Monday, September 12, 2011
Conflict: What it is and What it Isn’t
I'm excited to have Shirley Jump in Seekerville today! Shirley and I have been friends and critiqued for almost fifteen years. Each time Shirley visits Seekerville she shares her wisdom on some aspect of craft or the business of writing. Today her topic is conflict. Conflict is story. So obviously we writers need to understand what it is and what it isn't.
Without further ado, here's Shirley!
All books have conflict. And ironically, it’s one of the things that writers struggle with over and over again. If you remember this: conflict is the events, things, people and emotional issues that stand in your character’s way, then it becomes easier to pinpoint the conflict in your story. Conflict is, at its essence, what prevents a character from achieving his or her goal, whether it’s because of their own fears or outside events.
WHAT CONFLICT IS NOT:
An Argument: Your characters can argue, of course, but good conflict is not a disagreement that can be solved with a few quick words. The last thing people want to read about is other people fighting for an entire book. If one character yells at another, they must have a STRONG and BELIEVABLE motivation for doing so. It’s not just fighting for fighting’s sake.
A Delay: Conflict is not a wait in traffic or an alarm clock going off. That doesn’t raise the stakes or increase the tension, unless the wait in traffic is caused by the killer who is after your hero and wants to corner him so he can shoot him in the head. The ordinary frustrations that fill our days are not conflict. They are simply frustrations, and they don’t increase the tension.
A Conversation that Needs to Be Had: That’s called a conversational conflict—meaning if the characters just talk for two minutes, they’ll clear things up. That can work for a scene or two but if you carry it on too long, your reader begins to wonder what is wrong with a character who can’t ask that question he’s dying to ask or that heroine who doesn’t just tell the hero the truth. If the characters are keeping information to themselves, they need to have a darn good reason—again, a believable motivation—and there must be a cost to keeping that information secret. Meaning, things must get worse with every minute they keep their mouths shut. There are consequences to the decisions your characters make.
WHAT CONFLICT IS:
Important to the Character: When something gets in your character’s way and stops them from reaching their goals, it must be important. A man who is cut off from civilization by a snowstorm would be annoyed if he was going to miss a meeting, but if the stakes were higher and the snowstorm keeps him from reaching his stranded child, then the conflict of being stuck becomes important. Then the reader cares and wants to see your hero figure a way out of that mess.
Issues That Stem From Character Pasts: The best conflict is created by the character’s themselves and their perceptions about the world. The woman who was abandoned as a child is going to have attachment issues, and thus, she won’t be able to get close to or trust the one person she needs to. Dig deep into your character’s lives and figure out what makes them tick, what they are afraid of, and what has shaped their personalities. Use that to create conflict tailored just to them.
Something that Forces Them to Change: We get out of the sun when it gets too hot. We put up an umbrella when the rain turns from mist to torrential downpour. People don’t change unless they are forced to, and conflict is that catalyst to change. They must face their deepest fears, and overcome their greatest challenges, in order to attain what they truly want.
It’s About Character: If you remember that conflict comes FROM your character, is what DRIVES and/or PARALYZES your character, then you create a book that stems from character, not from plot. Plot-driven books are mostly about external forces on a character, whereas character-driven books are mostly based on the internal workings of your character. In turn, that creates a more emotional read, which draws the reader in and makes your book not only more compelling but more memorable.
It’s Both Internal and External: That said, you want to be sure you have both internal (emotional) and external (physical) conflicts. A character’s fear of abandonment (internal) will affect how she reacts when she is left alone at the wheel of a runaway train (the external).
It is Opposition to the Character Goal: That opposition can, and should, come in many forms. Let’s do an example to show you what I mean:
In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett wants to save Tara. She will do whatever it takes to save the family farm. Emotionally, she is connected to Tara because it connects her to her father. However, the sudden death of her father has left her wounded and afraid to get close to anyone else. When the one man she thinks she loves marries another, her fear of abandonment is multiplied, which eventually makes her avoid getting too close to Rhett.
Internal conflict: fear of abandonment, fear of losing the world and home she loves, her “love” for Ashley
External conflict: Civil war, Rhett, society
In the best books, the internal and external conflicts are intertwined and impact each other. The Civil War takes away Scarlett’s world, and her home, and creates constant worries and stresses for her. Her fear of abandonment prevents her from getting close to the one man who truly loves and understands her—Rhett. And society’s judgment and choices for a woman in those days makes it extremely difficult for Scarlett to save Tara without a husband (which is why she marries Frank). Her love for Ashley prevents her from seeing Rhett as her true love, and Rhett’s abandonment of her at the end is her worst nightmare. However, by the end of the book, she has learned she is stronger than she thought, and this growth allows her to overcome the moment and rise again.
