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Conflict

Writing the Negative People

Not everyone in your story plays nice.

Let’s look at some of the people a story might need to give it strong conflict on more than one level.

There’s the obvious bad guy. He or she is someone who is psychotic or so driven by greed or hate or the need for a fix that you can rely on him to do bad things, probably at the worst possible moment for your main character.

Next you have a usually decent person who is driven by wanting or needing exactly the same thing your protagonist wants. Their normally reasonable selves become outright nasty as they fight for their goal. They don’t hate your main character, they just want to beat him to the goal. They want  something – the protagonist is in danger of becoming collateral damage

Similar is the person who, for reasons explained (or not) in the back story dislike or compete with the main character. It could be a family feud or perhaps a belief that the main character has wronged them. Their focus is on harming your main character. The conflict centres around whether or not they succeed in inflicting that harm.

Then there’s the shape-shifter character who is so intent on playing their own game that the protagonist, who may have thought they were an ally, is let down, again at the worst possible moment. The shape-shifter adds intrigue by sometimes helping, sometimes damaging your protagonist. The conflict deepens because of the element of trust and trust betrayed and the uncertainty that this generates.

You can also have an assortment of low-level players who mislead or delay your protagonist’s course of action by lying or concealing information or by getting themselves into a mess and needing to be rescued. They can honestly believe some story that will take the protagonist on a wild goose chase. Whether deliberately or in innocence or to further their own little sub-plot they add to the drama.

A writer’s best friend in fiction is the stakes-raiser. The detective now needs to solve this murder by the weekend or he will be fired. The boss just dropped a deadline on him. Suddenly there’s an ‘or else’ that wasn’t there before. Bosses are great stakes raisers.  Anyone who ratches up the pressure is not playing nice, but they ARE increasing the conflict for you, the writer.

The last person who gets in the way of the protagonist is the misguided helper:

“You need the car today? Oh, oops, I knew you needed new tires before the winter and your car’s up on the hoist.”

You can’t go chasing after the escaped murderer. I put your bullet-proof vest in the wash.”

OK. I’m stretching a point there, but you know what I mean. Next time you are looking for a way to increase or densify the conflict think of these people.

Do you have any other favourite categories of people who stand between your protagonist and happy ever after?

Fear

Yesterday I heard an interesting idea – that most of us run much of our lives on fear. Well, maybe THEY do, but not me.  Definitely not me.

I’m not talking about the fear of spiders or snakes, but about day-to-day fears.

“I’m afraid my money’s going to run out before the end of the month.”

“I’m afraid my young kids might get into drugs.”

I have to invite my brother to spend Christmas with us or he’ll make my mom’s life miserable”

“I’m afraid I’ll never be as good as she is.”

“I’ll have to skip breakfast to catch my bus. If I’m late again I might lose my job and then I’d never be able to pay the rent.”

Many of these are legitimate fears – if my kids were still young I’d be afraid of them getting into drugs too. I’d behave in a way that minimized those chances. But when you are writing these fears are all grist for your mill. These are the kind of fears, reasonable or otherwise, that people are living with and orchestrating their lives around.

It affects their behavior. The woman afraid of losing her job is not going to set off sedately for the bus and calmly accept the fact that it left ten minutes ago. She is going to be running, panicked if she misses it, antsy waiting for the next bus, berating herself for being so stupid as to sleep in.

She will get to work ragged and unfocused, probably make a few mistakes in her flustering, and be cranky to her co-workers. You could be setting her up for something really bad to happen. If it does she will be mentally less well prepared to deal with it capably. You  can write her into a serious situation with heightened conflict.

Maybe in her flustering she accidentally shreds some important papers. The stakes just got raised. Maybe the Big Boss is in town and needs the papers.

But you don’t have to go for the major conflict here. You can just show this person as a woman who nervously tries to be a really good employee even though she is a square peg in a round hole. She tries so hard to be useful and helpful that she becomes a bit of a nuisance. Perhaps this leaves her open to be bullied. and maybe she is driven to do something drastic to end the bullying.

