Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cause All The Problems You Want - The Role of Conflict in Writing

I'm not really comfortable with conflict.  I doubt many of us are.  Well, there are those that seem to get off on it, but frankly, I try to avoid those kinds of people.  In general, I'd say that most people would rather avoid or resolve conflict quickly in order to avoid the consequences that will certainly follow.

And if you do this with your novel, you'll be dead in the water.

I did this.  In fact, I wrote 17 chapters of a nice, neat little life where my characters did what I would have, and what I would have wanted any of my friends or family to do.  They made intelligent, logical choices.  And it was terrible.

Have you ever wondered about a book and thought, "If the character had just told someone what he knew, if all of those terrible things could have been avoided?"  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix many of the problems were caused by Harry not speaking up.  If he had, maybe the terrible consequences of his actions (or inactions) would never have happened.  I would think to myself, "When I raise my kids, I'm going to make sure they talk to their teacher, myself, other adults they trust, so that they won't run into all of these problems and issues."

Good advice for a pre-teen.  Horrible advice for an author.  Because what has readers turning the pages is this nagging thought:  "How is [insert character] going to get themselves out of this one?"  Readers will lose sleep over this.  They'll take your book, either in hard copy or e-reader, and stuff it into their bag to take with them where ever they have to go.  They'll snatch opportunities to read on the bus, at red lights, while getting gas, on breaks, in the bathroom, or at 3am when they have to get up for work at six - where ever they can because they need to find out the answer to that incessantly nagging question.  (I'll admit, I've done every one of the things mentioned.  I had to know!)

And that's what you're looking to accomplish.  You need to convince any agent or editor you pitch that your book will reach out, grab readers and hook them.  The assumption, then, is that they'll tell their friends, who will also buy your book, react similarly, and so on and so forth.  The publisher makes money, your story hits the best-seller list and you, your agent (if you have one), and your publisher are ecstatic.

So, what about my nice, happy little 17 chapter manuscript?  Gone.  Poof!  Start over.  I do have to admit, I didn't figure this out all on my own.  The thing that woke me up was a great little book called The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham.  I say little, because it's only 112 pages long, but there is tons of valuable information between the covers.  I recommend that if you're interested in this book you should buy it so you can underline, highlight, draw arrows and scribble things in the margins.

At risk of sounding like an advertisement, I'll tell you anyway that in two and a half pages, Mr. Bickham showed me what I was doing wrong.  I had broken every single one of his rules about conflict and it showed in my writing.  Once I got over the glare from the lightbulb over my head, I started over, with conflict in mind, and suddenly, the plot took off.  After the hour drive home from the accountant last year, I made my husband drive up and down the local highway for an extra 45 minutes while I finished the basic story-line.  (Hey, I was on a role!)

My chapter outlines were robust and my plot and character arcs were meaningful.  Later in the year I got about half way through the new manuscript, and after some prompting from my wonderfully critical mother, added more conflict.  (Her name is Claudia.)  This brought more layers and depth to the story.

I'm on my final revision, nearly ready to query agents to represent me and my manuscript, and I'm working on still another layer, thanks to the feedback from my critique group, and you guessed it, dear old mom.

So, if you find yourself chickening out and avoiding things that will make your characters uncomfortable, I say, "GROW A SPINE!"  Living vicariously through your characters, you can be irresponsible, rude, obnoxious, ignorant, deliberately malevolent, and whatever else you can think of to cause conflict.  It's your chance to let your characters say all of those socially inappropriate things you read and hear about, but would never dream of doing yourself.  It's actually quite liberating.  And in the end, you'll have the reader needing to know, "How will she get out of this one?"

Good luck, and keep writing!

And, ps, if you pick up Jack Bickham's book, let me know what you think.  It's a fantastic place for a newbie to start.

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