lose, and let them change because of their experiences. Then you will have a perfect character: someone real, someone empathetic, someone to remember.

Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.

Characters Butting Heads

When I wrote the first draft of my novel More Deaths Than One (and the second draft and the third) I had the hero Bob meandering around his world trying to unravel his past all by himself, and it was boring. Did I say boring? It was moribund. The story went nowhere because there was no one for Bob to butt heads with.

As an aside: this is my current metaphor for a good story — characters butting heads with each other and spinning off in new directions. Too many authors today have their characters butting heads, moving straight back and butting heads again. If the characters don’t ricochet off into a different direction each time, you have characters that don’t change and hence you have a static story.

In the fourth draft of More Deaths Than One, I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop. (Hey, so it’s been done before. The poor guy spent eighteen years in Southeast Asia, and didn’t know anybody stateside. How else was he supposed to meet someone?) That’s when the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.

From that, I learned the importance of writing scenes with more than one character.

So why am I mentioning this?

Well, I’ve hit a hole in my work-in-progress, a possible weakness. The hero of this whimsically ironic apocalyptic novel, Chip, loses one person after the other until he is alone. (I’m not giving anything away here. I already told you the work was apocalyptic.) There will be plenty of conflict as he contends with his new environment, but it might get boring without other characters for him to interact with.

There will be no problem once he ends up in the human zoo in the second part — his problem there (though not mine as the writer) is that he will have too many people to contend with. The same holds true for the third part of the book when he escapes. So there will be only about sixty pages where he is alone.

I do have one thing in my favor. I am a much better writer than I was when I wrote the first draft of More Deaths Than One, so perhaps I can keep the story going with Chip alone. (Saying I am a much better writer now is not necessarily saying I am a good writer. The first draft of More Deaths Than One was laughably bad. That I found an agent for it says more about the agent than it does my writing. No surprise — he couldn’t sell it.)

Chip does have to be alone at the end of the first part; he has an important step to take and must be by himself to take it. He also has to go through some experiences alone because they are essentially in his mind (or at least he thinks they are), but who will he be butting heads with the rest of the time? I’ll have to think about this.

If you want to take a look at the first chapter of More Deaths Than One, click on My First Chapters off to your right.

It will not be on the test.

Our Prose is Immortal Prose — Not

Who decides if your dialogue is meaningless, you or your readers? You may believe that what you are writing is immortal prose, but if your readers don’t agree, then perhaps it’s time to rethink parts of your story. Getting rid of long descriptions is easy — go through the passage, pick out one or two telling details, and scrap the rest. Getting rid of inane dialogue is harder. You know that all the information you are giving your readers is important. The problem is, they don’t know that what they are reading is vital to the story. All they know is that they are bored.

Dialogue is not conversation; it is action and as such must propel the story forward. To keep your dialogue from hindering the action, from stopping the forward motion of your story, it must be in conflict or it must help define your characters, preferably both.

According to Sol Stein, author of Stein on Writing, you should examine every bit of dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions: What is the purpose of this exchange? Does it begin or heighten an existing conflict? Does it stimulate the readers’ curiosity? Does the exchange create tension? Does the dialogue build to a climax or a turn of events in the story or a change in the relationship of the speakers?

Once you have determined that the conversation is conflicted and does propel the story forward, you need to look at every line of the dialogue and ask yourself: Is it fresh, colorful? Is it the cleverest thing the character can say?

Writing is not life. In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it; it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Your characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have you and your late night epiphanies on their side. You can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.

And get it right you must. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements. Because, face it: to readers, our prose is not immortal, it is simply entertainment.

On Writing: Rocks, Rocks, and More Rocks

There are no bad drivers on the road. All drivers consider themselves to be good drivers, because whatever skill they possess — fast driving, adhering to all traffic rules, weaving in and out of traffic — that is their measure of a good driver. Writing is the same. We use our own skills to determine what is or is not good writing, hence we are all good writers. But some skills supersede opinion: the basic elements of story telling, for example.

The granddaddy of all story elements is conflict. Without conflict you have a story statement, you have a description, you have meaningless dialogue. What you don’t have is a story.

Because of the contests I have been involved with, I have been privileged to read the first chapters of many books by new authors. I’m sorry to say that most of them couldn’t hold my interest. Perhaps reading a chapter or two is not a fair way to test a book, but it is the only way. As readers, we need a book to capture our interest at the beginning then give us a stake in the story and its outcome so that we continue reading. Otherwise, we put the book aside and forget to come back to it.

