Thursday, 24 May 2012

Conflict In Story Is Like Finding Gold

Conflict is the key to writing an interesting and dramatic story.

When you come across a moment where the main character faces a difficulty, that is a precious and valuable thing to have found. You need to keep digging until you get it all out.

What you shouldn’t do is find ways to make the problem go away. In real life you should, in fiction you shouldn’t.

There are three main cop-outs I encounter again and again when it comes to writers creating a wonderful opportunity for conflict and then running away from it as quickly as possible. If you do any of these, you need to stop. You’ve found gold, stop throwing it away.

1) The Hypothetical Conflict

Here a character thinks about a potentially conflict-inducing situation and decides in their head, based on previous experience, it isn’t worth the hassle.

I thought about asking Dad if I could go to Tina’s party, but what was the point? I knew what he’d say. I went up to my bedroom. Another Saturday night in.

Even if you know how things will play out, that doesn’t mean you can just skip over it.

The problem as a writer is that a typical, everyday argument can feel stale. You get bored just thinking about writing it. And that’s fair enough, but then your job is to find a way to make it an interesting scene, both for you and the reader.

2) The Conflict That Never Was

Here the set up suggests something’s about to go down, but it turns out to be a false alarm.

I was sure I heard a weird sound from the backyard. I went outside, but nobody was there.

Often the excuse for this is that it’s a build up of tension. This time it’s nothing, but next time you’ll get a bit more, and then a bit more. Which is fine, but just because the thing wasn’t the terrible monster we suspected doesn’t mean it has to be NOTHING.

Few things are as dull and uninteresting as nothing. Few things require as little imagination, either. Whether it’s part of a strategy or not, be aware that from the reader’s perspective you coming up with nothing is an indicator that they may be reading a story that goes nowhere.

3) The Close Call

This one is where the consequences of failure are writ large. Plenty of tension and danger, potentially. But it all turns out fine. Phew. Never had to resort to Plan B. Which was lucky because there wasn’t one. How convenient.

I rushed to delete computer file before Steve found out. I could hear his car in the drive. I got to the room he used as an office. I heard the sound of his key in the door. I hit delete.
“What you doing?” asked Steve.
The screen was empty.
“Who me? Just checking emails.”

Too easy. If you had come to delete files when no one was supposed to be about and found Steve already there, then you’ve got a scene. You can still come up with a way to delete the files without Steve knowing, but now you have to use your brain to figure out how to do it. Make the problem harder, not easier.

4. Rush Through It

Here's one more from Carissa Taylor: I think another related problem I've seen is simply glossing over the moment of conflict. Tension builds and builds and then when the confrontation actually happens it comes and goes so quickly that it reads more like a "close call" than an actual confrontation.  

All three four of these examples have very clear opportunities to create drama through conflict. And in each case I circumvent that opportunity.

The main difference between writing a scene with conflict and one without is that the one with conflict is a lot harder to write. And that’s how it feels to the reader, like the writer couldn’t come up with anything good, so they took the easy way out.

This is true even if the non-conflict scene is intentional. Especially if the character isn't confrontational or shy or reluctant to get involved. Find ways to put them into conflict against their will. 

No matter how valid your choice to let your character off the hook, the reader doesn’t care. They either get caught up in the story or they don’t. And scenes where conflict is narrowly avoided are weak scenes.

You need to grit your teeth and really mine the hell out the vein you've found. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, painful even, but it's the only way you're going to hit paydirt.
Do you find ways to avoid conflict? Any more avoidance tactics you've come across?

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet, cheers.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I need to remember to do this. Sometimes my characters logic out and reason out things and decide that something isn't worth the hassle. As you've said, I should stop doing that.

Jason Runnels said...

I used to mock my mother's soap operas on television for the plethora of challenges every character faced. I thought, if these were real people they would be in a rubber room so fast it would make your head spin. Nobody suffers that must pain and agony in a lifetime...let alone in the span of just a few episodes!

But now I realize the writers of those shows knew scores more than I did about writing conflict.

Great post. It's always good to be reminded what makes a story tick.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

"Few things are as dull and uninteresting as nothing." - That's awesome!
I'll try not to do any of those.

Unknown said...

Good one! I have a tendency to run away from the conflict once I discover it. Rather than build upon it, I quickly bury it. I'm not sure why I do this, but I think I'll be opening up some old wounds. :D

Taffy said...

