Tag Archives: conflict

Writing In Scenes

Hang_glidingNot everyone has the same writing process. And that’s OK. Still, I think those who plan out their stories in advance or those who patch their stories together once they know where they’re going, can all learn by thinking about their story in scenes.

Years and years ago, I picked up a book entitled Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. To be honest, I didn’t understand much about the book at all because he referred to scenes and sequels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. I associated scenes with plays and sequels . . . I didn’t have a clue what that meant in the context of fiction.

Time passed and I learned more about writing. Eventually I re-read Scene and Structure and benefited from it. And still, I didn’t really think in scenes when I was writing.

During one critique session, a member of my writing group asked me what my character wanted in a particular scene. Well, that froze me. What did he want? I hadn’t thought about it before. I was able to mumble some answer, then set the question aside.

I didn’t seriously come back to it until a few weeks ago. I’m reading/studying Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and she put me back on the scene track. I was nearing the end of Chapter 5: “Showing Change In Your Characters–If I Knew Then What I know Now” and came across these lines:

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint coverAll of this can, I know, sound overwhelming. Dramatizing motivation, dramatizing emotion, dramatizing change, creating sharp concrete details that characterize–and doing it all simultaneously–can seem too much to juggle (not to mention also “becoming the reader” to see how it all looks to someone else). But there is a way to keep control of your material. It is, in fact, the key to keeping control of many other elements of fiction as well, such as plot and emotional arc.

The key is this: Write in scenes.

You don’t have to think about the whole book at once, the entire emotional arc, or the progressive motivations of six different characters. All you have to do right now is write this one scene. (p. 75, emphasis in the original)

When I read that, something clicked.

Understand, I’ve evaluated other authors as part of my editing job. One section of the form I use is about scenes. Here are the particulars I analyze:

A. Goal
B. Conflict
C. Disaster/reaction
D. Dilemma
E. Decision


However, I’m generally writing an assessment of the novel as a whole, so what I say about the scenes is general.

But what if, in my own writing, I looked at those elements as the pillars of my scene as I constructed it? What if I didn’t start writing the scene until I knew what my characters wanted, what would bring the conflict?

So I tried it.

And now I’m a believer!

Truly, I couldn’t believe how unstuck my writing became as soon as I knew what my character wanted as a short term goal. Rather than meandering from place to place with no particular purpose, grousing about this issue and that situation, spewing his angst and whining about his plight, he became active and purposeful, he strove and struggled, and when conflict arose, he figured out how to confront it.

Did he have to give up something in order to make Plan B work? Therein lies the dilemma. Was he successful? Therein lies the disaster, which leads him to a decision about how to proceed, giving him a new goal for the next scene.

And one follows after the other like a line of falling dominoes. They start going down because someone tipped over that first one.

Writing in scenes can have that same feel. Because the first one went down, the next one must follow. Because Johnny punched Billy, the teacher is calling his parents.

There’s a silly commercial for an alternative to cable TV that plays off this concept. The cable company puts the character on hold, and when that happens, he feels trapped. When he feels trapped, he goes hang gliding, and when he goes hang gliding, he crashes into electric wires. When he crashes into electric wires, the city experiences a black out. When the city experiences a black out, crime rises. When crime rises, the character’s dad gets punched in the stomach by a looter over a can of soup. “So don’t have your dad get punched over a can of soup. Get DirectTV.”

The humor of that commercial is that the resulting actions of each disaster don’t follow a logical progression. The secret to good fiction writing is to make the progression from goal to conflict to reaction to dilemma to decision, a logical progression (just not predictable).

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Motive, Reactions, Scenes

Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

3 Comments

Filed under Tension

Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

4 Comments

Filed under Inner Conflict, Research, Writing Process

Shoring Up Sagging Middles

“Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.” That line concluded the article “Develop Your Antagonist,” posted here back in December.

As I see it, good antagonists are also the key to avoiding sagging middles.

By way of reminder, the antagonist is not necessarily an enemy. Rather he is the character who wants what the protagonist wants. Significantly, both cannot achieve this goal; otherwise there is no real conflict.

Think, for example, about The Fugitive. In that movie, the escaped convict Richard Kimbel wants to be free in order to prove his innocence. Throughout, he is thwarted by the federal officer who wants to capture him. This lieutenant blatantly states he doesn’t care that Richard didn’t kill his wife. For most of the movie, these two are in opposition, and the viewer understands they both can’t achieve their goal.

The plot turns, however, when another antagonist surfaces — the real criminal. At that point, the lieutenant realigns his goal, and this new antagonist becomes Richard’s opponent and the lieutenant’s opponent, trying to thwart them both.