Well, here we are at major conflict again. We look at ordinary, everyday lives and perhaps we don’t see a lot of fiction-worthy conflict. But it’s there, latent, hiding in the common fears we all have.

Common sense tells us to take small steps towards addressing any fears that start to run our lives – small preventative measures perhaps. However, we’re talking about fiction here. Sensible action is not what we’re looking for. We just want our larger-than-life characters to have traits of common humanity that everyone will recognize. Fears are everywhere – possibly disguised. Use them to give your story depth and believability.

Writing: Double-Duty Scenes

Many of the writers I know tend to get pulled into the scenes they write – I know I do. The feeling of being there, in that place with those people is seductive. Often it’s much more fun than being part of the scenes of everyday life.  The fictional characters you are dealing with are much easier to manage than people in your real world – people who have a regrettable tendency to exhibit  a will and motivations of their own.

But are you getting full value from each of your scenes? As you plan your scene – who will be in it, what they will do and how they will feel and be motivated to further action – what are you going to get from it.

Yes, it will further the plot. What else can it do?

It can deepen character. It can throw a new light or a deeper light on each person in the scene. Every line you write illuminates the people. It shows in their words, intonations, movements. For your viewpoint character it shows a manner of understanding, thinking and instinctive reaction.

It can add dimension to your setting. If you are writing a historical novel or fantasy or science fiction the details of the setting are important – if you don’t show these details the readers will not get the full value of the story. You might think that if the setting is a suburban kitchen or a cube farm in a high-rise office building most people would understand with just a quick word sketch. But maybe not.

And even if it is, say, an ordinary suburban kitchen what does it tell you about the people who live there? Is it messy or obsessively tidy? Are the appliances the latest state-of-the-art? Is it a comfortable gathering place with an old dog curled up on the mat?

Is this kitchen or cube farm the best place to put this scene, or could the dialogue and action play out somewhere better? A different house? The street? the lobby?

The setting makes a difference. Little Ms Domestic will feel at home and more confident in her kitchen while Mr CEO is rather out of place. In the cube farm the positions are reversed. If you place the scene in an airport or on a riverbank how will that affect the action?

As you write this scene, what are you setting up for the future? Is Ms Domestic hoping to get a job, and will she have an affair with Mr CEO? Or maybe you’re setting her up to steal the company secrets. Do you need to foreshadow something important for later?

Or perhaps it’s early in the book and you need to let slip a few nuggets of back story. You might feel it is important for your readers to discover that sweet little Ms Domestic used to be a fighter pilot or that the CEO is dyslexic.

Any or all of these can play their role in your scene in addition to it merely advancing your plot. You can probably think of more examples for yourself. Use them to enrich every scene you write.

Showing emotion

When you write fiction it’s important  to convey to the reader exactly the emotion of the moment. Not tell them (“She felt sad.”) but show them.

Let’s say that her good-looking boyfriend has just announced that he is breaking up with her. She might feel anything from total devastation to great relief. How will you show her feelings?

The extremes are fairly easy – she hits him over the head with a frying pan or she sweeps him into an embrace “Oh, thank you. That’s wonderful”. You leave no room for the reader to misunderstand.

But what about more subtle emotions? She might be fearful of being alone, thinking how to find another room-mate, annoyed because she had plans for the weekend, glad to be free because she has met this other man.

How will you show her emotion? You can  state it:

“Oh, no! I’m scared to be alone!”

But that is still a bit obvious. You’ll pull the reader further into the story if it has to be figured out.

How about something like:

‘She sucked in a breath and her shoulders tightened. He wondered for a moment if she was going to cry but instead she turned to him, her eyes pleading. “Couldn’t we try again? One more time? Please?”‘

OK, maybe I laid it on a bit thick but you get the message. Let the reader do some of the work of understanding what is going on inside the character’s head. The reader doesn’t have to understand it fully right away but the characters reaction will drive further actions.

