Monday, 2 June 2014

The Escalation of Complications

The worst thing a story can be is boring. A dull tale, whatever the genre, whatever the length, will be a hard sell no matter how well written.

The most common advice for making a story more interesting is to increase the conflict.

More problems, sharper tension, higher stakes. The harder you make life for you main character, the greater the interest in how they’re going to reach their goal.

This isn’t particularly revolutionary information. Both as readers and as people we know that the most interesting stories are the ones where people face the greatest adversities, so it stands to reason that the tougher you make things the better.

However, while it’s pretty clear more conflict is a good idea, it isn’t always obvious how you go about this. If you just throw everything you can think of at the protagonist it can feel unrealistic and melodramatic. Random events overwhelming a character can also overwhelm the story and shift the tone in a direction you might not have intended. So how do you make life worse for your protagonist in an organic manner?

It should be noted that it’s totally possible to get away with dumping a bunch of problems on your characters. The kind of story where the hero loses his job, his wife leaves him and he gets accused of murder... and then the real murderer tries to kill him, the cops put out a shoot on sight order and he eats a poisonous mushroom and has 24 hours to live, can be an entertaining read.

Even the most cheesy soap operas manage to draw an audience; in fact the endless stream of outrageous and improbable predicaments—she’s pregnant, her evil twin is out to get her, she’s in love with a werewolf, end of episode 1—are what keep them engrossed and coming back for more.

The power of conflict to hold a reader’s interest shouldn’t be underestimated. No matter how you complicate things for your character as long as they’re fighting to overcome the obstacles they find in their path, chances are people are going to want to know what happens next.

But there are two things to remember here. First, how you complicate things will affect how the reader judges the story. People might watch soap operas avidly, but few consider them to be high quality writing.

And second, the source of turmoil in a character’s life will inform the reader’s view of that character. Because a fictional character is known by a limited amount of information—we only know them from what happens to them in the story and what they do about it—they are closely linked to the plot. Plot and character become inseparable.

If you have a character who you see as strong, happy, normal, and they suffer a series of mishaps through no fault of their own—they’re in a car crash, they lose their memory, they find themselves in the middle of a bank robbery—whatever you considered the psychological set up of the character can easily be hijacked by the plot. In the above case the character could be seen as a hapless victim of circumstance, someone who can’t put a foot right. Which is fine if you’re writing Mr Bean, but perhaps not if you were hoping to create something more sophisticated or measured.

You definitely want more conflict, but you also want to retain control of how that informs the overall tone of the story and of your main character. And one of the ways you can do that is to consider the source of the problems your character encounters.

If they come from people the main character already has a relationship with and you establish that relationship, then you will have far greater control of how things are perceived.

If, for example, you have a bank manager tell your character he’s has one week to pay back a loan or his house will be forfeit, then having an earlier scene with those two characters (could be about a related matter or something else entirely) will give you a chance to set the tone, and that tone will still be there when the bank manager drops his bombshell later.

Even if the relationship is obvious—our hero comes home to find his wife in bed with another man—then even though clearly the husband and wife know each other, the reader doesn’t know what kind of relationship they have. An earlier scene with those characters will again allow you to choose how they end up being perceived.

Consider, if I start my story with our hero walking in on his wife in flagrante delicto then the situation governs how you see the character. You know nothing about him other than he’s been cheated on, betrayed, fooled. That will shape your view of him.

But if there’s an earlier scene between husband and wife where he’s sarcastic and dismissive about her job, then will you feel the same when he catches her cheating?

What if the earlier scene is him beating out the other guy at work for a promotion? Or what if he helps the guy out of a fix at work? Or perhaps the guy is his boss and we’ve just seen our man steal important papers from the safe in the boss’s office.

In each case the relationship we establish will be the primary factor in how we see the character, not the events he is faced with.

Now consider if you have an earlier scene to establish the main character that has nothing to do with the problem he later faces. Our hero is a cop taking down drug dealers. Gun fight, car chase, arrest. Then he comes home to find his wife in bed with another guy.

Even though you’ve worked hard to show him as a man of action, when he walks into the bedroom the situation has a pretty good chance of overwhelming all that careful work.

He’s a tough guy at work, but really he has no idea what’s going on at home and is a bit of a stooge. Which is fine if that’s the story you want to tell, but the important things is to have control, to be able to tell the story you choose to tell.

If you don’t want the situation to decide the way a character is perceived then taking a step back and shaping the source of the problem will help you do that.

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Chemist Ken said...

The real trick, at least for me, is being able to recognize when an event I've added to set up a certain mood turns out to send the reader down a totally unexpected direction. That's when my critique partners become invaluable.

mooderino said...

@Ken - often a writer isn't too sure what mood they want to create and allow the story to guide them, which is great when it works out, but a pain when it doesn't.

Misha Gerrick said...

I tend to have things come out organically as a method. (I know it sounds weird.)

For example if I have a guy struggling with something (say trusting people and it's a romance), the obvious thing I'll go for as conflict in my first draft will be to make the lady seem scatter-brained or otherwise untrustworthy. And from there I'll refine things in edits etc until the story works the way I want it to.

Unknown said...

If the reader likes the character, then the plausibility over what happens seems to be forgiven. You mention soap operas, so I wanted to bring this point up.

During my soap days, if I absolutely loved a character and the show killed them off, I would be devastated and stop watching because OMG what was there left of the story? Then BAM! (they must have had a tremendous reaction from the audience) the character is back as a ghost. WTH?

We can go overboard with the things we do to our characters, but I'd try not to push it too much because readers are not stupid. They know you are creating conflict and friction, but they want to know it's for a reason other than keeping their attention.

Unknown said...

Awesome article and advice, as usual. I loved the Mr. Bean comment and the pic. It's really hard to keep the tension up for me. I have to plot, plot, and plot some more! lol

Unknown said...

Nice tips. I remember in high school reading a book. I was told it was the best. I could not get passed the first chapter but I forced myself to continue. Finally after reading more then half the book with nothing exciting, I gave up. It was so boring.

dolorah said...

In my womens fiction my way of creating some conflict is by making them seem so perfectly normal, and then adding something out of the ordinary for normies, and having the character react in a dysfunctional manner. I make the reader fall in love, and then see the darker side.

Hmm, that didn't explain well.

I got the message here though Moody. Thanks.

Notes Along the Way with Mary Montague Sikes said...

Make them wait is probably the best advice I've read from an author. That's what you are saying as well because as you build conflict, the reader has to wait! Thanks for the good tips.

Mary Montague Sikes

mooderino said...

@Misha - the main conflict is usually there from the beginning, it's all the other stuff that can take time to figure out.

@Diane - a well-liked character can get away with all sorts, but I don't think you can rely on that when writing. Hard to preordain.

@Lexa - same here. Lots of time trying to make the pieces fit.

@Lilith - Boring is hard to get past.

@Donna - you're welcome (I think).

mooderino said...

@Mary - helps if you make them wait for something good.

Doreen McGettigan said...

I just finished a book that was one of the happiest stories I ever read in my life. I kept reading, expecting something to jump out at any moment and nothing ever did.
It was boring.
These are great tips even for those writing non-fiction.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood.

That is excellent advice. Having scenes with characters before the main tension is certainly the way to set the stage.....

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Mood, this is wonderful advice. I like the idea of considering or keeping in mind the source of the problems our character encounters. Everything ties up to that. A writer I had read added conflict after conflict, it made no sense to the plot. Infact, as it happened in such an unorganic manner, I was so put off I just could not read the book.

mooderino said...

@Michael - thanks.

@Rachna - it can be fun if you ignore the implausibility but better if it makes sense.

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