Conflict: Why Your Story Needs It


In my writing class at AWCS a few weeks ago, we covered the topic of conflict*.

Conflict is present in life, and so it must be present in the stories we tell. It engages the reader (as it forces them to take sides), it creates tension, and it moves the story forward.

Conflict is about choices. Any time there is a conflict, it means there is a choice to be made – that is, conflicting options: Hide or confront? Argue or give in? Tell the truth or lie? Paper or plastic? Etc. Conflict brings characters to life, because it forces them to make a choice. Their choices reveal who they are.

Conflict tells us about the characters. What values do they hold? Are they a mediator? Do they avoid? Instigate?

Sarah Johnson, our instructor, told us that every character should have the potential to conflict with your protagonist. This creates tension for the reader, as they wait for things to clash.

Sarah gave us this exercise. Take two characters that don’t have conflict (e.g., people who get along) and put them in a scene with conflicting objectives.

This is what I wrote in class. It relates to the backstory of my protagonist, Demi, in my WIP. I hope you like it.

Diver

There’s sharp crack, a tremulous vibration, and finally a small satisfying splash. Merrick has landed her Forward 3 ½ Somersault dive.

“Okay, sweetheart, this is it. Remember everything we worked on. Focus on your form, be conscious of your position in the air at all times.”

I shake out my hands and feet, and roll my head side to side. I take a deep breath, the familiar scent of chlorine helps cleanse my nerves. I can do this.

The announcer calls my name. I’m up. Adrenaline trembles through me.

I turn to my dad to accept his customary hug of encouragement before each dive. Instead of his usual crooked toothed grin, his eyes are focused on the wall beyond the pool, his complexion pasty and ashen.

I grab his shoulder. “Dad.” He winces, starts to slump, but then suddenly straightens again. He arms himself with a quivering grin, a small sheen of moisture coats his upper lip.

“Go on, Demetria. It’s time to fly,” he says, his voice gruff.

“Dad, what’s wrong?” I keep my eyes focused on his, forcing him to look at me.

“Nothing’s wrong sweetheart, just a bit of gas is all. Now go on,” he nudges me toward the pool. I step back toward him, “Maybe we should call a medic.”

“Don’t be silly,” he gives a dismissive wave. My name booms over the loudspeaker a second time.

“Go.”

“But…”

“Go, Demetria. Don’t use your old man as an excuse not to soar. You’ve worked too hard for this.” He grips my arm, it’s almost painful. “It’s your time. Soar.”

I take a half step closer to him and the look on his face tells me what I need to do. So I retreat – from him and my sense of unease. And I move forward. I jump, and I soar, and I fall.

Does Demetria have conflicting values here? What are they? Does this conflict tell you something about this character?

*It is important to note that throughout the class, our instructor made several references to Noah Lukeman’s “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways To Bring Fiction To Life”. Please refer to it if you are looking for more in depth information on introducing conflict to your work of fiction.

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Showing Character Through Voice

In last week’s post, I shared with you a writing exercise that I completed during my First Three Chapters course at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. Showing character through action.

This is what I had come up with:

She’s been here for barely a breath and already she spots him. For a moment, she barely shifts. But then her spine goes ramrod straight and she tucks in an imaginary stray lock into her already tightly braided hair. Her eyes narrow and she doesn’t even hesitate. He slim legs launch forward in a crisscross motion, like sharpened scissors, as she heads straight for him. Her razor-like stride is audible across the room, and he definitely knows she’s coming, because he shrinks back. He has nowhere to go. He’s cornered.

This week, our instructor had us do the scene again, this time in first person and using voice to show character.

I’m going to show you what I came up with, but first I’m going to take out the elements of voice, so you can compare and contrast and get a better sense of what voice really means.

Without Voice:

I slide by the bouncer and inhale the stale stench of beer, sweat and theatre smoke. I smooth back an imaginary stray lock of hair into my braid, and just then I spot him.