Maybe she will plead for another chance and become a compliant and obedient mouse, fulfilling his every wish until one day she smartens up and realizes there are worse fates than living alone. Or one day he realizes he can’t stand compliant women. Or one day she finds another room-mate.

Maybe, to go back to the man breaking up with the woman, the woman is just mildly annoyed at now having to find another room-mate. The milder the reaction, the harder it is to show reaction with any subtlety. Perhaps she shrugs, or yawns, or says “Don’t forget you’ve got some clothes in the dryer.”.

This is unlikely to be the reaction that drives the rest of the story unless she is faking it and bursts into tears the moment the door closes behind him.

And there’s also the man in the scene to consider. What is his body language saying? He can’t just stand there. Is he showing anger? embarrassment? fear? annoyance? How will you reveal his feelings, other than saying ‘He was angry’? Or ‘he yelled’?

Take time to pick out the body language, the gestures, the hesitations you need to reveal emotional reaction. But don’t give it all away – allow the reader to use imagination. That’s why we read.

Action and Reaction in a Story

Let’s suppose that someone in your family says something negative to you, something that undercuts your self-esteem and spoils your day.

“You’re not wearing that dress again are you? It adds 20 pounds to the way you look.”

“I see the XYZ company got that contract you wanted. If you’d worked a bit harder you could have got that contract.”

You might snap back or, being a mature person, you might bite your tongue and leave unsaid the words you wanted to say.

You tell yourself that perhaps they were having a bad day, that their life is difficult right now and if you had their problems you might speak without thinking too. You make allowances because in a family it is important to get along.

But in your story words like that are a challenge and as a writer you are required to come up with a reaction. not equal and opposite as in physics, but unequal – greater, a more challenging response that ups the tension in the story.

Revenge, it is said, is sweet. I don’t believe that is true in life but it’s sweet in a story because it creates action and reveals character. The man might land a punch and start a fist fight. The woman might go for verbal aggression  –

“Well, you should know, you’re 20 pounds overweight yourself.”

And each of those responses would result in heightened reaction in return.

But the reaction could be slower – a  quiet seething that leads to a delayed, and probably more severe reaction. All sorts of retaliation could be planned.

But the reaction need not be revenge. Suppose the woman hears the criticism and bursts into tears, runs off and is hit by an on-coming car. Suppose she diets compulsively until she either becomes an internationally famous model or anorexic.

What about the businessman? They say living well is the best revenge. Suppose he works harder, becomes successful and takes work away from the speaker who loses his own business. Suppose there is a feud between the two companies that leads to price cutting till both companies suffer.

If the hurt or anger are not displayed overtly right away it is still your privilege, as a writer, to observe the tiny signs of those emotions that a casual observer might have missed. The woman might bite her lip and look down. She might shrink back, suck in her stomach, or try to look taller. She also might toss her head in a “Who cares what you say” fashion.

How might you respond if you weren’t constrained by politeness? OK. Multiply that by ten and give the reaction to the woman. Give full rein to the venom you’d feel. (Feels good, doesn’t it?)

How about the businessman’s anger? Men’s emotions are tougher because they tend to hide them better. The slight curling of the fingers to make a fist, tension in the jaw, a scowl, the deep breath and gritted teeth. The overt emotion – the fight response is easier to show.

Whatever the reaction is, it will lead to another reaction – this one from the original speaker. Again, depending on your story, this can be either big and overt or small and subtle. But if your characters wander along with not much happening to them, and paying not much attention to what others do or say, then you don’t have a story that causes a reader to say, “I gotta read fast. I gotta find out what happens next.”

The Inciting Incident

 

Every story has an inciting incident – maybe obvious, maybe not. It’s the moment when everything changes. The status is no longer quo; it has shifted.

