It's amazing how topics can just hit ya without expecting it, y'know? Like now. I was responding to another writer who replied to yesterday's article, and in that response, I found myself soon delving deep into the topic of adding more conflict to one's writing, when I realised, I'd probably be better off to expound upon that and put it here for public consumption. Not that it will actually give you consumption, but follow along.
How are you with conflict? My friend, mid-list author J. A. Konrath (who just got published for an interview this week in Newsweek about this whole self-pub craze), was a member of my online writing group before he was anyone with his six-figure advance from Hyperion Press for Whiskey Sour, and when he had time to contribute, he would always hammer one thing: If you're having trouble with your piece, go back to conflict. And he was right. Conflict is inherent in everything we touch, see and do. So why do we avoid it in story-telling? Maybe because we're afraid of it. How often do we avoid it in real life? I know in private, when I get behind the wheel of a car, suddenly I'm possessed with Turret's Syndrome, but when I'm sober? Look out!
Actually, if I'm then unexpectedly faced with the person causing my road rage--and I'm not talking safely ensconsed behind my windshield--then I'm a little more of a kitten than an angry tiger. We are told from birth, I think, that conflict isn't healthy.
But is it? Let's think about it in writing for a moment. Imagine you're sitting behind your laptop, and it's now been 2 hours since you've been able to write. Are you blocked? Probably not. Being blocked is a whole 'nother neurosis, but since I'm the resident expert on all things neuroses and village idiot-dom, I'll address that in another article.
But I digress. (Man, trying to follow my logic is probably akin for you to hopping from one city bus to the next, in hopes of getting where you would've gotten had you stayed on the first bus!) And a partridge in a pear tree....
Now. What was I saying? Oh, right. You've been sitting there for two hours, deep in chapter 21, and suddenly the story isn't writing itself anymore. It's not as if you can't get the word "suck" out of your mind, it's just that you're not sure which bus to take (We'll stay with one analogy for the good of your mental health) to get you where you know you need to be next. This is where a healthy dose of conflict is needed. As a tv/film/stage actor, if you read Michael Shurtleff's Audition, in those 12 tips in the beginning of the book, he tells the actor what things to concentrate on for their audition that will give them the best chance of landing the call-back. One of those glaring ones is to seek out the conflict in the scene.
See, people fight all the time for what they want, even if it's gentile Southern women who do it behind gloved hands. Living in the south has taught me that soft smile doesn't necessarily mean they like ya! If you're having a difficult time with your scene, then maybe you don't have enough conflict in it. What is your protagonist fighting for, and how can you keep him from getting it? Yep--that's the question you ask. Let me say it again: What is my charcacter fighting for and how can I keep him from getting it? Why? Because if you analyse how you're feeling when watching a blockbuster movie, you want to root for the main character. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the movie Dante's Peak. From the very first few seconds of that movie, Pierce Brosnan and Linda what's-her-face were fighting. Not each other, but against circumstances. 30 minutes into the movie, the tension had built and they were now fighting with higher stakes. At the half-way point, you're convinced that they're never going to outrun that stupid lava and I remember thinking, "This has got to be the worst movie I've seen!" But at the end when they survive and defeat the thing? I was cheering in my own living room. I tend to be ebullient about things.
One of my favourite movies is Armageddon, and it was the same way with the conflict in that movie. The tension kept growing in the form of those screenwriters constantly throwing conflict into the path of the lead characters.
Now. What does all this conflict do? It increases the stakes. It keeps you wanting more. Think about that the next time you find yourself staring at your screen, avoiding your next chapter by doing laundry, or stuck on what to do next, so you throw yourself into Facebook. That's the reason we want it--to keep our readers rooting for that lead character. It's not because we hate our protagonists. It's because we want you, the reader, to love them!