Here’s an excerpt from my latest release, THE PRINCESS TEST, that shows you how you can use the characters, the environment and the words the characters don’t say to show the conflict. A little setup—Daniel, the hero, is a reporter who doubts Carrie is truly a princess. He’s at the library with his little girl when he runs into Carrie:
>> The little girl with Daniel stared up at Carrie, her blue eyes wide and curious. “You’re a princess? A real one?”
Carrie bent down slightly. “I am.”
The little girl’s mouth opened into a tiny O. “Wow.” She tilted her head and gave Carrie a curious look. “Where’s your crown?”
“Back home in Uccelli, where I come from.”
“But don’t princess always hafta wear a crown, so everybody knows they’re special?” (THIS IS A KEY COMPONENT OF THE STORY…WHAT MAKES A PRINCESS?)
“Princesses are special every day, Annabelle.” Carrie gave the girl a smile…(skipped section)
“Well, well,” Daniel said after the couple left the room. “Seems the princess angle is good for sales.” (HERE’S HIS CONFLICT IN BELIEVING HER…IS SHE DOING IT FOR SALES?)
She bristled. “That isn’t why I told people who I am.” (SHE’S TIRED OF A SKEPTICAL MEDIA, CONFLICT FOR HER BETWEEN THEM)
He arched a brow. “It isn’t?”
“Of course not.” She glared at him. “You always see the worst in people, don’t you?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because you people are jaded and bitter and think everyone is lying.”
His face hardened and she knew she’d struck a nerve. “Well perhaps if people didn’t tell us lies all the time, reporters wouldn’t be so jaded.” (AND PART OF HIS CONFLICT STEMS FROM A TIME HE WAS LIED TO)
“Here, read this one.” The little girl thrust a book between them. Then she leaned in closer to her father and lowered her voice. “And Daddy, you’re not supposed to fight with a princess.” (NOW ANNABELLE BECOMES PART OF THE CONFLICT BY REMINDING THE ADULTS TO HAVE GOOD BEHAVIOR AND FORCING THEM TOGETHER)
The lines in Daniel’s face softened, and the hard edge disappeared. He bent down to his daughter’s level and took the book from her hands. “You’re right, Belle.”
She beamed, then spun on those plastic pink shoes and thrust out a hand toward Carrie. “I’m Annabelle. I’m not a princess, but I wanna be one really bad.” (ANNABELLE’S BELIEF IN PRINCESSES IS A CHALLENGE TO CARRIE’S CONCEPTION OF HERSELF AS A PRINCESS, ANOTHER CONFLICT)
Carrie laughed, and shook the little girl’s hand. Five fingers, so delicate, so soft, and so reminiscent of herself and her sisters. “I’m Carlita Santaro, but you can call me Carrie.”
“Princess Carrie.” Annabelle glanced up at Carrie, all smiles and apple cheeks. “I like that name.”
“Me too.” Carrie glanced at Daniel. He’d tamed his go-for-the-jugular reporter side for now. But how long would that last? In the end, she knew where his type gravitated—to the story. Regardless of the consequences or fallout. But a part of her wanted to know if a guy who could look at his daughter with such love in his eyes could be different. Still, her instincts told her to keep her distance. (A WHOLE PARAGRAPH OF CONFLICT!) “I should go.”
“Stay,” Annabelle said. “’Cuz, Daddy’s going to read a story and he’s really good at reading stories.” (CONFLICT…UPSET THE LITTLE GIRL OR GO?)
“Oh, I don’t think I should—“
But the little girl had already grabbed Carrie’s hand and was tugging her in Daniel’s direction. “You can sit ova there. I can sit ova here. And Daddy,” the girl stopped in front of her father, propped one fist on her hip, and gave him a stern look, “you can read.”
Daniel let out a laugh, then sent Carrie an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Annabelle can be…demanding.”
“Daddy! I’m not ‘manding. I’m nice.”
He chuckled again. “Yes, Belle, you are nice. The nicest little girl in the world.”
Annabelle beamed and the love between father and daughter seemed to fill the small colorful space. This other side of Daniel Reynolds surprised Carrie, but she refused to soften her stance about an interview about herself. She’d seen a hundred times how trusting someone from the media could turn around and bite her. Hadn’t they been painting her as the “extra” princess for years? As if the royal family could discard her because she’d never be queen.