Think of the old fairy tales:

–          The princess falls ill so the king sends out an edict.

–          The young farm boy sets out to win fame and fortune.

–          Jack’s old mother sends him to market.

–          The king in Cinderella’s country decides to hold a grand ball.

The story falls naturally into place after that and involves many other people. The same thing happens in current fiction:

–          A plane lands and a young woman arrives in a new country

–          Someone steps through a door into a sci-fi universe

–          A company hires a new employee

–          A young man playfully waves a toy gun

Besides precipitating events into motion, sometimes an inciting event is an opportunity to reveal character in a story. Revealing the character that lies beneath the usual facades of life might take a very large jolt propelling people out of comfortable day-to-day day routines.  The following story is true (with a couple of minor changes). It was a learning experience for me, but much more than that.

Last weekend, in a family I know, a beautiful young girl died suddenly away from home in a foreign country. It was a shocking event and it laid characters bare.

Her competent dad became a lost soul.

Her mom, a gentle, thoughtful woman, once she managed to step beyond her initial grief, turned into a tiger who fought her way through miles of official red tape.

Uncle #1, a senior figure in law enforcement, was revealed as being dominated by his wife and shown to be a tall, imposing wimp. His wife, a social butterfly, was shown to be controlling and selfish. People had inklings of this before, but suddenly it was in the open where everyone could see it.

Uncle #2, a scientist, found emotional depth and empathy where none had been apparent before.

Uncle #3, a pleasant but rather unmotivated man, became the tower of comfort who had hugs for anyone who needed them and a shoulder for anyone to cry on.

Aunt #1, another social butterfly, ran true to form and opened her house to everyone who needed support. When people needed to do something to help she found something for them to do, with a meal and a hug afterwards.

Aunt #2, a financial powerhouse, turned into a frightened rabbit

They say that a leopard can’t change his spots but clearly, under this dreadful stress, people who had appeared to be coping quite well with life changed in a variety of ways.  Some grew, some shrank. For some the veneer was stripped away. Under pressure some found latent depth, others found…not very much. None of them will ever be quite the same again. They will not be seen the same way again.

Glimpsing this complexity of human behavior gives you a lot of latitude when you write a story. As a writer you can show dramatic change in your characters if you apply enough pressure. What overt or covert inciting incident can you develop to apply that pressure?

7 Best Conflicts

Conflict is a  struggle or clash between two opposing forces. Opposing forces can be:

  • armies,
  • individual people such as family members, neighbors
  • ideals, ideas, opinions,
  • wishes or impulses
  • physical forces

The ability to spot and sense conflict is a great asset to  writer. Anyone can see armies firing rockets at each other on a newscast, or one boy hit another after school. It takes a more perceptive mind to see the conflict between two people who, on the surface, like each other.

You might see it in shoulder tension, in lack of eye contact, in a quick turning aside or in word choice – words that were unusually careful, or not careful enough.

In a lot of fiction today – sci-fi, fantasy – we see overt conflict. It can be bombs, sword fights, gun battles, but you see the conflict happening and it’s right in your face.

But in a lot of our work the conflict we portray is not overt. It is revealed slowly through dialog and juxtaposition of events and actions. Sometimes the strongest conflict is the internal conflict – one person fighting the forces within.

Even the basic ‘good versus evil’ conflict is intensified when fought within the confines of one person. Ideas – the practical versus the spiritual, for example – take on deeper meaning if the thoughts are battling in one mind.

Often the conflict is “I want to,” versus “I shouldn’t” –  “I want that new TV but I shouldn’t max out my credit card.”

Or it is “I want to,” versus “I don’t think I can” – “I want to ask that girl for a date but I’m pretty sure she won’t go out with me.”

You can take the seven deadly sins and re-write them in plot form (although some work better than others in our time)

Anger -“I’m so ticked off at my wife that I’m thinking of leaving her. I’ll miss the kids but it will teach her a lesson.”

