Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Speaking of Conflict

Okay, back to plotting…

Conflict drives the story. It’s pretty much that simple. If you don’t have conflict on some level, you don’t have a story. The good news is, conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, flavors and colors. The bad news is, most people tend to avoid conflict, so it can be difficult to grab it with both hands and force your characters into the thick of it.

Besides, we writers usually like our characters. We don’t want to put them through the wringer. But alas, if we want to effect a transformation in their lives, we must. Remember, we are the meddling, interfering Olympian gods in our book’s universe. It is our JOB to mess up our characters’ lives and force them to change or teach them a life lesson.

One of the first things I do after I’ve managed to come up with an internal and external GMC for my characters is I step back and try to decide if the nature of the conflict is actually big enough to sustain a book. The truth is, all of the manuscripts that languish under my bed are there because the initial idea simply wasn’t big enough or didn’t contain enough conflict to sustain an entire book. It is also one of the most frequent mistakes I see when editing or critiquing beginners' work. Keep in mind that an average MG book is about 100-150 mss pages, and an adult book is around 300. There’s a fair amount of conflict needed to keep things clipping along toward the end. Without conflict, you have no dramatic push or narrative drive. Things just float along, attention wanders, and suddenly readers are putting your book down so they can go surf the net or watch a reality TV show.

So one of the first questions I ask myself is, If the protagonist doesn’t attain her goal, what is at stake? What does she stand to lose? And I usually need two answers to this, one that can be addressed by the physical actions of the story (if Theo doesn’t return the artifact to Egypt, her mother will have infected Britain with a curse so vile, it brings down the entire country) and a second one that addresses the emotional wounds or scars of my characters (If she saves the world, surely they’ll love her then. They'll have to.)

The second question is, Why this character and this problem? This is where irony comes in, or Fate, or Kismet. Why has the universe graced this particular character with this particular problem? Why her?? Why is this the worse thing that could happen to her?

In fact, if you have a character in mind for a story and you’re not being able to get any sort of conflict to gel, ask yourself, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to her? That is conflict.

The thing is, random crappy stuff happens to people in real life all the time. Life is hard and then you die, as the saying goes. But the one thing we can do to prove that saying wrong is to choose to embrace our circumstance and learn from it. As writers, we simply have to plan that out ahead of time. Fiction can't be random, it needs to mean something in order to resonate with readers.

Theo, a child who is emotionally abandoned and somewhat willfully ignored by her parents, gets by by being invisible and uber responsible. So if she suddenly starts blabbing about magic and curses, her parents are going to see her as being very fanciful, irresponsible, and constantly in the way and underfoot. They will stop taking her seriously, and she will lose what tenuous connection she has with them and will be completely dismissed by them. Considering the day and age she lived in, she might even be committed to a sanitorium. If her parents were more attuned to her, or more doting, she might have stood a chance in telling them the truth. But in light of their current dynamic, the truth didn't stand a chance.

On the external plot level, the Why her? question is embedded in Theo herself, a young girl with few resources except an ability to detect ancient magic and evil curses. If she didn’t have that ability, she’d never have gotten wrapped up in all this business to begin with. For all intents and purposes her parents museum would have suffered a normal burglary and that would be the end of it. But since she does have that ability, she gets drawn into far more than the average bear.

So take a look at your conflict. First of all, do you have any? And if so, is it big enough? Is something truly at stake for your character if they fail? Lastly, why this character and this problem?


story_weaver said...

Thanks Robin! I just saved my character from the chopping block (literally)and I've been mulling over what happens next.

Thanks again!

L.A. said...

Wow, this is good stuff. Yes, I've got some low-conflict manuscripts lurking on my hard drive. Also, thanks for the "why *this* character comment?" Actually mulled that over yesterday and there was ZERO reason for the heroine to be THE chosen one. Yes, that means the sixty pages I've written don't work yet, but better to know now. :)

Robin L said...

Literally on the chopping block, Story Weaver? Yowza, that sounds intriguing!

L.A., so true that it is better to know early on when something isn't working! As for the chosen one thing, I want to clarify just a bit. It doesn't have to be so much of a hand-picked destiny thing, although it certainly can be. It can also just be thematic resonance. A sense that the Universe is paying attention and sending the character the lessons she needs to progress internally. If that makes any sense. If not, let me know and I'll clarify further.