I just wrote one of those cop out scenes! Sheesh! At least I understand better. Thanks for the post!

mooderino said...

@Michael-it's very tempting, feels reasonable, totally something the character would do, but it's always much better reading to see things play out in fornt of you. Always.

@Jason-anything can be taken to a ridiculous extreme but the principle is sound. Now if you'll excuse me I have to go battle my evil twin for custody of my alien baby.

@Alex - sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.

@Diane - in the end overcoming a big obstacle will be much more rewarding (as well as much more painful).

@Taffy - thanks for the comment!

Elise Fallson said...

I think my problem is reversed. I have too much conflict going on in my writing and I lose focus.

dolorah said...

"Never had to resort to Plan B. Which was lucky because there wasn’t one. How convenient."

All are serious letdowns in a story, but that one unsettles me the most. I feel cheated of a good story.


Carmen Esposito said...

I have to work harder on this. You're right, I didn't have a Plan B. Perhaps in real life I prefer to avoid conflicts and that's why my conflicts are easy to solve.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey Mood,

I love conflict. My latest novel has almost TOO MUCH of it. But I once read that a writer must put his mc through hell and back. TORTURE THEM. Reader's love it. So I did.

I seriously don't know how my MC survives or keeps his sense of humor. The human sprit is an AMAZING thing.

Thanks for another great post.

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent thoughts here. I especially hate it when the loud sounds in the backyard amount to nothing. I try to avoid that.

mooderino said...

@Elise - the extremes at either end (too much/not enough) tend to lead to poor storytelling.

@Donna - I think most readers can spot the writer trying to pull a fast one.

@Carmen - I think that's pretty common, we would all like to avoid problems in real life, so it's very tempting when we have the chance to do it in fiction.

@Michael - the tougher the challenge, the greater the elation when the finally get through. I think that's why we love a happy ending.

@Elena - you can see why it would be a popular device, but it hardly ever pays off, especially nowadays when people can see it coming a mile off.

Laura Howard said...

Loud sound in the backyard... Sounds familiar! Maybe a chance for a red herring?

mooderino said...

@Laura - I was wondering why that example popped into my head.

Red herrings are fine but thinking it was Dave then finding out it was Steve still allows for tension and suspense before we get to Steve. Thinking it was nobody, then finding out it was Steve, doesn't.

Julie Dao said...

There's a lot of hypothetical conflict at the beginning of my WIP! My main character (who has worked for her parents all her life) keeps second-guessing herself and imagining what will happen if she tells them she wants to leave and see the world. Great breakdown!

mooderino said...

@Julie - the problem tends to be that while the character is thinking about not doing stuff they aren't doing anything else either. I can be breaking into a bank while I consider if it's worth asking my girlfriend to marry me.

kjmckendry said...

I'm going to have to make sure I don't do any of those cop outs! Thanks great post!

mooderino said...

@Kathy - you're welcome!

Charmaine Clancy said...

Number 2 would drive me bonkers. The sound can turn out to be nothing, nothing more than just a cat, for just long enough for you to sigh and think 'oh good it's just the cat', then turn around and NO! It's not, it's an axe-weilding clown-zombie and he's gonna cut you and eat you, stupid stupid you for going out to check out the cat! Arrrrgh!!!

Sorry, cats just spook me. Another great post.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - I wonder if clown-zombies are funnier than regular zombies? Have to be, right?

Lydia Kang said...

Yes, I had to seriously learn how to not to the fake tension thing!
Great post, Moody.

Catherine Stine said...

Good, in-depth discussion of conflictt-both the effective and not so much. It's helpful to think about the fine lines between them. Thanks!
Catherine Stine’s Idea City

Carissa said...

This is a really great breakdown! Thanks for posting! I think another related problem I've seen is simply glossing over the moment of conflict. Tension builds and builds and then when the confrontation actually happens it comes and goes so quickly that reads more like a "close call" than an actual confrontation.

mooderino said...

@Lydia - me too.

@Catherine - it's a double-edged sword, since everyone uses it in their story sometimes the most original approach feels like you should avoid it altogether, but you can't do that.

@Carissa - good one. Added it to the list.

Sharon Bayliss said...

Great post! You've made some great points. I believe that a good protag should get themselves into all kinds of trouble.

mooderino said...

@Sharon-and if not, you should get them into trouble.

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