Posted on December 6th, 2012 5 comments
Characters working against each other, against themselves, and against events. That’s the heart of conflict.
But how do you make your scenes come alive? How do we make them gripping? But most of all, how to make those freaking things cause our reader to keep turning pages long into the night?
Conflict Creates All Those Things You Want
Conflict creates tension.
Conflict creates hooks that bring the reader in and make them want to know what is going to happen–i.e. how will this conflict be solved?
And no, I am not saying your book needs to be one big conflicting piece of tension that overloads your reader. Because that’s no fun for anyone.
Every Scene Should Have Conflict
Yes. Every scene. Scenes without some sort of something going on get boring. Each scene needs something that either sets the character back, or moves them forward, but always causes a new problem, conflict, or set back. This can be miniscule, or huge. It can involved the main plot thread and story question, or it can deal with a subplot storyline. But it needs to have something that drives the reader forward.
Why Conflict Works
When you introduce conflict, it gives us readers something interesting to get involved in. What will the characters do? How will they handle this? How will this affect the outcome and help or hinder them in their quest for their goal? I must read on!
Worth Stating Again: A scene’s conflict does not have to be major to draw the reader into your story. But conflict has to be present. <– Want to Tweet this? Click here.
For example, this is part of something I’ve borrowed and compiled from the lovely Carol Hughes (from her Deep Story class–it rocks, take it. And she’s putting it out in a book in January–buy that too. No, really.) that I find really helps me focus in when I write and rewrite a scene:
CHARACTERS GRAPPLE WITH PROBLEM PONDER DILEMMA: (The very thing that sets the scene in motion. What they need to accomplish or do. How are they going to solve things and move forward?)
DECISION AND COURSE OF ACTION: (What the character plans to do or does. And of course, you are not going to make it easy for them, are you?)
SCENE GOAL: (What is the purpose of the scene. What will be conveyed?
EMOTION OF SCENE: (What emotion do you want the setting, word choice, etc., to convey to the reader? If you know it, it is easier to convey in the details, making for a powerful scene.)
CONFLICT (WHO WHAT WHY): (who is having a conflict with who, over what, and why?)
Conflict Internal: (Conflict going on inside of character–often different than the external stuff.)
Conflict External: (Conflict going on outside the character.)
DISASTER: (Uh oh. Set back. Things aren’t quite what they wanted… This does NOT have to be major.)
CHARACTER REACTION TO DISASTER: (How do they react to the way things pan out?)
If you use something like the above ‘reminder’s when working on a scene, it can help you stay focused and ensure that your scenes have conflict of some kind. A nice little effect of knowing what you are going for is that it becomes natural when you write to convey it to your readers–either explicitly or not.)
As an example, in Champagne and Lemon Drops (currently in rewrites) I have the ‘on break’ lovers Beth and Oz in a scene. They both want the same internal things–not to sell their once-shared home. However, Beth needs the equity from their home in order to get her own place and she tells Oz to sell the place–an attempt to force his hand thinking he will never actually sell it. He doesn’t want to sell it because he thinks they will get back together again and will want to resume living in their home, but he also wants to do right by Beth. If they sell the place neither will have a home to come back to and it will signal a finality to the romantic break that neither of them really wants. Neither of them are saying what they really want (which creates new conflicts)–each other and their home. Hello conflict! Either way, any action is a no-win situation for the characters as they will be set back in their long-term goal (getting back together) if they sell as well as their short-term goal (a place to live). And if they don’t sell, it will up the conflict between them.
Here’s what it looks like:
CHARACTERS GRAPPLE WITH PROBLEM PONDER DILEMMA: How is Beth going to get Oz back (romantically)? How is she going to get money to live off of?
DECISION AND COURSE OF ACTION: This is the scene that plays out. She goes to Oz to talk to him about not selling the house but convinces him to sell.
SCENE GOAL: Beth tries to get Oz not to sell the place.
EMOTION OF SCENE: Hurt. Both positioning themselves around each other not to get hurt.
CONFLICT (WHO WHAT WHY): With each other. Beth doesn’t want him to sell the place, but needs the money from it. Oz doesn’t want to sell it because he thinks he will get Beth back once he gets his life sorted. But he loves her and will do what she wants him to do. It’s the least he can do.
Conflict Internal: Doesn’t want any of things saying she wants. Doesn’t want him to sell, but she needs money. And she wants him to force a move in his life–hopefully towards her again.
Conflict External: She wants him to keep the place, but can’t let him ruin her life financially or be unfair and keep everything. A little tit for tat going on.
DISASTER: He is not reacting and she corners him, making him think and feel that selling the place is the only way to go.
CHARACTER REACTION TO DISASTER: Gets a bit nasty. Raises the stakes for both of them. Regretful words and actions. Makes things worse.
