Monday, 27 February 2012

A Near-Miss Is Not A Story

One of the main tenets of drama is conflict. In real life getting what you want without fuss or bother is seen as a win. In fiction, it’s a loss (for the reader).

A common approach in stories by aspiring writers is the near-miss. This is where a character is faced by a problem, one that they know is coming, so they take steps to be ready for it. The build-up is all there. And then the problem disappears. Either they were mistaken, or they weren’t discovered, or a distraction pulled the bad guys away.  Something enables the character to avoid conflict. 

Whatever the reason for doing this, the effect on the reader is pretty much always the same: disappointment.

This approach is especially popular with writers who feel uncomfortable writing volatile scenes. They resist getting into the meat of the action, some even find it tedious and unsatisfying when things reach a head and people have it out.

Mostly this stems from a lack of confidence in being able to write the big moment and do it justice. It’s far easier to build up the issue and the sense of dread the character has than it is to follow it through to its conclusion. The reason writers often find those scenes pat or clichéd or lacking in some way, is because that’s the only way they know how to write them.

Trying to pretend it's all part of the plan isn't fooling anyone.

The moment when the wife accuses the husband of cheating, or the bully traps the kid in the bathrooms, or the killer confronts the witness in the alley, those scenes have been done so often and in so many different ways, that it’s hard to make them fresh and engaging.

But allowing characters to bypass conflict is defeating the point of writing a story. As uncomfortable and unpalatable as it may feel, facing up to it is as important for the writer as it is for the characters. You only find out what you’re made of when you’re tested.

Even the excuse that this time it’s a feint, but next time will be the real thing doesn’t really wash. Just because the perceived threat wasn’t real doesn’t mean something else can’t take its place. If Jack thinks the killer’s in the house, and it turns out it was just the wind rattling a window, even though it makes sense, it leaves the scene a bit flat. If he thinks the killer’s in the house, and it turns out it’s his ex-wife cutting up his suits, it’s still a dramatic moment.

The option doesn’t have to be conflict or nothing, it can be conflict A instead of conflict B.

It would be great to be able to arrange for conflict to be easily avoided in life, which is why it is so tempting in writing where you have the power to make it happen, but it’s even greater to be able to create horribly unpleasant situations and then write your way out of them.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Conflict is what drives the story!

Nicole Pyles said...

Too true - the only way avoiding conflict would work is if it was building up on itself. For example, if the husband thought the noise was the wind, and went back to bed and ho-hum. The next day he keeps hearing similar things that he tries to explain away - it CAN leave the reader wondering if this guy is falling apart mentally, is his wife screwing around with him? But, the only reason why avoiding conflict works is if it is building up on itself. Otherwise, you end up disappointing the reader. And you end up looking like a total wuss and your characters will get pissed at you and protest (not really, but hey, it could happen!)

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think I resolved the conflict well in both the stories I've written. I've got one out to a beta reader now. I guess I'll find out how that goes when I hear back from them.

Unknown said...

I think sometimes the issue is simply not knowing how to tackle the conflict because the setup isn't there. The proper steps needed to initiate the conflict and subsequent resolution just aren't in place, so it becomes almost impossible to address.

What you've presented is a massive red flag when it comes to reviewing your story; if the protagonist doesn't directly overcome the obstacle by the end, then there really isn't much of a story. Occasionally, a simple formula like A wants C and has to go through (not around) B to get it can help in the conceptualization of what is or isn't there.

Great thoughts, as always!


Jamie Gibbs said...

Great advice. I think I'm guilty of that now and again - just in case I don't write the conflict well enough, I'll just side step it.

dolorah said...

I like writing conflict; but it has to have a resolution, and sometimes I get a little weak on outcomes.


Ted Cross said...

On the other hand, I despise how everyone seems to expect that all stories should follow a straightforward line, when real life rarely does that. I love writing conflict, so I don't throw a loop into the story in order to avoid it, but I do like to mimic reality by having unexpected events come up that derail what people thought was going to happen. Maybe I am wrong to do so, but I like it myself.

mooderino said...


@Nicole-that kind of delaying tactic is difficult to pull off, especially early on is a story, as there's no way to tell if the writer has the chops to pull it off. And generally most new writers don't, so reader's are more reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt when experience has taught them that most of the time they'll be disappointed. No point having a great pay off if you fail to get the reader through the set up.

@Michael-hope it goes well.

@EJ-writing is basically putting yourself out there to be judged. I can see why people would find that hard, but you have to deal with it.

@Ted-I don't think anyone thinks plans derailed is a bad idea in a story. Treading water is the undesirable thing.

Cheers for all the comments.

mooderino said...

@jamie-I think we all have those moments where we think we can get away with taking the easy route. Generally that's the giveaway. If it's easy, it probably isn't the way to go.

Suze said...

What you have addressed in this post is exactly what has made me wonder if I am cut out to write fiction, at all.

I don't want to give up, though.

Nancy Thompson said...

Martha Alderson writes in her book on craft, The Plot Whisperer, that sometimes the anticipation of the event is even greater than the tension of the event itself.

I think the trick is to make them both work, the anticipation and the event. A book is nothing with loads of conflict, tension, and suspense.

mooderino said...

@Suze-ability doesn't arrived fully formed. You have to work at it.

@Nancy-anticipation of an event doesn't mean nothing can happen until then. There are many ways to delay gratification that still engage and entertain. Suspense itself is a form of anticipation.

The idea that I have something interesting coming up later so I'm allowed to not put in much effort now is not a good idea. Just making the reader wait isn't the same as filling them with anticpation.

A Lady's Life said...

I guess Seinfeld are not episodes about nothing
It is one big conflict over nothing lol

Lydia Kang said...

Making it hard for us writers is not always pleasant for ut, but good for the reader.

mooderino said...

@Lady's Life-very true.

@Lydia-I've tried leaving m writing out at night for the elves to finish, but so far no luck.

Sarah Allen said...

I think you're absolutely right, no get out of jail free cards. And even if the conflict in the scene has been done tons before, you still need to do what you can to make it fresh instead of just glossing over it. I actually really needed this reminder, so thanks!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

mooderino said...

@sarah-I think that feeling it's been done before does wear people down so they think glossing over it is the better option, whereas they're both equally as bad. Everyone really knows they have to strive to be better, but striving in practice is just very tiring and hard.

Unknown said...

I hate writing scenes that are messy and awful for my characters, but there's not getting around it. No conflict, no mess, no story. I hate reading books where the characters eem to get off easy without confronting the killer/bully/cheating spouse.

mooderino said...

@Melissa-it's tempting to give characters you like a break. i think because we would like the person writing our life to give us a break.

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