Friday, July 6, 2012

When Nothing Is Happening . . .Why We Shy Away from Writing Good Conflict and What We Can Do about It

Many people shy away from writing good conflict into their books.  Either they avoid the external side of conflict by keeping events low risk, or they don't let the characters grow through internal realizations.   

Unless you have both external and internal conflict in your story, you won't build enough tension to capture and hold the reader.  And not enough tension usually means a "Thanks but not for us" letter from the publisher or agent you're hoping to charm.

This was verified for me years ago in a writing workshop taught by the editor of a famous literary journal.  Two elements stood out for me.

This editor received over 400 submissions each week.  (I can imagine that number has gone way up now.)  He commented on the stories and essays; accepted manuscripts ran a challenging gauntlet. 

Then he said this:  "Ninety percent of these submissions got rejected because nothing happened in the story."  That surprised me.

We discussed why.  Not enough good conflict, he said.  Or there was good internal conflict within the characters or narrator, but this conflict was not externalized.   So it was impossible to engage the reader. 

The writers, he said, needed to raise the stakes.

Raising the Stakes
A great way to raise the stakes in your story is to ask yourself two simple questions:

Who is this person fighting?    
What are they fight­ing for?

In other words:  What do they want, and what stands in their way of getting it?  

In fiction and memoir, characters want things.  A story is about the struggle to get this desire.  It could be the desire for freedom, to avenge a wrong, to secure a mate.  To make the story interesting, there must be a challenge.  If the desire is met without challenge, there is no good conflict.   

What about nonfiction?  This editor received many nonfiction pieces.  In nonfiction, there is conflict in the reader.  The writing must create a need in the reader, and a learning curve to satisfy that need.  A reader picks up your story because she has a question, a desire to learn something, for instance.  So the conflict presented in nonfiction is the effort to change or learn.

How do you raise the stakes?  Listen to John Truby, Hollywood screenwriting guru, who asks:  Who fights whom for what?   

If you can't answer the "whom" (the obstacle) or the "what" (the desired result), you don't have a good conflict.

Using the Storyboard W to Raise the Stakes
Storyboards are used by many publishers to check out this question.  If the stakes are high enough, when the story is mapped on a storyboard, you can see it immediately.

I use storyboards for all my books--fiction, memoir, and nonfiction.  I love the way they instantly tell me where my story slumps.   

(If you haven't yet seen my short video on storyboarding, check it out (click here) before you read on.  It'll explain a lot about the W and how to use it to raise the stakes in your story.)

One of my students, Matt, was working on his storyboard in class.  Matt was writing a thriller. De­spite a compelling plot idea, we could both see that Matt's storyboard fell flat.  We doublechecked each of his major plot points (the five points of the W structure of his storyboard), but only the first (triggering) event in chapter 1 had enough conflict.   

Act 2 was disturbingly peaceful for a suspense novel, causing the middle of Matt's book to really sag.
I suggested that Matt list the name of every major and minor player in one column. Next to each person's name, Matt would write down who this person was fighting and what they were fighting for, using John Truby's question.

It was surprisingly hard! Matt could answer these ques­tions only about his villain, his favorite character in the book. All the other characters, including the protagonist, came up blank.  

As we talked, I realized that Matt liked these characters way too much. He wasn't letting them get into trouble--or grow!  So he had no external conflict or internal conflict either.

I took a different tack. I asked Matt to scan the character list and begin pairing up characters as dance partners. Then imagine these two people having a conversation. What argu­ment could evolve? The goal was to leak out tiny moments of conflict.  

This exercise really worked. Conflicts started com­ing fast as Matt visualized these players tangling with each other as they danced a tango.

Externalize the Action
By asking Matt to create an external action--a dance--it became easier for him to imagine dilemma. This is because it's hard for the mind to sense dilemma if it's not dramatized, or made external. We learn about characters by watching them move around their worlds.  

Dilemma is rarely believable if it's passive--thought about, talked about, put in letters or emails, or discussed on the phone--without any active outer risk.

As you externalize the action in your book, you can complicate dilemma beautifully. You can see if there are any characters who are stalled between what they want and what they think they should have.  

A great example of this is Ann Patchett's award-winning novel Bel Canto, whose main character is a Japanese businessman who loves opera. For his birthday, he and other elite guests are invited to a private villa where a famous opera singer will entertain them. The busi­nessman is more than a little in love with this opera singer, but his desire to get closer to her is not something that can be realized unless some outside event happens, a dilemma that will force change--in this case a terrorist take-over of the villa during the recital. Once the businessman and the opera singer are trapped, more action gets externalized. He sees the opera singer ev­ery day, in difficult situations. Emotions begin to play out, because desires are spoken aloud. This is typical during trau­ma--witness the deep friendships and sudden romances of wartime.  

Patchett took characters who were safe in unex­pressed interior worlds and forced them into a dilemma in the outer world. If she hadn't, there would be no story.

What about Conflict in Nonfiction Writing?   
My student Carol is writing a self-help book for women who do too much. Carol's ideal reader is a generous soul, a people-pleaser who spends her days doing for others. Carol was like this too, and that's why she is motivated to write this book.

Carol's book contains some great anecdotes, as most modern self-help books do. For Carol's triggering event, she chose an embarrassing and true story of one of her clients who got "caught" tending to herself instead of a sick friend. The shame that resulted caused the woman to completely turn her back on her own needs for many weeks, until she got sick herself. Act 1 contained a series of stories like this, as well as good information about the mindset of people pleasers.

In Act 2, Carol's book slumped. She only had low-key scenes with little external action. It was pretty easy to build the rising action--stories about women who would simply sneak away by themselves to get some peace and privacy, hid­ing with a good book and glass of lemonade in their bed­rooms. But the falling action, which brought us to a bigger turning point, was more difficult.

I suggested Carol look for stories that showed a woman about to burst from being too contained for too long. Yes, the first story showed someone getting sick. Did Carol know of anything worse that had happened when needs were really repressed?

Carol thought of a story of her own: a serious confron­tation with a neighbor, who called Carol for a committee favor on a morning when Carol's son was suspended from school.  

She remembered how she blew up at the woman. Although it was embarrassing, it beautifully demonstrated what happens when two desires clash--the desire to main­tain the aura of being everyone's helper with the extreme need for privacy to cope with personal pain. When desires clash, there is surprise, drama, action.

Carol's willingness to include this "island" made a big difference in the overall depth and credibility of her book.  

If you're in a similar situation, take a clue from Carol's story. Don't feel your conflict has to be highly shocking to be ef­fective. It just has to be unexpected.  

"The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish," says writer Terry Southern, a screenwriter who worked on films such as Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove. Shock is "a worn-out word," wrote Southern, but astonishment always makes for good literature.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise 
1.  Make a list of potential conflicts that could be brought out in your book. What kinds of trou­ble could people get themselves into? If you’re writing fiction or memoir, list desires and dif­ficulties for each of your main characters. For nonfiction, make a list of possible problems that readers might encounter and how your book solves or addresses them.
2.  Pick one problem and write about it. See if you can create a scene where the person faces this problem.
3.  Now spend a few minutes with your writing notebook. Ask yourself how the conflict writing felt—did you notice anything in your own body as you wrote? Tense shoulders? Headache? Put those sensations into your characters.