In this example, I hope the reader will feel the need to find out who ‘wins.’ Which won’t happen until many scenes down the road. And in the meantime I will introduce new conflicts, big and small which will… you guessed it–keep the reader turning pages.
As well, this kernel of a conflict will gather other incidents around it and grow larger. It will become the elephant in the room in their future interactions.
This is why some books are really difficult to put down and why action movies keep us on the edge of our seats. This go from bad to worse, to worse–and that is all due to conflict.
Note For the Pantsters on Building Conflict
Reading this you might be thinking, uh, no. Not for me. I like to write by the seat of my pants (panstster) with no outline or idea of where I am going. That’s fine. I don’t actually fill this out until I’m at least 250 words into a scene. I have to know what’s going on and where they are and what needs to happen before I can fill this out. When I go back to the writing, I can hone that scene in nice and sharp.
The big thing with using conflict to your advantage: Your reader won’t put down the book until they’re ‘good.’ It’s your job to make sure that isn’t until the last page. <–Click to Tweet this.
Posted on August 24th, 2012 4 comments
I’m over on From the Write Angle today talking about a recent literary smackdown I received (and deserved) and figured, what the heck, let’s serve another one here as well.
What, pray tell, did I get smacked down over? Well, my FTWA post is about creating (accidentally) unlikeable characters (ouch) but here I’m going to talk about a flaw the editor would have come across had he or she read further. It’s a basic issue that I know we all have from time to time and therefore is worth talking about.
What is this issue? Scene and sequel. (Some call it Scene and Sequence.) Or in other words (as I like to think of it courtesy romance author Susan Meier), one action has to bring about a reaction and then some sort of conclusion or consequence which then leads to a new action setting about a new reaction. Sounds basic. Makes sense.
But oh so easy to forget. Especially if you are winging it. And, I guess, even when you are planning and outlining.
Let’s dig into it.
How to Tell if You Have Scene and Sequel Problems
You might have this problem if you have ever heard things like:
- Your story is fragmented
- Your story is a series of nice vignettes/excerpts
- There are plot holes
- Your story lags/drags/feels unmotivated
- Your characters’ actions don’t make sense
- Your story has no flow
- There doesn’t seem to be a consequence for your characters’ actions
- Your story doesn’t really start/get good until several chapters in
Wow. That’s a lot of big problems falling under one umbrella, isn’t it? The nice thing is that it is easy to fix once you wrap your mind around it.
How to Fix Scene and Sequel Problems
Every single scene in your story MUST have either an action, reaction, or consequence/conclusion. Every. Single. One.
Think of it this way, when you are telling a story to a friend, you go from one event to the other, right? You tell it in logical order saying things like, “She told him off (action). And then he ran out onto the street (reaction). The neighbour got upset when he stomped through the roses (consequence of running out) and called the police (action). The police came (reaction) and told them all to smarten up or they’d all get tickets for being a disturbance. They all went inside again (consequence.)”
We wouldn’t run off part way through the story and talk about how the roses were lovely yellow roses that smelt best at dusk and that the city had given them to every citizen. Unless this is backstory that is vital to the reader. If say, these roses were given by the city and were protected by law, then it becomes vital because we begin to think that maybe this guy is going to get in serious trouble when the police come. In other words, you know those annoying ladies who go off on tangents all the time while telling a story and the tangents don’t seem directly related to the story they are trying to tell you and you just want them to get the point–there is a point, right–and the tangents might be interesting or make sense if you’ve lived in town for 40 years and care that Millie had her baby after trimming rose bushes all day and that the drugstore used to have the best milkshakes back in the 50s which were a great postnatal treat. And where was I? Oh yes, tangents, when not meaningful for the reader–no matter how beautiful and interesting we think they are… need to go.
Cutting room floor.
If it doesn’t move the story forward… axe it.
Kill your darlings.
But back to scene and sequel and all that jazz.
Yes, your scenes can have a pile of actions and reactions and consequences/conclusions all in one because sometimes a lot happens at one time. The trick is deciding if something is important enough to call an action/reaction/consequence.
For example, say you have a break up scene. Part way through the phone rings and they answer it. Not an action per se. Especially if they hang up and continue the fight with no change in the course of the story. If, say, that phone call changed the course of the story, then it is an ‘action’ or ‘reaction’ or ‘consequence.’ For example, the phone call somehow changes the fight from a break up to a proposal then it is a catalyst of some sort for sure. That fact that it happens changes the course of the story and can’t be removed without creating a hole in the story and its sequencing.
