Monday, July 13, 2009

It's All About Conflict

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.


Dara Edmondson said...

I really enjoyed that workshop. Thanks for the recap - Glad someone was taking good notes;-)

Terry Odell said...

Dara -- thank Katie who gave me extra paper! I had my notebook out, ready to go, and of course, it was right on the counter where I left it when I got home.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Sounds like that was an excellent workshop.

While I usually worry about not enough conflict in stories, I'm concerned my current project has too much. Including the sub-plots, my protagonist has four different conflict situations going on at the same time. One wonders if she should start popping

Patricia Stoltey said...

Oops -- forgot to mention I noticed what you're reading. Hope you enjoy it.

Terry Odell said...

Patricia, Betina addressed something very much like that when she talked about conflict arcs. So I think yes, your characters can have more than one ongoing conflict (don't we all), and they can be intertwined. Eventually, however, they have to be resolved, and I think it's more believable if they're not all solved at the same time.

Terry Odell said...

Yes, I did enjoy it. Very interesting characters.

Teresa Reasor said...

Conflict is the life's blood of a story. It wouldn't be as much fun writing or reading if there wasn't plenty in the stories we enjoy. (That's just my opinion.)
It sounds like a really good workshop.
Thanks so much for sharing your notes with us.
Teresa Reasor

Terry Odell said...

Right, Teresa. Much as we'd like our real lives to be smooth sailing, it's the conflict that makes us keep reading. And as writers, we've got to constantly ask ourselves "why" and "what if"

carl brookins said...

Hmm. nice looking blog, Terry.

Conflict comes in many forms. One of the reasons writers get stuck is because they get into conflict with their characters. They are trying to get a character to do or say something that is uncharacteristic, for that character

Terry Odell said...

Carl - I totally agree that if you don't know the character, you're going to be in big trouble.

Betina Krahn said...

Hi Terry,

It was a pleasure to meet and an honor to talk with all that attented last Saturday's CFRWA workshop. With your online outline of some of my shared secrets (It's All About Conflict) I won't have to save my notes to address that topic anywhere again. LOL. Seriously, it was enjoyable. I've already heard from Jessica Souders with the gratifying feedback "First, I wanted to send you a huge thank you for your talk on conflicts at the meeting on Saturday. It's already been a huge help. I've also already finished Make Me Yours and I loved it. I've talked my neighbor into reading it and my mother. I also plan on going straight to the book store and buying your previous books. I'm
usually a book snob and find it very hard to get into "new" authors.
Well new for me, anyway. So I just wanted to say thank you. Jessica Souders" Wishing You Love and Laughter ...

Terry Odell said...

Betina, thanks so much for dropping by. And lest anyone think I covered all the points -- WRONG! There was a lot more meat, and some excellent examples that aren't in the post.

And I'm glad you had a good time. The CFRW ladies are a great bunch.