Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Complex Conflict

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When it comes to conflict, we writers err in one of two ways – we fail to inject our stories with conflict, or, we pile on so many problems the story becomes a confusing muddle.

I love Sharon’s Monday post. She reminds us the conflict isn’t always combat, and it isn’t even always big.

I read a fiction proposal recently that was so overstuffed with “insurmountable obstacles” I couldn’t figure out what the story was about. It seemed to be about everything.

In the excellent book The Anatomy of Story (recommended by one of our readers, thanks Becky!), John Truby tells the writer that you need a central conflict. This is what “your story is about at the most essential level.” He offers a breathtakingly simple method for getting a sense of the central conflict; “Ask yourself “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question in one succinct line.”

While answering this question won’t give you the whole picture of conflict in your story, it is the back bone and once you have answered it, you can ensure that the rest of the conflict you create ties back to this one, central issue. To reference Syd Field’s advice from Sharon’s post, knowing your central conflict will help you to know which rocks to throw at your protagonist that will, eventually, get her out of that tree.

You want to ensure the rocks you throw relate to the central conflict and, occasionally hit their target. Throw stones at the protagonists main goal or motivation, chuck some at her values, too. While you’re at it, have your other characters throw some stones at each other, making sure that their conflict plays into or effects the main character’s conflict in some way.

What is the point of all this conflict? Why is fiction driven by it? Because pressure on your protagonist will force him to change – and that is the key to fiction; demonstrating the human condition in flux. We believe in our ability to change ourselves (and often, in Christian fiction, God’s influence on changing us for the better). For better or worse, the human condition is morphing and we writers are running to capture the process with our words.

Surely all art is the result of having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

What about you? Are you picky about the rocks you throw at your protagonist? What are your thoughts about conflict in fiction? We’d love to hear from you.


Nicole said...

I think the genres often dictate the severity of "conflict" as I believe Sharon mentioned in her post.

I've read a few first novels that contained plots which seemed too ambitious, probably from taking this advice to the extreme. The stories were so conflicted they felt confusing at certain points, as you mentioned, and hard to follow. The second novels by these authors yielded more focused stories.

Like so many of "the rules" for writing fiction, even conflict must be managed. Life can be challenging emotionally and spiritually for many people without being pursued by gun-wielding criminals or bio-terrorists. I think the key to conflict is making it real within the story.

If the drama/conflict in a romance (for example) is high-schoolish in an adult story, it gets old fast.

I've never liked the "conflict in every scene" phrase because I think it's bogus. Some scenes require "rest" or "resolution" or description and direction before conflict is once again engaged. (JMO as always.)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

"and that is the key to fiction; demonstrating the human condition in flux." Excellent.

I throw rocks that hit her where she's already bruised...I know, unkind, but it makes her more vulnerable and her goal seemingly less attainable.
~ Wendy

Jennifer Lyn King said...

Thank you for passing along such a simple phrase as "Who fights who over what." This principle is so true for simplifying conflict, but sometimes writers become overwhelmed with too many writing rules / advice to follow. Thank you for passing along something sweet, simple, and easy to remember. Perfect for my writing mind.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, this is a great follow-up to the topic. I'm ordering Truby's book as we speak. Nicole, I love your last paragraph. You're right, some scenes require rest, but the conflict is still there beneath the surface.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nicole, you're absolutely right, there needs to be rests and resolutions interspersed through a novel's scenes. I find I like books where each scene is treated like a short story and the tensions and conflict rise and fall within the scenes, and they work together to race to a breathtaking ending. Good point, Nicole!

Wendy: Thanks! Isn't it funny how such nice people can turn into rock throwers??

Jennifer: I'm glad you liked that question. I like it too. It's directive without superimposing ideas onto your story. A good question to start building that backbone.

Sharon, I hope you'll enjoy The Anatomy of Story. I'm finding it a treasure! He speaks my language! I also would recommend the excellent book: The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield.

Unknown said...

Bonnie, I like your idea of creating a scene which functions as a short story. I'm trying to do that with each chapter of my WIP. I think doing that creates a sense of satisfaction in the reader, right?

Also -- WOOHOO and shoutout to one of our regular commenters, Rosslyn Elliot, for a new, three-book deal with Thomas Nelson!

Bonnie Grove said...

Rosslyn Elliot, for a new, three-book deal with Thomas Nelson!

WOW!! Fantastic!! Doing the happy dance with you, Rosslyn!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Great post, Bonnie! It always takes careful thought to figure out how much is too much.

And thanks for the shout-out, Latayne, and for your kind words, Bonnie. I know Novel Matters will be a helpful resource and sounding board as I work on these books!

Kathleen Popa said...

Rosslyn, I'm thrilled for you! Congratulations!

Bonnie and Sharon, thanks for these posts. They are timely.

The thing about throwing rocks at your character is that it makes the reader care about her. Some time back, Latayne mentioned a book - The Lovely Bones, I think - that she couldn't continue reading because the first chapter was so intense. My trouble is, once the character has my sympathy, I'll go through anything just to see her through. Once I care, I have to know what happens next.

I ordered Truby's book over a week ago and I'm starting to wish I'd asked for expedited shipping because it's taking forever to get here.