Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conflicting Conflicts

Last time I told you that giving your people more than one conflict helps the reader care about them.  Usually one is more personal than the other, although they can be related. 

In my plot class I talk about the secondary plot. In that context, let’s consider the movie Die Hard.  The big, obvious conflict is between a cop – McLane - who wants to save a group of hostages, and a terrorist whose true objective we don’t get to know until almost the end of the film. But note that McLane is also wrestling with a more personal conflict with his wife and we are not allowed to lose sight of that conflict throughout the film.  It’s easier for us to relate to that more personal objective. That helps us relate to the character.  Just like in Rocky (the example I used in a previous blog) I have never wanted to get punched by a heavyweight champ but HAVE wanted a woman to love and respect me, so that goal helps me relate to the character.

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  It might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis.  Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, of course he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but SHOULD he?  Yes, many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Remember, conflict is about character.  In a good novel, or movie for that matter, the protagonist will grow and change during the story. It is the conflict that makes that change. Overcoming each challenge forces our protagonist to show the strength, or determination, or quick wits we want to see in a heroes, and the challenge the conflicts present force him to change.

And since conflict makes a story, so you need more than just conflict between the primary protagonist and antagonist. There should be some sort of conflict in every scene. What if everyone in the scene agrees on what they want to do? Then they can still disagree on how to do it, or when.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Punch Up Your Writing with Conflict

Last week I talked about the importance of conflict in your fiction.  Conflict, as I stated then, is a function of your characters’ motivations. Your protagonist and antagonist must need to have or do things, and those things must be in conflict. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. The characters may even think so themselves at first.  But you, the writer, need to know the deep down reason why their opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot. If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  And if only one is deeply invested, readers will wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

As an example, let’s consider Rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. Yes, it’s a boxing movie, but how much of the film is actual fighting?  That’s good evidence that, as i said earlier, conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title.  Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important. But he also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. There’s another lesson here: note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain.  He doesn’t have to be evil.  And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of the movie is not about who’s the best boxer. It’s all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain his goals.  Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything.  Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

To help us care about your protagonist it is good for him or her to face more than one conflict. Next week I’ll talk about how to use multiple conflicts to raise the stakes and strengthen characterization.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When Conflict is a Good Thing

At the recent writing symposium put on by the Virginia Writers Club I discussed conflict and suspense – two elements i have to lean hard on to create crime fiction. Without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. And without suspense, readers have no reason to get to the end of your story. Suspense draws your readers thru the story to a satisfying conclusion.

You may think that the genres I write makes these elements easier to use.  In fact, they apply to all fiction worth reading. But to be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Suspense is not mystery.

Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about human motivations.

Suspense is a function of plot.  It’s about pacing.

Today I’ll talk a little about the use of conflict. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist – the person we cheer for – needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist – the person we boo – has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down. In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found. Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So before you start plotting your story, decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what all he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next you need to attach an emotional context to that goal. In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal? Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation. Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation. “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain. Dig deeper.

Next week I’LL dig deeper into different kinds of story conflict and offer some good examples to follow.