Monday, March 1, 2010

Conflict: The DNA of Fiction

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April M. is the winner of last week's giveaway--Seeing Things by Patti Hill. Please contact Patti with your snail mail address through the "contact" button. Congratulations, April!

I hate conflict, hate being at odds with anyone. I do what I can to avoid it, and if a rift in relationship comes between me and another person, I do what I can to correct it. My younger sister, reflecting on our teen years, might argue the point. All I can say is, "Sorry, Janet."
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But my aversion to conflict applies only to real life. When it comes to fiction, all bets are off, for conflict is the DNA of fiction. To quote James Scott Bell, "A plot is two dogs and one bone." Plenty of room for conflict there.
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When I first began writing I shied away from this hugely important factor. I liked my protagonists, and since I had it in my power, I wanted to make their lives as easy and pleasant as possible. Or, if conflict came their way, I made sure they suffered in silence, with dignity. All that equaled one thing: B-O-R-I-N-G.
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In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says, "Inexperienced writers ... often try to write novels with a relatively passive protagonist who wants little." But "the essence of dramatic conflict lies in the clash of wants ... The essence of plotting [is] putting the protagonist's desire and the antagonist's desire into sharp conflict." Figure out what "would most thwart your protagonist's want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist." That's a perfect recipe for conflict.
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It may not be in our nature to heap trouble on our helpless heroines, but think about what you're currently reading -- or writing. Take away the conflict and what are you left with? A deflated, lifeless thing that's not worth exploring. The truth is, without conflict we have no story. Ayn Rand says simply, "The essence of plot structure is: struggle -- therefore, conflict -- therefore, climax (The Art of Fiction). There's a lot of talk about essence in those several quotes, which we can also define as DNA. But both words refer to conflict as the critical element to good fiction.
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As novelists we must give ourselves permission to be mean. American screenwriter, Syd Field, is attributed with this advice: "Get your protagonist up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Then get him down." But throwing rocks can be our stumbling stone. It just isn't in us to be that mean. Fine. Disassociate yourself if you must from the one throwing rocks. Commiserate with your protagonist. Tell her how awful you think that rock thrower is. Just get the job done. Then avoid mirrors for a day or two.
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Here are some important things to remember about conflict:
  1. Conflict can be external or internal. Conflict doesn't just come from one character opposing another. It can arise from a force of nature, from war, from illness, from prejudice. Those are all external sources of conflict. But it can be internal as well, where a character is in opposition to himself.
  2. Conflict should be in every scene. Conflict isn't one issue that's dealt with in a plot. If conflict is the DNA of your story, you'll find it everywhere. It must be in every scene, in every passage of dialogue, to a degree appropriate to the scene.
  3. Conflict should intensify as your story unfolds. In Between the Lines, Jessica Page Morrell says, "Well-written fiction includes ever-growing dilemma, adversities, and pressure as the story progresses (emphasis mine). The conflict should build with the rising action until it reaches the boiling point. Like a set of stairs, it should be ever climbing till it reaches the top, or climax.
  4. Conflict should be equal to the story. The conflict in a romance is going to be quite different from the conflict in a fast-paced thriller.
  5. Conflict must matter to your reader. Back to the "clash of wants" that Sol Stein wrote about. He adds this important piece of advice. "You need to be certain that the conflicting wants are ... over something that the reader will view as important." If the stakes aren't high enough, readers aren't going to care.

There's a tremendous payoff when conflict is handled correctly. "A reader who feels anticipation, excitement, interest, or compassion is a reader who is not going to walk away from the novel till the entire story is told" (Elizabeth George in Write Away). And isn't that what we want in our fiction, as both writer and reader?

9 comments:

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

Printing this. Thank you. BTW, I loved Write Away.
~ Wendy

Jan Cline said...

Ooooooh Im printing this one too! I so needed this one right now.
Thanks so much.

Patti Hill said...

I was such a ninny starting my first novel. My protagonist lived on EASY STREET. It took a year of tweaking the plot line to get that girl in the mud so I could through rocks at her. Poor Mibby, that girl took a lot of abuse. I still have to curb my tendency to be too nice. In my latest novel, I blinded the protagonist and then I broke her ankle. Honestly, Social Services should be after me.

Thanks for the great post,Sharon. This is will be a best-of for sure.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I definitely avoid conflict at all costs in real life. But I learned the hard way that it has to be in my stories. It made a huge difference. Now I look for ways to spice things up.

Kind of reminds me of Rene Gutteridge's "My Life as a Doormat" where the writer tries to write a play without conflict. It's brilliant until it's boring and the MC has to learn to deal with conflict.

Laura Davis said...

Your timing is perfect! I was just wondering if I had enough conflict in my current story. I am like you Sharon, I avoid conflict in real life whenever possible and it does tend to carry over into my writing. I have to watch that. Hmm...I wonder if it is worse for us "polite" Canadian Writers, with our frequent use of the word "sorry". lol!

Latayne C Scott said...

Me too! Me three! Me four! This was so timely -- I needed to turn up the burner on my hapless protagonist. Dearest Sharon --thank you so much!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Sorry if I've been too quiet today. I've been working on a tough scene in my WIP. Think I got it.

I appreciate all your comments. This was one of those posts I thought might fall flat. I'm glad to know I've struck a chord with several of you. It's a reminder to myself as well, the need for conflict throughout the story. I see this as a car jack, that you continue to ratchet up till you can't get it any higher. This from a woman who's never changed a tire in her life.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I have my protagonist down in the ditch as we speak. Aiming a rock... ;p

Sharon K. Souza said...

Debbie, you rock!!