Thursday, February 25, 2010
Conflict! with Cara Lynn James
If you forget the C (conflict) in your story’s GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) then you have one boring story. Even more to the point, it’ll never get published. It might put you (and your potential editor) to sleep, and that’s definitely not your G if you’re a writer.
Conflict is sometimes difficult for writers to develop since we love our characters and want to protect them from every kind of harm, both physical and emotional. We yearn for them to live happily ever after. But I’m afraid we have to torture them first—or at least test them by throwing obstacles in their path on their road to ultimate success and happiness. We don’t want our babies to suffer any more than we want our real children to suffer. BUT, as authors we have no choice.
So we develop external and internal conflicts which block our characters success. But sometimes we run into our own problems as we try to challenge our story people.
You have to settle on one Central Conflict. Develop your plot around this one external conflict and don’t add other competing conflicts. I used to toss several major conflicts thinking they were just subplots. But then I had too many hot potatoes in the air and I always dropped a few of them which left a mess to clean up. Often it seemed easier to move on to something new. So watch for too many important story lines in one book.
Lots of complications can and should arise because of the central conflict. When I start a new manuscript I list the central conflict and then add as many complications as I can think up. This shows me if my plot is too thin or if it’ll end on page 100 instead of page 300. You can deal with these minor problems as the story builds. Every complication should relate to the central plot and in some way move the story forward.
Remember the central conflict normally starts in the first chapter and ends in the last chapter. It’s resolved at the climax of the story, not sooner. It should answer your story question.
Without one central conflict another problem might pop up—Serial Conflicts. These are a string of episodes within the story which don’t advance the story or move the protagonist in a particular direction. Think the Perils of Pauline. Lots of action, but the plot isn’t going anywhere. They don’t force your hero or heroine to grow and develop.
Think through these episodes and make the problems part of the larger, central conflict. Use them to challenge the protagonist to grow and change. You don’t want your reader to say, “Huh? What was the point of that?”
Sometimes we have Too Much Conflict. This happens when you add too much inappropriate external conflict. You might want to add tension (a good thing), but don’t throw in the wrong kind for your particular story. For example, if you add a terrorist bomber or a serial killer to your sweet romance a reader could, and probably would, find this jarring. And your publisher would question it, as well! Definitely add some more conflict where you need it, just make it appropriate to the type if book you’re writing.
So don’t plug in any old conflict without deciding whether it advances the plot.
I like to plot and I find that I need to plan many of my conflicts before I start to write or else I get lost. There’s always room for my muse to tap me on the shoulder and redirect my efforts.
Do any of you have problems with these plotting pitfalls? If so, how do you solve them?