Thursday, August 26, 2010

Writing Tip of the Week - Conflict: Tip the Scales and Keep the Balance by Regina Andrews

One of the essential elements of a good story is conflict. Whether just starting out or experienced professionals, writers know that conflict is the nexus of every good story. Conflict is spice. Conflict is passion, drama, elation, irony and anxiety. Unbearable lows and incredible highs. Living on the edge. (Just think of the fiercest PMS episode you've ever witnessed – or experienced. Then pump up the intensity level a thousand times.) That's the essence of conflict.

Who wants to read a flat line, linear story, where everything mosies along all hunky-dory and just the way you though it would…. zzzzzzz. Oh sorry, I just put myself to sleep. Imagining a story with no conflict is like imagining an ocean with no waves: it defies its nature. There is no such thing.

To have a good story, the plot needs to keep moving, and in unexpected directions. Curve it, coil it, wiggle it, spin it, twirl it, zigzag it. Keep those pages turning, with ups and downs and bumps in the road so jagged that every moment feels as if the story could veer out of control.

But how does a writer achieve this, you ask? Do you simply concoct any wild scenario and build your story around it?

The answer to that query is an emphatic no. (At least if you want to get published.) The last thing an author does is add twists and turns gratuitously; that is, just for the sake of adding action and movement.

So how does an author pack a story with conflict and still have it ring true? This, ironically, is one of a writer's greatest conflicts. Whether well-seasoned or just starting out, authors struggle with this very question at every turn.

Well, just as one of the elements of a good story is conflict, one of the essential elements of good writing is balance. No matter how much of a rip-roaring ride your characters want to take you on, you, as the writer, are holding the reins, and you'd better hold on tight. As a creator, go for the whole ride with gusto. They are your friends. You know them. However, as an author you need to control not what your characters do as much as what your readers know about what your characters are doing and why they are doing it.

First of all, the main writing element in keeping conflict credible and keeping a story moving is to maintain balance. By this I mean exercising great discernment as to what is revealed to the reader.

Let your characters actions speak for themselves, and let their words flow by themselves, without intruding as the writer. This will give your readers a chance to bond with your characters (just as your characters have presumably done with you already.). By the same token, you must walk the line and be sure to reveal the key elements about your characters which the plot does not uncover.

But that gets us back to how to control the story and still have it move naturally and credibly? What if your characters are on the edge, or over it? How do you write a story where your characters are barely in control without having your writing get out of control?

Although the process may seem more like being a puppeteer than an author, there is a very satisfying way to write through this seemingly daunting challenge.

How is this accomplished? Maintaining the balance I'm referring to here has its roots in good character motivations. This is where it's up to you to probe and dig deep, deeper and deepest into their minds, hearts and souls.

You, as the author, have to understand and convey just where your characters are coming from and why they can't stand to use blue dishes. What happened in the past to trigger the aversion to blue dishes? Was that the new set Grandma was opening when she collapsed on the floor in front of your heroine, clutching her heart? And now, is this why she refuses to sell blue dishes in her gift shop, despite the urgings of her partner?

This is just an example, but it should get you on your way if you're stuck in motivation limbo. What you will discover while on the excursion is the internal conflict of your characters as well as their external conflicts. Now your motivations have doubled, because you not only address what is happening to them, but you are addressing (and finding out) what makes them tick inside.

Speaking as a romance writer, internal and external conflict and motivations between the hero and the heroine make sparks fly in a story. The key is being honest with yourself and making sure none of your motivations or conflicts are contrived, or forced. A trusted writing friend should read your work objectively, and if they ask "why" this or "what about" that, you may have missed a motivation. Go back and review the plot, taking into account your characters. Have faith, it will come to you. Good luck with your writings!

Regina Andrews bio: A resident of Providence, RI, Regina grew up in nearby Barrington. After graduating from Providence College she attended the University of Delaware, eventually earning her Master’s Degree in American Civilization from Brown University. She is inspired by anything to do with nature, and she and her husband enjoy visiting nearby Cape Cod.

Regina’s hobbies include Travel, Museums, Theater, Classical Music, Choral Singing and Gardening. She is a radio host for In-Sight, an association dedicated to providing services to the visually impaired of all ages. Visit her website to learn more about her and her works:


Gina said...

Hi Anne,
Thank you for having me today! Your site is great.

Linda Swift said...

Hello Regina and Anne. I enjoyed reading this excellent advice for authors. Conflict is one of my weaker points, I think, so I'll try to apply these words to my own writing. Thanks,Linda.

Gina said...

Hi Linda,
Thank you for commenting. Me, too! I often have to revisit my characters and see if their actions are ringing true. Glad you enjoyed the post! Let me know how you make out. Good luck with your writing.
Thank you,