Stories thrive on conflict. There’s conflict at the core of any novel, whether it’s immediately apparent on not. Naturally, with the structure of conflict, we expect to find a protagonist and an antagonist, the typical dichotomy of opposing forces. However, haven’t we all read stories and novels that we enjoy where there is no obvious antagonist, no dark lord, no cruel mastermind? How can we explain the success of these tales if conflict is the core of a good tale?
Conflict is the soul of drama.
I’m certain you’ve heard the phrase before bandied around. We’ve talked about it a plenty before and it is elementally true. There is no dramatic tension without conflict. However, to be one-hundred percent accurate, there should be a clarification to that phrase. It takes more than raw conflict to make drama; it takes meaningful conflict. No one cares about a story wherein the main conflict is what the protagonist wants to eat for lunch (unless that choice will having unexpected consequences!). Pastrami vs. tuna salad is not the meaningful conflict of the ages.
Right, so the 2015 Hugos happened. I was considering writing an article in greater specificity about what happened there, but there are far better sources of information out there than I. Still the whole kerfluffle set my mind to musing which led to this article that wot is here now.
Variety is the spice of life, right? It’s a hackneyed phrase, but it really is true. If we continue in a rut or move through a continual unchanging cycle, life gets boring. I don’t think that’s really something that can be debated, at least seriously. The same thing connects into art and creativity.
Yes, you can create the same things continuously, using the same ideas you always have, but there are only so many configurations you can put those blocks into. You might think this statement conflicts with some of my other articles about the core conflicts and the total number of plot lines out there and the like, but, as I also said in those articles, the way to innovate those core conflicts and plots is with new twists and new interpretations. In other words, new ideas. Variety.
How do we find this variety in thought and experience? We include. We welcome new points of view, new people, and new cultures. This really heralds back to the terrors of the echo chamber. Our creativity stagnates if all we listen to, all we read, all we experience comes from those with our same backgrounds and our same ideas. To expand our creative bounds means stepping outside of our cultural bounds, to seek to understand the ‘other’.
So, if you don’t include others, don’t try to grasp the important of understanding, and never step outside of your comfort zone, expect your creativity to stifle and your writing to wilt. We won’t even talk about the social and emotional complications. The world is moving forward, slowly and lurchingly, to a state of equality and understanding. I’d reserve yourself a ticket if you haven’t already.
Hey folks! So, the most recent chapter I had to write included a massive action scene, involving a large number of characters in an extended fight scene. The big thing is there really was only one or two major characters whose actions and fates were vital to the conclusion of the plot. I sat back and took an hour to ponder the best way to go about this and I came to the epiphany that this was much like writing about a character in a war.
I know it sounds crazy but writing about one character’s fate in a war is much like writing about a person in a disaster when the primary conflict is not man vs. nature. The disaster is not quite the focus of the situation but at the same time constantly effects the actions of the character. In essence, a war or major conflict acts in much the same way: a continual background radiation that permeates the scene, no matter the focus.
So when you write this focused scene, you concentrate on what is in front of the character’s face. This giant conflict raging around becomes your background. It must be described and it must make its impact on the scene as anything given narrative time must, but the only parts of that background that should eat up your direct writing real estate should be the enemies and conditions in the character’s personal sphere.
In this way, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can have the gravitas of the conflict but only deal with the slices of it that you actually need to. It prevents the huge battle or big fight from overwhelming the important plot points you need to convey in the scene. The important thing is to keep your camera locked on that main character, just don’t be afraid to pull out your focus to get a glimpse of the bigger picture from time to time before focusing back in on what is vital!
Until next time, good luck and good writing!
Wow. Between the constant demands of being a Starving Author AND a Starving Reviewer, I’ve had so little time to just … write an article. Well, I throw off the shackles of responsibility and, despite the fact I really should read my next book/write a review/write a chapter/edit a chapter/promote a book/do my laundry (pick your favorite three!), I am going to instead write a new chapter in Plot and Motivation!
In the past, we’ve talked about such tropes as the Invincible Hero and the Ace, archetypes that are, usually, invincible in traditional physical conflict. Now, this is all fine, there are usually other approaches to add dramatic tension outside of the realm of action and direct combat and such. However, what if you’re writing in the action genre OR a genre that relies on action/competition/conflict as the core plot element? Well, again, easy answer, don’t use such overpowering archetypes or find a way to deconstruct the tropes.
AH-HA! We’re not done yet!
What if you don’t have a choice about the character for some reason? Or what if the constraints of the plot demand victory for the heroes? For example, in a fantasy world, many conflicts could very well be life or death. Defeat isn’t an option. Or in a sports novel if there is a tournament the protagonists must win for the plot but there isn’t a losers bracket by the rules of the game? There are situations where you can’t let the protagonists lose but you’re afraid of steering too far off the realm of believability into breaking your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Well, the first and simplest solution is to simply make every conflict a challenge. Heroes that don’t lose don’t have to be Invincible. If you can capture the struggle, the risk, the difficulty of every encounter, you can still harness the dramatic tension needed to entice the reader but still not throw your plot off-line with strange explanations as to why things differ This One Time. If you set rules or a tone for your world, it is important to keep with it. Easier to make things very hard than to provide conspicuously out-of-place reasons.
