Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Importance of Conflict

Like many of my peers, I seem to write in fits and spurts. Some scenes and chapters flow easily in a matter of hours. Others, I seem to spend—literally—days noodling with a mere one hundred words  … which was the case recently when I got so close to deleting the whole darn manuscript. Yes–it was that frustrating!

Fortunately, help was at hand in the guise of one of my favorite craft guru's—sadly long-gone from this world—Sol Saks. Primarily a comedy writer, Sol is best remembered as being the creator of "Bewitched."

This is what he says, “When a scene isn’t working, when the writing isn’t coming and the words don’t flow, blame yourself last. Step back and examine it. It is usually because you don’t have the proper ingredients, and almost always the missing ingredient is conflict.”

And in my case, how right he was! The moment I identified the problem and threw in some conflict, those one hundred words stretched into five hundred and that scene worked—in fact, it sparked a plot twist.

Conflict is what makes life interesting. Without conflict, there is no real story. Stories are about experiencing emotions and conflicts raise questions and raise the stakes—especially in crime fiction.

Why are sitcoms and daytime dramas so popular? I can tell you why … most of the scenes focus on an argument of some kind! 

I work "remotely" from my new home in Portland, now. You’d think I’d be happy being alone, picking my "paid work" hours and writing whenever I felt like it. But I'm not. I miss the drama of the crazy advertising environment I inhabited for fifteen years in Los Angeles. I miss the eccentric characters that make the shenanigans in Don Draper's world of Mad Men seem tame by comparison. Although that job was stressful, it made my days interesting because I'm a writer and the environment was filled with conflict and drama (rarely my own, luckily!)

So how do we incorporate conflict in our writing?
Don’t take it easy on your characters. Your main character should face a variety of conflicts that prevent him or her getting what they want.
Make them suffer and bleed! Make your characters disagree with each other. If you are stuck, pick two characters and throw in a volatile question—even one unrelated to the book you are writing—and watch them fight it out. See how they handle it. Always ask, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?"

In childhood we’re often told that we must get along with everyone and make nice. Try getting in touch with your own anger and issues and allow your characters to be your spokespersons.
Conflict comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are my top six.
  1. Character vs self  (Internal): “He was immobilized by conflict and indecision.”
  2. Character vs character: “A conflict of loyalties” or “a conflict of interest made him ineligible for the post”
  3. Character vs society (Conflicts in the world of your character)
  4. Character vs. Nature (Twister, Inferno, Earthquake)
  5. Character vs Machine/Technology (Computer dysfunctions, car trouble)
  6. Character vs. Destiny or Fate

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post with a most excellent point. I will bear it in mind in the future!