April 5, 2007

DUKIN’ IT OUT / HEY, WHERE’S THE CONFLICT?

I think we need to have a little talk about conflict, what it is and what it’s not, in fiction, so here goes.

First, there are two different kinds of conflict, as editors speak of it. There’s outer conflict, the things people other than your protags do, and events that happen that cause problems FOR your protags. Things like in-laws, kids, snowstorms, hurricanes, tornados, sinking ships, biting dogs, money. The list goes on and on. All of these conflicts are caused by someone else or conditions beyond the control of your protags, but which affect them just the same.

It’s often confusing for new writers when an editor says their book lacks conflict, because most often the editors are talking about inner conflict, the thing deep inside your protags, both of them, that drive the way they think, the way they feel, the things they do. These are things deep inside their own psyches with the roots in their childhoods that become firmly embedded in their minds without either of them realizing it, causing more often than not irrational responses to something the other protag has done. THAT is the conflict book editors are looking for.

The reason editors are looking for internal conflict is because internal conflict is what keeps people wanting to read, to see what happens. Put another way, to see if your protags will win whatever it is they’re looking for. Without internal conflict, it’s just another blah story.

The reason people who are reading your book want conflict is because they want something to take them out of their lives and into the protag’s lives, and nice-nice doesn’t cut it. People don’t want conflict in their own lives, but they do want it in the books they read because without it, the book is boring. As I said in one of my workshops, they want these things to happen to your protags because it’s not them, it’s people in a book. Readers don’t want to have to solve major problems in their own lives, but they love to read about them in others’ lives. They. Want. Conflict.

Take the Anna Nicole Smith debacle, for instance. Try to imagine a life (and death) more conflicted than that one. There’s the lawyer. There’s the boyfriend. There’s all the other boyfriends. There’s her mother. There’s the baby. There’s the court. There’s the money, big money. ALL conflicts.

But guess what. They’re all external conflicts. Each one of those people could be anybody else and it wouldn’t matter one little bit in the grand scheme of things, therefore they’re not that important, are they? Aggravating, yes, but vitally important?

Nope.

Guess what else again. Anna Nicole’s conflicts, the real ones that drove her life and ultimately her death, were all internal conflicts. What made her the way she was? What caused all the bad choices in her life? What made her so desparate for approval, anybody’s approval, that she’d outdo herself every time in her bid for attention? Why did she need that attention so badly? Why, eventually, did she think she needed so many drugs?

Not one of those things depended on any of those other people I mentioned earlier. The people were all, every one of them, props in her life, but whatever drove her actions every time came from deep inside of Anna Nicole’s mind, and nobody else’s.

Think about it.

Let’s take another example. A man and a woman are planning a wedding. (I have weddings on my mind right now because my daughter is getting married this weekend and yes, I DID find a beautiful outfit, thank you for asking.) (But please note, this is an imaginary bride and groom we’re going to talk about now.)

The bride has been looking for the perfect gown for months and can’t settle on one. The groom is getting frustrated with the whole gown thing and out of the goodness of his heart, goes out shopping himself. Since he knows she’s a perfect size eight, he finds a beautiful one, buys it and brings it home to her.

It really is a beautiful dress. Anybody would love it. Victorian in style, elegant in cut, just the right amount of pearls on the off-white satin. The perfect style for her because she’s small, elegant, and a bit old-fashioned. She wears many vintage outfits, which match her own style perfectly. He’s very proud of himself, spent a lot of money on it, opens the box and…

AND…

She freaks out, starts crying, cancels the wedding and heads for Jamaica, alone. Very alone.

What happened?

The gown had a bit of lace on the bosom, beautiful off-white lace, the perfect lace for that dress. It’s also the same lace that was on the dress on her grandmother at her own funeral.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it. Well, maybe it sounds silly, BUT she loved her grandmother very much, spent summers with her all through her childhood and still has nightmares about the funeral and still sees that lace, that cursed lace, which she has never told her groom-to-be.

Now to add to the conflict, THIS lace is why the groom bought THIS dress because it reminds him of his mother’s wedding gown. He loves his mother, which is fine, he should, and he really wants his wife-to-be to wear THAT dress with THAT EXACT lace. (He probably shouldn’t have told the bride that’s why he bought it, but he did because he loves his mother and wants to honor her.)

See what I’m getting at?

This may sound like a silly conflict, but it’s deep, deep internal conflict just the same and it has directly affected their wedding and their entire future, and will continue to do so until they resolve it. (And probably buy another dress sans lace.) But they can’t do that until they face their own inner conflicts and realize how deeply such a small thing has affected both of them.

It’s often (but not always) the little things that make up inner conflicts, and we usually don’t even realize they’re inside us until something happens to crack that thin protective shell and then Whammo!, there you go, instant panic and explosion.

I’ve read, and I believe, that there should be some kind of conflict on every page, or at least some indication of it. Conflict keeps the reader reading. That doesn’t mean they have to be fighting all the time, but each protag should very much want something they’re having a hard time getting at all times, in every scene.

That’s internal conflict.

It can be personal, it can be sexual, it can be almost anything but it has to be there or your reader will get bored and stop reading.

Make SURE your book is full of conflict.

That’s it for this week, folks, Hots and I are heading downstate day after tomorrow for The Wedding, and very happy to be doing so because we adore our son-in-law-to-be and we adore the bride, who chose her own wedding outfit herself and it sounds gorgeous. We’ll tell you all about it next week.

Meantime, we love you all, you KNOW we do, and we thank you so much for coming. Please come back soon. We’ll leave the light on for you.

Beth and Hotclue, who did, as a matter of fact, fight over the outfit we bought and I won because Hotclue wanted the leopard print one. (No, I’m not kidding, there was thirty minutes of indecision over the two outfits.) I almost, but didn’t, give in. Hotclue is just a little miffed because now she has to settle for cream and just a touch of black. Perfect for me, not at all what she wanted to wear, but sometimes, ya know, ya just gotta crack down. 😉

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