Monday, 17 December 2012

Different Characters, Different Beliefs

In order to make a scene between two characters feel interesting it needs some degree of conflict. That’s fine if one character happens to be a cop and the other a robber, but the story isn’t always going to present you with directly oppositional characters like that.

But even if the characters in a scene don’t have anything to fight over and the scene isn’t highly charged or full of high stakes, you can still give characters something to clash over.

All you need to do is give each character a different script to work from. From a writer’s perspective you know who’s right and who’s wrong in a situation, but the characters don’t know that. As in real life, people are predisposed to think they are in the right, no matter how wrong they might be.

It is an old director’s trick to tell the actor playing the mother that her boy has been the victim of bullying and that the teachers have done nothing to protect him so he’s had to defend himself, and then to tell the actor playing the Headmaster that the boy is the worst bully in the school and enough is enough.

Now, no matter what the conversation will be about, the tone will be combative. How far you take it depends on why they’re meeting, but having those opposing views of the situation guarantees you’ll avoid the doldrums of meaningless pleasantries.

In a scene where you just need some information to be revealed or some dialogue exchanged, it can feel like there’s no point in getting into an argument, and indeed having people at each other’s throats scene after scene will get tiring. But conflict comes in many shapes and sizes.

Mother 1: Charlie’s improved no end since Mr Trumble’s been giving him private lessons.
Mother 2: Really? Do you think he’d take on Billy?
Mother 1: I’m sure he would.

And so little Billy starts getting tutored after school. But the manner in which I showed Mother 2 finding out about Mr Trumble’s after school activities contains no dramatic content whatsoever.

Mother 1: Charlie’s improved no end since Mr Trumble’s been giving him private lessons.
Mother 2: Isn’t that against school rules.
Mother 1: Oh, he doesn’t charge me anything.
Mother 2: He does it for free?
Mother 1: Well, I cook him a meal.
Mother 2: ...
Mother 1: It’s just a meal.
Mother 2: Of course. So when’s Bill coming home on leave?

I don’t know where that scene’s going (death by Marine?) but one woman thinks the teacher is being helpful, and the other thinks he’s after a bit of how’s your father. They’re not arguing about it, but they don’t see eye to eye either and that creates tension.

Of course, you may feel that stretching out the scene takes up to much space and isn’t worth it just to introduce Mr Trumble who is only a bit-part player. But if it isn’t worth making the scene interesting, it isn’t really worth having the scene at all. You can easily slip in information anywhere. If you want to build it into a scene then you should make sure the scene is worth  reading .
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18 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Give them different information which will lead to different viewpoints - clever!

CS Severe said...

That is clever! Thanks! Always looking for new ways to create conflict in my scenes.

Chihuahua Zero said...

For some reason, I got a little fixated over how Mr. Trumble giving private lessons is against school rules, but if he's one of Billy's teachers, that makes sense. Sort of. Not sure why it would be against the rules.

mooderino said...

@Alex - and devious!

@CS - YVW!

@Chihuahua - you know I'm just making this stuff up, right?

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

A sprinkle of George R.R. Martin in this post is all that is lacking. What you are speaking of is his bread and butter. You've got all these different clans who have claim to the Iron Throne and each one is in conflict with the other. There's no enemy per se...just people who have different goals and who are trying to accomplish them despite what the other person is doing. It makes for a huge page-turning experience.

One of the best ways of doing this may be to adopt the Martin style and go chapter to chapter switching points of view. That way the conflict is always present and a driving force in the narrative.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This makes a lot of sense - "They’re not arguing about it, but they don’t see eye to eye either and that creates tension." It's those underlying threads getting pulled tighter and tighter that often make the reader want to keep turning those pages. And too much obvious arguments or fights or conflicts can be exhausting to read - as well as to write. :)

Elise Fallson said...

I like this kind of subtle tension because it allows the reader to read between the lines, piece things together or make certain assumptions, and to me that's the fun part.

And have scientists been able to create the orple? It looks delicious.

mooderino said...

@Michael - me and George, very similar.

@Madeline - it's not an easy thing to pull off, but if you can draw the reader in they'll be engaged for the whole story.

@Elise - some people think it's delicious, others the opposite. It's apples and oranges.

Laura Diamond said...

Another informative post--THANKS!!! :)

Jeff Hargett said...

As always, nicely stated and illustrated.

mooderino said...

@Laura - cheers.

@Jeff - thanks very much.

Lauren said...

I like this idea. Tension in a scene really is created by people with different viewpoints. Great post!

mooderino said...

@Lauren - cheers.

Julie Luek said...

Great post and good tips. Working conflict into scenes that don't have natural external conflict is difficult, but you gave that idea great suggestions to work from. Thanks.

burun estetigi said...

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Stéphanie Noël said...

That's all good, but what if my characters need to agree on whatever is going on because the main character needs the support of the other? I guess having them agrgueing about the how and not the what could be a solution, but won't it hinder the flow of the story? Unless it reveals somthing that will be useful later...

mooderino said...

@stephanie - Then they still have different viewpoints. The main character is convinced she can't do the thing (hence needs support), the friend thinks she can.

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