I grit my teeth and straighten my spine. I could just ignore him, not let him show him that he affects me. That’s probably the best choice. I press my lips together. I’ve had enough.

I slice my legs through the crowd, ignoring the sticky floor that only slightly impedes my progress. But nothing will.

A foot from him and I have him cornered. He flits his gaze, looking for escape. But there is none. I have him cornered, my body blocking his exit from behind the tall table.

“Hello, Ben.” I say. “I thought you were studying tonight” I ask, arching my brow suggestively at the posterior of a tiny blonde.

 

Now here it is again, but this time with Demi’s voice infused in the action.

I slide by the bouncer and inhale the stale stench of beer, sweat and theatre smoke. Lovely. This is going to be another A-class night. I smooth back an imaginary stray lock of hair into my braid, and just then I spot him.

Mother fucker. Had to study, my ass. More like he had to study the asses of co-eds.

I grit my teeth and straighten my spine. I could just ignore him, not show him that he affects me. That’s probably the best choice. The cool girl choice.

I press my lips together. Yeah, but no. Maybe I don’t want to be the cool girl anymore. I’ve had enough of this shit.

I slice my legs through the crowd, ignoring the sticky floor that only slightly impedes my progress. But nothing will. I have him in my sights and I won’t let go until I’m satisfied.

A foot from him and I have him cornered. He flits his gaze, looking for escape. But there is none. I have him cornered, my body blocking his exit from behind the tall table.

“Hellooo, Ben.” I intone. “How’s the studying going?” I ask, arching my brow at the posterior of a tiny blonde.

For more information on voice, from a previous post, click here.

Showing Character Through Action and Unspeakable Query Update

I missed last week’s post, so today’s a two for one!

1. Showing Character

I’ve been working on a new story idea, which will hopefully become my next novel. To help inspire me, and also as part of my quest to continually work on my craft, I’ve enrolled in The First Three Chapters class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre.

This week’s class was on showing your character through action. Now, when writing, this is of key importance. I could tell you that Sally is grumpy.

Sally is grumpy.

(Gripping stuff, non?)

Or, I could show you that she’s grumpy through action.

Sally yanked her alarm clock off the bedside table and threw it on the floor.

Did you learn more about Sally the second time, other than she’s a grumpy girl? I think so (i.e., she is not a morning person).

So, the lovely Sarah Johnson, our class instructor, had us write down different descriptors of our main protagonist for our work-in-progress (WIP). Then, she had us write a short paragraph where the character walks into the room and we show those descriptors.

First, let me show you what mine would look like if I just told you about my main protagonist.

Demi walks into the crowded bar and spots Todd immediately. Pissed off, she walks over, her braided hair not budging. Demi is not someone you mess with.

Okay. So we’ve learned that Demi is pissed with Todd, that her hair is braided, and that you shouldn’t mess with her – but little else.

Now let me show you who Demi is.

She’s been here for barely a breath and already she spots him. For a moment, she barely shifts. But then her spine goes ramrod straight and she tucks an imaginary stray lock into her already tightly braided hair. Her eyes narrow and she doesn’t even hesitate. Her slim legs launch forward in a crisscross motion, like sharpened scissors, as she heads straight for him. Her razor-like stride is audible across the room. He shrinks back. He has nowhere to go. He’s cornered.

Do you have a better sense of Demi? I hope so. Whatever descriptors come to mind, they’re not wrong, because they’re your own. I’m letting you decide, dear reader, who you think she is. As a writer, we have to trust the reader to have an imagination and to fill in the gaps. I think it’s much more gratifying to share the journey of the story, rather than tell you about it. photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74

2. Update on Unspeakable

I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve finally done it. I’ve started querying. Some of you have asked me what querying means. Well, basically, it’s sending out letters to literary agents requesting representation. Unspeakable is commercial fiction. Large publishing houses will often not even entertain the idea of publishing your work without an agent. Agents understand the industry and help you find the right home for your book and also assist in sale and deal negotiation.

