Friday, January 7, 2011

Writing: It's All In The Conflict


When it comes to writing, confict is the key. It's the number one problem I've seen with the contest entries I've judged. Conflict is not arguing, bickering or fighting. I'm talking about floods, deaths, commitments, fears, love,or ambition that you put your character through. The list goes on. Without conflict life might be easier, but it certainly wouldn't be as interesting.

Obviously, conflict motivates your characters as well. They have to have a plan of action but then something gets in their way. Give your characters strong goals to work on through the book. An author just can't tell a story about this or that. Let's face it, we all can't be Seinfeld. But even on that show the characters are going to do something and then an event happened. The important part to remember is that life doesn't just happen. Head your characters in a direction and then throw a bucket of water at them.

There are three main types of conflict you can toss at your characters: circumstantial, personal and relationship conflict. Let's discuss each one:

1. CIRCUMSTANTIAL. What circumstances are your characters going to be involved in? Are you going to fling them into the path of a hurricane? Involve them in a car wreck? Maybe their circumstances are of a personal nature. Maybe a grandfather dies and leaves his granddaughter the family farm but not without conditions. Maybe your character wants to leave town but can't because someone is trying to stop him. These circumstances must disrupt the lives of your characters. It changes their course. It creates urgency to the situation. It keeps the book moving, and it is usually where the book begins. Something happens to change the life of your character and the conflict just continues.

2. PERSONAL. Who doesn't have personal problems? Your characters should too. You should know your characters inside and out - their actions, emotions, dreams, past experiences, fears, likes and dislikes. You might not use every detail in the book, but we are, after all, what we've experienced in our lives. You need to know what makes all of your characters tick, what motivates them, and what baggage they carry around that makes them who they are. You must figure out what it is that drives your characters. Fear, love, excitement, greed, or hate?

In most of the entries I've judged, the characters wander around letting whatever occurs to them be their life. How often does that happen in real life? Your characters have to have goals just like we do. For example: Your character has a big presentation at work. He needs to go to a meeting and persuade his clients to buy Brand X. If they sign with him, he will get a raise and he will be able to buy his parent's property out from under his conniving, greedy brother.

Great! Your character has goals - the presentation, getting to work on time, making the presentation, getting the raise, buying the house before his brother. It is then the author's job to put conflict in his way. For example: His boss forgot to tell him the meeting has been moved up to tomorrow morning. He spills milk all over the presentation and then the power goes out before he can reprint it. His annoying neighbor dropped her cell phone in the toilet so she comes over to borrow his, and he can't get rid of her. He goes out to his car and it has a flat. He steals a car to get to the meeting because nothing or no one is going to stop him from pinching his parent's property out from under his brother.

Whoa! Now you know just what kind of character you really have. See all that conflict? See all the situations your character will need to make decisions about? The choices they make will be affected by the character's beliefs, emotional state and past baggage. This is the bread and butter of writing. It is all of this conflict that will lead you down the road to your character's epiphany. Yes, I said epiphany. Yeah, I didn't know what it was at first either. When your character works through all the conflict, he will come to some sort of conclusion - an epiphany. In our story, the character will probably come to the conclusion that it was not worth killing his brother over.

The main conflict I see missing in the contest entries I've read is the personal conflict. In our example, it's what made the character so willing to steal in order to keep the property from his brother. It's that internal conflict you find going on within yourself over certain issues. Your character's need it too. Use all five, and even sixth, senses to let your character experience life.

3. RELATIONSHIP. Is there a person on this planet that doesn't have issues with at least one other person? Give your characters that kind of conflict as well. Whether it is a mean villain or the next-door neighbor, there is always going to be human conflict. In a romance there has to be a conflict of relationship between the hero and heroine that keeps them from getting together.

This type of conflict includes: different values, different ambitions, money, egos, mental issues, prejudices, etc. Here are some more specific examples: He's a cop and she's been accused of a crime. He's driven by loyalty to his family but she wants him to give up the family business to live in Paris as an artist. He's consumed with revenge against the Ewings and she's a Ewing.

Relationship conflict doesn't just happen in romances. It separates families, friends, business partners, and even countries.

So there you have it. Conflict. Those are pretty complicated webs your characters are weaving, but what a fantastic story it will be. Remember with each scene you write, you need to include at least one type of conflict that will advance the story along the plot line.

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