What I'm reading: The Prairie Grass Murders by Patricia Stoltey
On Saturday, I went to our RWA chapter meeting, where Betina Krahn was our speaker. Her topic was conflict, and I thought I'd share my notes.
She began by giving us the three most common reasons a writer gets stuck.
1. The characters aren't developed enough.
(I can relate to this one, as my detective more or less hijacked my WIP, and I need to know a lot more about him, so I know how he'll respond in any situation I throw at him.)
2. The scene is in the wrong Point of View.
The character has to have something to lose or gain in the scene. Or maybe you have to reveal some critical point, and you're in the wrong head to do it.
3. Lack of Conflict.
All fiction revolves around conflict. Without conflict, there isn't a story (well, maybe some "literary" fiction exceptions, but we're talking commercial fiction for the most part). Conflict doesn't have to be physical, 'head butting' confrontation.
So, where does conflict come from? It's an imbalance, especially of power. (Again, power doesn't mean muscle). Sooner or later, those powers will be used, and the differential will come into play.
You can have a conflict of interests, intentions, principles, or beliefs. To overcome these, there will be battles and resistance. The opposition of incompatible wishes or expectations can drive the level of conflict higher. Again, it doesn't have to be a physical confrontation. He wants to go to the mountains; she wants to go to a spa. He expects her to do the housework; she would rather fix his car.
The clash between protagonist and antagonist produces tension on many levels. This produces uncertainty in the reader, which leads to the excitement of wanting to keep reading. And that's crucial. The reader MUST want to see how things resolve, and they have to want this from page one.
This, of course, makes fiction very subjective. What one reader finds compelling, another may find boring.
Krahn also pointed out that just like plots and characters, conflicts must also have arcs throughout the story. Characters will have conflicts with other characters as well as themselves. These arcs can be interwoven. They must also be resolved by the end of the book. If not, the book will become too predictable, and you want to keep surprising the reader.
What kinds of conflict can you consider? Krahn listed a number of them:
Character vs. Nature (fire, flood, hurricane)
Character vs. Character
Character vs. Idea
Character vs. Social/Political System
Character vs. Event (war, famine, financial collapse)
Character vs. Loss (mate, child, marriage, job, dreams)
Character vs. Fate
There are internal and external conflicts. Your character might have a, "I don't know whether to hug him or slap him" moment.
Conflict can be subtle as a whisper, or blatant as an ax blade. One character says to another, "Oh, now that blouse isn't tight at all."
Krahn suggested we work to tease out the conflict "diamonds" hidden in our ideas.
The true conflicts lie below the obvious one. Her example likened the external conflict to something in the trunk of a tree, while the internal conflicts could be found in the roots. Her example:
The basic conflict, often found in books: "Marriage Phobia." The character does not want to get married. But the author must dig down into the roots to look for reasons. "Why" is the critical question.
Is it a fear of failure? His parents divorced, and he doesn't want to risk having the same thing happen? Or the fear of loss of control? If he lets someone else into his life, it's no longer his own. Are there family secrets he would have to reveal? Is he afraid he might be making the wrong choice, and that there's someone better out there?
Before you can solve the problem in the tree trunk, you have to resolve the ones in the roots.
Krahn also pointed out something we've heard before. A misunderstanding that could be resolved with a nice chat is not enough conflict to carry a book.
She then shared numerous examples of first pages that created the "I want to know" feeling in the readers. You don't want to tell the reader what's going on. You want the reader to figure it out. In Krahn's words, the reader likes to feel smart. She suggested walking into the bookstore, taking a stack of books over to a comfortable chair, and reading the first page. Were you dragged in? If so, why? If not, why not?
Tomorrow – a trip to New Zealand! Join author Jane Beckenham as she takes us on a tour of her homeland.