Monday, August 16, 2010


What I’m reading: The Executor, by Jesse Kellerman


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If you’re writing, you’re told to put some kind of conflict on every page. These conflicts don’t have to be life-threatening, or even fear-inducing for your characters. Sometimes they can be ordinary. The important thing to remember is that the character must make a choice.

A simple, real-life example. Saturday afternoon, the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America had a summer pot-luck social. At the same time, our homeowners’ association had a summer pot-luck social. Given they happened at the same time, trying to attend both wasn’t an option. Conflict.

In choosing, your character should probably weigh the options, although there might be times when the tension level might be enhanced if he doesn’t have time, or follows a gut reaction without thinking it through.

In my case, I had the following considerations: Getting to meet neighbors (which, given the distance between homes here, isn’t like living in typical suburbia) or getting to mingle with writers, Both could have career options—letting people who live here know there’s a writer might spark interest in my books. Mingling with other writers means making more professional-level contacts. Other considerations. The homeowner’s meeting would be half a mile from my house, five minutes away. The writers’ group meeting was about 40 miles away. One way. The expense of gas and time—add two hours minimum for the round trip—had to be factored in.

The other night, on an episode of “The Closer” the police had been searching for a serial killer. The twist was that organs were missing from the victims, and the victims all were suspected of being rapists. The police find their killer in the middle of performing a heart transplant in his inner-city clinic. (We’ll overlook the dramatic license with the credibility of a doctor performing this procedure single-handed. Then again, he wasn’t worried about saving the life of his “donor”—his goal was to harvest the heart.

So, the cops show up and want to arrest him. Should be simple. However, the previous scene was in a hospital, where a young child who had been on the waiting list for a new heart for some time was being prepped for surgery. The cops spoke to her parents who said they’d just about given up hope, when they’d gotten a call that someone had specifically donated a heart for their daughter. Without it, she was certain to die.

This creates a choice the cops have to make. Do they stop the surgery, saving the life of the possible rapist on the table? If they arrest the doctor before he finishes his surgery, the child dies. If they wait, but follow the law, the heart becomes evidence and can’t possible be given to the child. Again, she dies.

For the cops, it becomes a matter of letter of the law versus a humanitarian decision. An easy decision. Of course not—the drama would fly out the window.

Deb Dixon says you should give your characters choices, but they should be of the “sucks” and “suckier” variety. Or try giving them what they want—and see what happens when the consequences aren’t what they expect. Throwing in significant consequences will definitely make the reader want to keep reading, but even the little choices give depth to your characters and your story.

Tomorrow, my guest is author J.L. Wilson. She's going to be talking about what makes a "Good Book." Come back and join the discussion.


Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I love complicated believable choices in fiction. Afraid that Closer would have ticked me off and not enjoyably either.
Looking forward to JL Wilson.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

On Wednesday at our Author Expressions blog, I will be interviewing Pam Nowak, award-winning author of CHOICES and CHANCES. Again, you and I seem to be on the same wave length!

SherryGLoag said...

Great post Terry, thanks for sharing. Sometimes I get bogged down with conflict and don't consider just what you've said.

Terry Odell said...

Mary - that episode of The Closer was definitely one that triggered an emotional reaction.

Jacqueline - thanks for stopping by.

Sherry - glad to be of some help.

Autumn Jordon said...

Okay, Terry, I nned to know two things. One what did the cops do, since I didn't see this program, and two, what choice did you make?

Great post. I think we stump ourselves thinking big when it's the little things that set out characters and story apart.

Anonymous said...

I use lots of internal and external conflict. But along the way there has to be resolution and closure. Some conflict will survive all the way through the story, but I think there needs to be milestones characters achieve along the way that help them grow and rise to the occassion of resolving the final and ultimate conflict.

Stephen Tremp

Anonymous said...

OMG, that picture of the stop sign is priceless.

Thanks for the post.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm with Autumn Jordan. Tell us, please. I'm going to remember what you said about consequences. It's something I can definitely work with.

Terry Odell said...

Autumn, Carol - Cops let the doctor harvest the heart and perform the surgery on the child (if they hadn't I don't think anyone would have watched the show the next week--you're not supposed to harm children or pets in genre fiction, and I think it carries over to series TV)

As for me, I went to the writer's group meeting.

Terry Odell said...

Stephen - I think that's smart, or you have a one-trick-pony story. And I don't think ALL the choices have to be made and wrapped up at the end of the book. Definitely the ones that impact the plot, but if your character is going to come back, it's nice to follow the growth.

Lyn - I've been at very similar intersections!

Carol Kilgore said...

I thought it probably went that way with the TV show, but I could see it going the opposite way as well. Tough, tough choice. I'm sure I would've opted for the closer event. Thanks for responding.

Autumn Jordon said...

Definitely a tough choice but I agree it had to end that way. Of course the doctor got a star for effort.

I had a tough choice too on Saturday and also went to the chapter meeting. Great minds...

Annabelle Ambrosio said...

Interesting post. I think conflict in daily life becomes so commonplace that we no longer notice it. Thanks for the post.

Leigh D'Ansey said...

Thanks, Terry, for another interesting post. I'm presently working on building the conflict in my WIP. Sometimes I tend to be too intense and want HUGE conflict, when often it's more interesting to underplay with a subtle action or piece of dialogue.

Mary Ricksen said...

someone once said to take them from one crisis to another. But then I had an editor tell me there was too many things going on, I should spend more time on one crisis. Hmmmmmm...

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for all the comments -- we had an Internet outage, so I've been absent from cyberspace.

Jemi - consequences are everything. That might be an upcoming post.

Autumn, chapter meetings are inspiring! Good choice, I think.

Annabelle- writing is all about taking the 'for granted' stuff and dealing with it on the page if we can create tension.

Leigh - good luck with the WIP - remember Donald Maass's microtension workshop which I summarized here a while back.

Mary - I tend to give editors more credence. We were watching African Queen last week--talk about ramping up the conflicts. But there does have to be some down time.

Mimi Barbour said...

I liked the subject you chose to write about because it's something I'm always trying to work through in my stories. I first think of a conflict, then I think of a happy resolution - then I do the exact opposite.
Soothes the ornary side in my personality I guess...but, I must admit, it's during these times that my fingers really fly over the keys.

Terry Odell said...

Mimi, those finger-flying moments are the best!