Most of the new writers offered rebuttals, trying to prove me wrong. To them, their first chapter was important: it set the scene, it introduced the characters, it gave vital information. Perhaps that is all true, but to me, as a reader, the chapter was meaningless. I didn’t know the characters, didn’t care about them, developed no interest in them because there was no conflict. Unless characters want or need something, have something they care about, we don’t care. And if the characters get what they want or need without working for it, we don’t care, either.

Even if your first chapter has no other purpose than to set up the story or to introduce characters, it still must have conflict. According to Donald Maass, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, there should be some conflict on every page. Sometimes authors use arguments between characters to show that conflict, but unless the argument changes the character in some way, no matter how small, the argument comes across as verbiage. If the argument is important to the book, then make it important by tying it to the characters needs and wants or move it to a less crucial part of the book.

One author described a story as getting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at it, then getting it down.

So do yourself and us readers a favor. Get your character up in that tree in the first chapter and throw a rock at it. Then we’ll read further to find out what happens next. That’s all we want. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.

Lack of good driving leads to road rage. Lack of good writing leads to reader apathy. Both conditions are dangerous.

Creating a Character — Part III

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses. I have been creating a profile for Chip, the hero of my work in progress, and I know some of his strengths: he is independent, can cope with adversity, has high ethical standards. The only weakness I know about so far is that he is distrustful of women, which women see as a failure to commit.

Strengths and weaknesses are arbitrary. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for the book: the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters and the plot or subplots to thicken.

I can already see that Chip’s high ethical standards and principles will be a driving force in the story. He is a vegetarian and an animal lover who will be forced to kill to feed those dependent on him. His independence, exemplified by a need for freedom, is also at stake. He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for freedom.

So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a special strength or weakness that would set Chip apart from any other character, but since plot and character are so closely related, this may not be a bad thing. It does no good to assign a special strength or weakness to a character if it is not going to be tested during the story, and I don’t want to Chip to be constrained by a particular trait before he even begins his adventures. If he needs a special strength, I will write it in when necessary. The great thing about writing is that we are not stuck with what is past. We can always go back and recreate it to answer present needs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life outside the pages of our novels worked that way?

The Language of Storytelling

Does posting a novel on the internet in order to get feedback help us improve our writing? After being involved in a writing contest for over a month now, I honestly can’t answer that question. I have received hundreds of comments, but there is no consensus. Some people love my story, others hate it. Some think my writing is stellar, others think it is dreadful.

I’m accepting all comments without argument and am planning to analyze them after the contest, but I have noticed that most contestants feel the need to justify their story decisions. If readers say the story is too slow, the writer says to be patient, it will get better. If the reader says it is front-laden with exposition, the writer says it’s necessary for the story. If readers say the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, the writer says it is subtle, but will be apparent later.

It makes me wonder if all this justification is turning us into sloppy writers. If we can explain our motivations as an aside, there is no reason to fit it into the story. A good writer, however, makes her justifications in the body of the work. If she wants the story to move slowly but wants readers to wait patiently for the good parts, she tells them this by foreshadowing what is to come. If the exposition is truly important at the beginning, she entwines it into the story so that readers get the necessary information while she is tweaking their interest. If the conflict isn’t pronounced enough, she bumps up the tension.

Tension is created when questions form in the readers’ minds: Who killed him? Why? How did the killer escape from the locked room? Without these questions, readers have no reason to continue reading, and they won’t. In a published book, there are no margin notes by the author saying, “Keep reading. Things will get better.”

There is truly nothing wrong with justifying our story decisions; we just need to learn how to write the justifications into our stories using the accepted language of storytelling.

(I am a semi-finalist in the Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest. You can see my contest entry here:

Conflict: Desire Thwarted

Someone googled “How do you determine the conflict in a story” and ended up at my blog. Although I have written about conflict before, I had not addressed that particular issue; I wasn’t even sure I could come up with a simple answer if I had to. Then I realized that to determine the conflict, first we have to know what conflict is. In a story, conflict is desire meeting resistance.

Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I made that mistake in Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about it in the hope that it would seem more immediate, but since there was no desire, except the relative low tension one of the characters wanting to be heard, it came across as bickering. I kept the section because it was a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and it did show the personalities of the characters, but there was not the immediacy conflict would have brought to the piece.

In a novel, there are many conflicts.  Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters wants something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.

So, to determine the conflict, figure out what the characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it. It’s as simple as that.