How did she know this guy wouldn’t do the same? Or worse, just make something up?
No, if she allowed him into her world, it would be to talk about Uccelli’s wines. And nothing more. And all the while she’d be wary, and not trust him.
But as she watched him interact with his daughter, a part of her wanted to believe he was different. That she could trust him. (CONFLICT IN THOSE THREE PARAGRAPHS…TRUST HIM OR NOT??)
“Come on,” Annabelle said, tugging on Carrie’s hand again. “You gotta sit down or Daddy won’t read. It’s a…” she glanced at her father for the word.
“Rule,” Daniel supplied. Then he shrugged and smiled again. “Sorry, but it is.”
Carrie thought of leaving. Then she caught Daniel’s smile again, and something about it hit her square in the gut. He had a lopsided smile, the kind that gave his face character and depth, and had her following Annabelle to the square of carpet on Daniel’s right. As soon as Carrie lowered herself onto the small space, Annabelle scrambled over to his opposite side, plunked down on her bottom and plopped her chin into her hands. “Read my story, Daddy.”
He arched a brow.
“Okay.” He turned the cover of the book and then shot Carrie a glance. “Seems Belle has picked The Princess and the Pea. You know, the fairy tale about the woman they suspect is masquerading as a princess.” (MORE CONFLICT! THIS IS THE CORE OF THE MATTER)
“I love that story,” Annabelle said, completely oblivious to the hidden conversation between the adults. “’Cuz it’s got a princess in it. I love princesses.”
“Then by all means, I think you should read it,” Carrie said to Daniel.
“I think I should, too. Refresh my memory.” He leaned back against a beanbag chair, and Annabelle curled up next to him, laying her blonde head on his chest so she could see the pictures as he read.
The father-daughter picture before her filled Carrie with a rush of sentiment. On the rare occasions when her mother had been home at night and around at bedtime, she’d made it a rule to read the girls at least one story, sometimes two. Always a fairy tale, because she said those were the kind of stories that taught you to dream. Carrie leaned against the bookcase, as enthralled as the little girl in Daniel’s arms.
She’d stay just a minute, no more, and only because Annabelle had asked her. She didn’t want to intrude. Or get any closer to this man. (CONFLICT!)
“Then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on top of the pea,” Daniel read, his quiet voice seeming to spin a magical web, “and then twenty elder-down beds on top of the mattresses.”
“Twenty?” Annabelle asked and fluttered her fingers as if she was counting that high. “That’s lots.”
“It is indeed,” Daniel said, then turned another page. “On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.” He paused. “What do you think, pumpkin? Was she a princess after all, or another imposter?”
“What’s a ‘poster?”
“Well, Belle, that’s a person who pretends to be something they’re not.” He closed the book, glanced at Carrie and arched a brow. “Would you agree, Miss Santaro?”
“I think lots of people pretend to be something they aren’t.” (AND THIS, FOLKS, IS A MAJOR PART OF THE STORY…PEOPLE HIDING THE TRUTH FROM THEMSELVES AND OTHERS)
“You have a point,” he said. Their gazes met and for a moment, it felt like détente. Like they were starting something. What, Carrie wasn’t sure.
“Daddy, you gotta read. I wanna know if the princess lives happy ever after. And so does Princess Carrie.” (AND ISN”T THAT THE REASON FOR READING A ROMANCE?)
Daniel glanced at Carrie, and arched a brow. A teasing grin darted across his face. Was he…flirting with her? Or merely playing into Annabelle’s game. “Well, Princess Carrie? Do you want me to keep reading?”
She waved toward the book. “Please do, Mr. Reynolds. I’m dying to hear how this one ends.”
His gaze met hers and something hot pooled inside her. “I am too,” he said. Then he opened the book again and began to read.<<
Make the conflict important to the character and it will be to the reader, too. Dig deep to get to know your characters better, and use that information to create fully formed people who have to face their deepest fears in order to achieve their goals. Conflict is one of the best tools in the writer’s arsenal, so use it to create the best book possible!
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days writing romance and women’s fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners. Visit her website at www.shirleyjump.com or read recipes and life adventures at www.shirleyjump.blogspot.com.
Shirley is giving away The Princess Test and A Princess for Christmas, in a two-pack of the first two princesses of Ucelli stories, to one reader selected from those leaving a comment.
Janet again. In honor of Shirley's Princess books, I brought a breakfast fit for royalty. Cheese blintzes, Eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce, an assortment of rolls and scones, fresh fruit, coffee and a selection of the finest teas. While we eat, let's talk conflict.