Greed – I want all the money from my grandfather’s estate. Watch me scam my cousins out of their share.”

Sloth – “Why should I take  the trash out when I’m so comfy watching the football game?”

Pride – “I love my new job as sales manager. I’m going to show those salesmen just who’s boss.”

Lust -“He’s a hunk! How can I get him to notice me? Tight dress? Blonde highlights? Stall my car in front of his house?”

Envy – “I should have got that promotion. I deserve it! I’m going to set out to make my new boss’s life miserable.

Gluttony – “I’m going to run an oil pipeline through that pristine forest. It will make me rich.”

Al of these set up clashes and conflicts from which stories  can be built. The imagination takes over and you’ve got ideas aplenty. You’re a writer!

Conventional wisdom

It’s not the most catchy title, but it’s what I want to warn you against.

In real life, listening to conventional wisdom is often a good strategy. In fiction, not so much. In fiction having a character follow conventional wisdom makes the action predictable and too ‘safe’ to be very interesting.

Let’s say the antagonist hits your protagonist. Conventional response? Hit back. If you want a conventional fight scene you’re in clover – it’s right there waiting to happen. For some stories, that’s perfectly fine.

But you have the opportunity to take this initial action (and yes, you’ve planted it there yourself, so you have some purpose in mind) and make the reaction fit your overall purpose more precisely.

How else could the reaction work? Passive aggression maybe?

“No supper for you tonight.”

“I’m leaving home.”

“I’m going back to mother.”

A storm of tears, maybe? This provokes pity from someone – a neighbor, a friend, the hitter. And this person did what? Called the police? (Conventional wisdom) Got embroiled in a fight? Ask yourself – what could they do that is more off the wall?

Could they throw a pan of cold (or scalding hot) water on the hitter? Sic a rottweiler on him? Booby trap his car? Anything but the conventional.

The initial reaction could be one of superiority,

“I always knew you were a brute and now you’ve proved it!”

“You’re drunk. Get out of my house!”

It could be one man hitting another and the reaction could be triumphant,

“Now I’ve got you. I’ll see you in court.”

What if the hitter broke his hand?

What if it was a woman hitting a man? How might he respond?

Once you’ve got a definite action, take a moment to review all the possible ways that the reaction could occur. Yes, the response has to match the character as you’ve created it, but this response also builds the character further. It can cement him in place or take him off into a different and perhaps surprising dimension.

These moments of thinking ‘outside the box’ at decision points are what lift a story out of the run-of-the-mill and give it life. These decisions are what make your writing voice unique.

Following conventional wisdom will give you a conventional story. Is that what you want?

Notes on Conflict

A STORY ONLY MOVES THROUGH CONFLICT

Start with an inciting incident – this can be an arrival, news, a birth or death, a change of job, relocation. It can be anything that throws the characters in the story off balance and forces them to react in a world or a situation that is unfamiliar to them.

The main character must overcome trials and difficulties to reach his goals or in spite of his goals. Perhaps his long term goals conflict with his short term goals. Perhaps his goals conflict with someone else’s goals – someone he loves.

Your main character (protagonist) needs an antagonist, an enemy of some sort. This antagonist needs to be strong, very strong. If the conflict is easy there’s very little interest. The antagonist can be a person, not necessarily a bed person but someone who is working hard towards very different goals.

The antagonist can be impersonal – a mighty river that must be crossed, a high mountain, illness, unforeseen circumstances. but they are BIG problems, issues or dilemmas. The outcome is very much in doubt. Things looking very black. Character is only as good as his antagonist makes him

The protagonist will face some losses – try three times before he gets the measure of success you are willing to give him.

Try not to pit good against evil, life is seldom that simple. Instead think about good vs good, goals vs goals

Show the emotion, the struggles and the personal growth of your protagonist. Let the antagonist bring out the best and the worst in him as he struggles towards a positive (well at least partly positive) conclusion.

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