A second closely related solution is to ensure every victory has a cost. With some scenarios, this is simple. Anything involving direct physical struggle or potentially dangerous situations is easy: injuries and wounds don’t magically disappear and even the best fighter is not untouchable. In any physical activity, even non-contact sports, injuries can happen and fatigue can be a crucial factor. Having to perform at one’s peak day after day in a hard physical activity is impossible, eventually wear and tear sets in. Frankly, any extended effort, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, is taxing and should be presented as so. In team situations, with multiple protagonists, the cost may be in lost teammates or defeated allies. Even material costs are possible with tools, money, equipment, and ammunition as all things that can go away to make each step a bit more challenging.
A third idea, last on my short list, is to break the rules. Yes, I know I said that it is important to keep world rules in place but, even in our own hard-set reality, exceptions and unforeseen events happen and rules we consider iron-clad by Mother Nature sometimes seem to be meaningless. If you DO feel the need to take this route, it is important to point out that fact, that what just happened defied all expectations/laws of nature/rules of magic/etc., and then try to ensure it doesn’t happen again! Rare once-in-a-lifetime events happen. It becomes trite when that once-in-a-lifetime event happens twice.
While this kind of situation might seem rare, in some genres it comes up more than others. Having to struggle with it myself in my latest writings, I had to think long and hard about it so I felt it fitting to share with others out there who may wind up dealing with the same issues in their own works.
If you have any comments or input, feel free to let me know! Until next time, good luck and good writing!
It’s time, as I anxiously wait down the hours to the end of the Kickstarter (yes, the plug! IT IS SHAMELESS!), to start a new segment of articles (and to some day properly categorize all of them) with Writing is a Bad Habit, a general series of articles on good and bad writing habits. I figured I would kick things off with one of the big cardinal rules of good writing: ‘Show, Don’t Tell!’.
On the surface, the meaning of that rule isn’t entirely apparent. In essence, we are story-tellers, so isn’t everything we do telling? How do you ‘show, not tell’ with the written word? A lot of pictures? Obviously not, something that most, if not all of you, probably already know. What the phrase means to an author is that it is better to ‘show’ characterization and plot through action and reaction instead of directly ‘telling’ the reader about it. This particular rule crosses over into countless bad writing tropes, such as Informed Ability and Designated Hero/Villains and the like, but for tonight, we’ll stick with the basics.
Think about it from the reader’s perspective and take a very glaring example. If you’re about to go into, let’s say, the major climax scene of the book, the ultimate resolution of that book’s conflicts, would you, at that point, cut to a third party observer in the room, who then narrates to the reader the scene he sees? No, obviously not, you would want to go through that scene from the point of view of the protagonists, to provide the proper emotional investment. Even worse, would you then cut to AFTER the end of the action, and have the protagonist describe the event while filing a report or dictating to his/her assistant or writing about it in his/her journal? Again, obviously not, but these extreme examples serve to showcase how this kind of activity can hurt your novel.
Let’s take something more subtle and a much more common misstep. Let’s say the protagonist has a very bad temper and you want to make sure the reader knows this, as that bit of characterization is vital to your plot. To absolutely make sure they don’t miss it, you create a scene where two associates of the protagonist begin to talk about him/her and one of them makes note of his/her hair-trigger temper. You have now just broken the ‘Show, Not Tell’ rule and almost certainly lessened the interest of the reader. The reader isn’t an idiot and most readers do not appreciate being treated as one and hand-held through every bit of characterization.
Now if instead you depict a scene with the protagonist at work and he/she crashes into a co-worker while trying to deliver a report. It was an honest accident on both sides, but the protagonist starts yelling and cursing, flustered with rage. Any reasonable reader would then instantly infer the protagonist has an awful temper for flying into a fit at such a minor and innocent incident. That is ‘showing’, not ‘telling’.
Now, there may be times when you feel that you have no choice and, perhaps, you may be right. Even the best of writers has to sometimes do a short info dump or a quick explanation handed out here and there … it’s better to have your readers able to follow your work than to be totally lost. However, you should make every reasonable attempt to avoid it. The more you have to ‘tell’, the more of a disconnect you will suffer with your readers.
The best way to avoid this bad habit is simple practice and patience. Re-reading and editing can also help spot areas where you may delve into being too ‘tell-y’, allowing you to rewrite those sections before they become published or distributed. Never hesitate to rewrite a scene multiple times if you have to. You won’t regret the extra time invested to increase the quality of your work.
What experiences have you had with the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule? Have you ever had to skirt around it and do you feel it was vital, or have you since regretted not finding another way around it? What are acceptable breaks from this rule? Talk about it in the comments section.