Exercise to Identify Your Scene and Sequel Problems
If you feel you are having issues with lags, character actions, or any of the above issues (including writer’s block), try this:
Grab a pile of sticky notes, a marker (no fine point stuff here–we want to keep it brief) and your story. Each sticky note represents one scene. Describe the scene in a few words on the sticky note. The first scene in your story should be an action, so label it A (action). If you can’t find an action, then maybe your story hasn’t started yet. That’s okay. We’re just identifying issues here. If you find it easier to start in the real action (several chapters in), start there. (I like to label the sticky notes with numbers and stick them to a big piece of cardboard to help keep them straight.) If you happen to have an action and reaction in your first scene, place an ‘A’ and a ‘R’ at the top of the sticky note. Carry on, scene by scene (going in an A-R-C-A-R-C… circle. Your story should end on a ‘C’), paying attention to whether you have gaps or not. Maybe you skip from A to C. That’s okay. Identify the holes now. Fix ’em later. (Sometimes you only need one measly paragraph to fix a hole.) This is a tricky exercise the first time, so be patient with yourself.
Have you had any of the issues identified here? Have you tried this method or a similar one? How did it work out?
And don’t forget to check out my writing unlikeable characters post on FTWA, you may find it surprising as well as helpful–even if you think your characters are perfect.
An easier way to tweet:
— Jean Oram (@jeanoram) August 24, 2012
Posted on July 3rd, 2012 4 comments
If there was just one thing you could do today or this week to improve your writing would you do it?
Sure you would!
Just one thing that could add to the conflict, themes, and the push and pull between characters.
A very simple thing.
Something to ground your reader and make your scenes come alive.
What is it? The weather.
As writer Joseph Hansen was quoted, “Put weather in.”
The more I write, the more I critique, and the more I edit, the more I realize how defining the weather can be in a story.
Can you imagine a day without weather? A day where everything is going wrong in your life and the weather isn’t there to either contrast or enhance that awful day? It would be like going outside and there being… nothing. So why would we do that to our characters? To our readers?
It’s like a huge snow storm on the morning you plan to escape Christmas via an airplane. (Think the movie Four Christmases.) Think of the man going to his father’s funeral in The Stranger (by Albert Camus) and the way the heat saps him.
Weather, weather, everywhere. Messing with the characters.
Take a look at one of your works in progress. Is there somewhere you can “put weather in?” Go forth and report back.
Posted on September 10th, 2010 1 comment
I was thinking about writing and the truth of a good story while trying to sleep the other night. Basically, when you are writing there’s this balance between structure (all the technical stuff that keeps the story flowing in a coherent and pleasing way) and the story (all the fun and entertaining bits–as well as the unexpected). So while in the back of your head you have that editor dude making sure the structure is sound, you have to have this slightly crazy dude in the forefront mixing things up and, in essence, letting it all hang out. This crazy dude needs to ensure that the editor lets the characters be who they need to be. It’s his job to ensure spontaneity gets a chance to rear its beastly head and allow those characters to say and do all those things that the editor might not otherwise hear or see–and therefore include in the story.
If you don’t let your characters be themselves you end up with a stiff, stilted, awful scene where you’ve accomplished everything on your writer’s list, but it doesn’t flow. It’s not real. Somehow it is lacking that something that makes it breathe and jump off the page and into the reader’s mind, coming alive to do a memorable little dance.
Think about this. What would happen if you: Sat all your relatives around the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner? Now, as the hostess/host you rule with an iron fist and ensure that they all hold their forks properly, don’t slurp their wine, dab their lips with their linen napkin, and for heaven’s sake, put an end to those awful fart jokes. Why? Because this is your dinner and you have an image of what this dinner is supposed to look like.
Think for a moment. What’s going to happen?
Conversations and the necessary element of spontaneity, passion, and one-thing-leads-to-another that will make the night memorable simply won’t be there. In essence, you will have a fake gathering on your hands. A cardboard cutout of real life. Those characters you’ve got around the table will cease being themselves and won’t bring their zany past experiences to the table. They won’t hoot and holler. Your little nephew won’t secretly feed the dog (that has snuck under the table), causing him to barf into Auntie Ness’s 20-year-old winter boots by the end of the night. In turn, because she doesn’t have boots to wear home, she stays overnight. A blizzard traps her in your house for five days. Things ensue. If you push the scene into your little image of what it has-to-be box (let the editor have full reign of the scene), you most certainly won’t have that pesky nephew shooting peas down Uncle Al’s exposed butt crack. Nope.
On the flip side, you can’t let the editor take a huge nap in the living room either and leave everyone unattended and at the mercy of the whimsical crazy dude. Because let’s face it, the editor is going to have one heck of a hard time scraping the hardened mashed potatoes off the walls the next day when he has to give purpose to and make sense of everything that went on the night before.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that you have to balance the two. You must leave room for the editor to plan and structure, but you also must temper that with some real hootenanny moments and general shenanigans. There might be times where your character really, really needs to have a conversation with another character in order to turn the story. And another time, they might need to do something spontaneous like push a friend off a tower in order to get things heated up again.