Nestpitch is also on the horizon (ten more days! But who’s counting?). So it’s time. Time to let go, and put my work out there. Wish me luck!

Focus on Character

I’m venturing into my next novel-length story. This time, however, scenes haven’t been popping into my brain the way they did with Unspeakable. Hanna and Hank became quite tangible to me as characters very early in the process. For my work-in-progress (WIP), I have the basic frame of the plot and the characters, but there’s still a lot of work to do before I start writing that first chapter.

This past week I attended a writer’s workshop, Focus on Character, at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society in Calgary. It was taught by the wonderful Emily Ursuliak, who gave me permission to post part of what I learned on my blog.

How Do We Create Characters?

photo-1421940975339-33bdde74a873

THE DETAILS

We need to know a lot of details about our characters. But we don’t always need to share all of them. They can weigh the story down. Stephen King has said that the power of description is to give a few vivid details and let the reader fill in the rest.

But those details aren’t always visual. It could be how your character moves, speaks, or smells. The key is to know which ones matter to the story, but first you have to discover what those details are.

WRITING EXERCISES – DO THEM…KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS

Emily gave us several writing exercises during the three-hour workshop. All of which helped me learn much more about my characters. The process of writing about your characters in different situations or points of view, makes you understand your characters.

When I read the Harry Potter series, I always had the sense that J. K. Rowling knew more about her characters than she ever revealed. That’s what made her characters seem so well developed – because they were. J. K. has pages of detail about each of her characters (including family trees, powers, etc.) written on scraps of paper somewhere. But she doesn’t necessary reveal all the those details in her books. Some of those details are boring, but it helps her understand why her characters behave the way they do.

Emily had us do a writing exercise where our character went through their morning routine. I thought, Oh no, that’s the boring stuff, no one wants to hear about it. But guess what? By doing the exercise, I found out that my main character is a bit on the anal side – I didn’t know that before. Would I put that scene in my novel? Not likely. But that’s not the point – it’s to know your character better.

We need to understand our characters’ motivations, strengths, weaknesses (a necessity), backgrounds and what their relationships with other characters are like. If your characters are one-dimensional, it doesn’t matter what a great plot you have, people will stop reading.

EMOTION

Emotion is really important to how your character comes across and how they react to different situations. We don’t all respond to emotions in the same way. In the case of anger, would your character try to do a lot of damage? Deliver low blows? Try to get a rise? Withdraw? So Emily had us write scenes that would evoke grief, sadness and anger in our characters. I learned that my main character (MC) withdrew and internalized a lot.

POINT OF VIEW

Looking Through The Lens
Looking Through The Lens

We were also asked to take a scene that we had written and then change the point of view (POV). POV is basically where the lens is pointing.

There’s 1st person:

I ran to the store, my fists pumping.

3rd Person:

She ran to the store, her fists pumping.

And, one I’ve never attempted before…

2nd Person:

You ran to the store, your fists pumping.

Weird, right? But, Emily explained that the 2nd person can be very useful when trying to express a sense of dissociation when a character is experiencing trauma, or is drunk or drugged.

So, I’d like to share with you a couple of the writing exercises I completed during the workshop. They feature the main character in my WIP experiencing anger. I used the same scene using the 2nd person as it was really a scene about my MC experiencing bad news that was very traumatic to her.

In 1st person…

The doctor explains it to me. But his voice comes out toneless, without meaning. The only thing I hear is, “It’s over”. You’re over. You’re over. A drown of nasal sounds, punctuated with, “You. Are. Over.” 

I stand up. He’s in the middle of a sentence or something. I don’t know. I don’t care. I step away. One foot in front of the other. My movements are slow at first. Like I’m under water. The weight of the water is there, but I can never be weightless in it again. I brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. I’m swimming now, I pedal ahead. And I’m running until I slam through a door in a stairwell, it clangs behind me, and my head swims and spins, and I collapse onto the stairwell before everything goes black.