The middle of the story, then, is the point where the conflict between the protagonist and one or more of his opponents is ratcheted higher. John Truby, author of The Anatomy Of Story explains it like this:

Throughout the middle of the story, the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal. The conflict heats up.

Again, the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile” shows this increase in tension as a friend becomes an opponent.

Previously, a hungry crocodile becomes friends with a monkey who shares his bananas day after day. Then this middle section of the story:

One day the crocodile began talking about his wife and family. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you had a wife?’ asked the monkey. ‘Please take some of the jamuns for her as well when you go back today.’ The crocodile thanked him and took some of the fruit for his wife.

The crocodile’s wife loved the jamuns. She had never eaten anything so sweet before. ‘Imagine’, she said, ‘how sweet would be the creature who eats these jamuns every day. The monkey has eaten these every day of his life – his flesh would be even sweeter than the fruit.’ She asked her husband to invite the monkey for a meal – ‘and then we can eat him up’ she said happily.

The crocodile was appalled – how could he eat his friend? He tried to explain to his wife that he could not possibly eat the monkey. ‘He is my only true friend’, he said. But she would not listen – she must eat the monkey. ‘Since when do crocodiles eat fruit and spare animals?’ she asked. When the crocodile would not agree to eat the monkey, she pretended to fall very sick. ‘Only a monkey’s heart can cure me’, she wailed to her husband. ‘If you love me you will get your friend the monkey and let me eat his heart.’

The poor crocodile did not know what to do – he did not want to eat his friend, but he could not let his wife die. At last he decided to bring the monkey to his wife.

‘O dear friend’, he called as soon as reached the jamun tree. ‘ My wife insists that you come to us for a meal. She is grateful for all the fruit that you have sent her, and asks that I bring you home with me.’ The monkey was flattered, but said he could not possibly go because he did not know how to swim. ‘Don’t worry about that’, said the crocodile. ‘I’ll carry you on my back.’ The monkey agreed and jumped onto the crocodile’s back.

The crocodile swam with him out into the deep wide river. When they were far away from the bank and the jamun tree, he said, ‘My wife is very ill. The only thing that will cure her is a monkey’s heart. So, dear friend, this will be the end of you and of our friendship.’ The monkey was horrified. What could he do to save himself? He thought quickly and said ‘Dear friend, I am very sorry to hear of your wife’s illness and I am glad that I will be able to help her. But … ‘

Notice the punch-counterpunch, first with the crocodile and his wife, then with the crocodile and the monkey.

The initial clash of goals is between the crocodile and his wife. They want the same thing — the monkey, he as a friend, she as dinner — and this makes them opponents for a time. Later the crocodile and the monkey want the same thing — the monkey’s life — and they become opponents.

Interestingly, as the conflict intensifies, the stakes also become higher. Instead of sagging, the middle of the story creates more tension and drives the reader on to the resolution. Part of the tension, of course, is not knowing what will happen in the end. At this point the reader has some ideas, but carefully plotted twists will keep the story from being predictable.

I guess we really do need to discuss that aspect of the story, don’t we. Perhaps next week.

2 Comments

Filed under Characters, Plot, Story

Develop Your Antagonist

Too often writers focus on developing their protagonist and forget that the antagonist who puts that character into conflict must also be well developed.

The first step in creating a fully-realized antagonist is to be aware that he or she does not necessarily have to be an opponent. He must be a character who has a want or need that clashes with the protagonist’s want or need. The two characters should not both be able to realize their desires. Thus the conflict.

Too often, in my opinion, writing instruction books give the impression that all an antagonist needs is some good quality to flesh him out and make him not one dimensional. The typical example is the serial killer who loves his pet dog or dogs in general or little children. He goes out of his way to save a puppy or feeds his dog a special treat before heading off for the next murder.

I don’t see that as sufficient character development. Instead, an antagonist must be true to his own want or need.

For example, I believe the serial killer can be thoroughly reprehensible—evil, through and through. But his struggles need to be real. He needs to kill or to foil the detective out to catch him. He needs to have his own character arc—struggles that push him forward and motivate him to make choices, along with consequences that refine him or weaken him.

Of course, the antagonist doesn’t need to be evil. He simply must be the principle foil for the main character.

If the antagonist is the business partner of the protagonist, he might believe that the only way to make ends meet is to accept a client our hero finds unacceptable. They both want to make the business succeed, but the main character wants to be free of any questionable associations. He wants a growing business, but he needs to be a man of integrity. The antagonist, on the other hand, needs to be successful, no matter what the cost. These two are far from enemies, but their differing needs pull them in opposing directions.

When beginning a novel, knowing the main character is imperative, but knowing the antagonist is equally so. It is the antagonist who provides the counterbalance to the main character even as he throws up roadblocks and deepens the conflict. Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.

2 Comments

Filed under Antagonists, Characters