Now here it is again, in 2nd Person POV:

You stand up. The doctor’s in the middle of a sentence or something. You don’t know. You don’t care. You step away. One foot in front of the other. Your movements are slow at first. Like you’re under water. The weight of the water is there, but you can never be weightless in it again. You brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. You’re swimming now, you pump your feet forward. And you’re running until you slam through a door in a stairwell. It clangs behind you, and your head swims and spins, not from the news. But from what the news is about. You’re not you anymore and you collapse from the weight of it, from your broken mind, your broken skull, and everything goes black.

Does she seem more traumatized? I think so. Therapy! Therapy! We need character therapy!

Well, that was the whole point.

Writing Exercises That Inspire

 

A Hint of Hank…

Henry-Cavill-Immortals-027

In the intermediate creative writing class I took at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre two years ago, our teacher gave us weekly writing assignments. I found these very helpful at flexing my writing muscle and letting the creativity flow. In an interview with Vulture, Gillian Flynn reported that the “Cool Girl” article in Gone Girl came about when she was doing a writing exercise to help alleviate writer’s block. She indicated that, as a rule, she tends not to use writing exercises in her actual manuscripts, as writers tend to “shoehorn” them in. This resonated with me as I had a few that I tried to do just that with, and ended up deleting. However, there are a couple of scenes that started as writing exercises that really inspired the trajectory of my story (in a good way). I thought I would share one with you today.

 

The assignment was to write something from the starter line, “There is a particular place he is going to tonight but…”, and to just let it flow. I thought about my main male protagonist, ‘Hank’ when writing it. This is NOT the version in my manuscript for Unspeakable, but rather the exercise that inspired a ‘TSN Turning Point’ scene (I also removed names and spoilers). This exercise helped me understand ‘Hank’ a little bit better and set the tone of his voice.

I hope you enjoy it!

On the shores of Wabigoon Lake

 

There is a particular place he is going to tonight but he is not prepared to admit to himself where that is. If he ends up there again, it is not on purpose. This is a small town, there are not many streets, it’s only natural – after all this was his hiding place – not hers.

He pulls up to the dead-end street at the edge of town. He kills the engine and tilts the powerful machine onto its stand. He yanks the helmet off of his head, rests it on the black leather seat and runs his calloused hand through his smooth black hair, allowing the cool evening breeze to evaporate the sweat that has gathered in his short locks. He told himself that he was just going for a walk along the familiar pathway, to gather his thoughts, clear his head, to be alone. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted to see her again, to be allowed to touch her. He pushes the thought of her out his mind, pushes his body away from her, quickly marching forward. They are like magnets, you spin them in one direction and the attraction is undeniable, turn one to face the other way and they repel. He is searching solitude yet simultaneously seeking her.

His black boots compress the gravel below him as walks at an anxious pace along the familiar path ahead of him. When he veers off onto the smaller lightly trodden trail, the moonlight shines on the waxy leaves of the birch trees that feather their branches along the route, giving them an ethereal glimmer. Several minutes pass until he can see the clearing that marks their meeting place, the dark water of Wabigoon Lake shimmering in the dim light.

He pauses, the sparkle of the water momentarily mesmerizing him. An owl lets out a solemn cry. As he feared, longed for, and denied – he is alone. He leans against a tree near the waters edge, letting his breath slide out of him in synchronicity with his body as he lets his legs collapse beneath him, dragging his back along the bark, tearing at him.

He rests his head in his hands, trying to get ahold of his conflicting emotions. She had pushed him away and eventually he had responded in kind. He could not expect their friendship to continue. It wasn’t feasible in this suffocating town; where everyone thinks they know you and if they don’t, they make believe they do. There is no place for your own self. His voice will never be heard here – especially now that she is …(sorry, spoiler removed!)

 

If you have writing exercises that helped inspire you, I would love to hear about it!