Saturday, November 13, 2010

Force the conflict!

I'm noticing that a lot of writers, when drafting, kind of elide over conflict opportunities to get to more obvious conflict (like an action scene). Okay, that isn't clear. Let me try to get at what I mean.

There are three basic kinds of conflict. Remember "Man against nature, man against man, man against himself?" Well, once we remind old "Man" that women can have conflict too, we can rename those, not so eloquently:
External conflict
Interactional conflict
Internal conflict

Now remember Alicia's Law. (You didn't know I had a law? Well, I do. And let's all refer to it that way: Alicia's Law. Please cap the "Law". Maybe I need a trademark symbol afterwards?)

Popular fiction is the art of manifesting the internal externally.

What do I mean? Hey, this is a LAW! It just IS! Do I have to explain it? Sigh. Just that we should never settle for just expressing a conflict internally (like in the character's thoughts). The whole point of popular fiction (IMHO) is to show that the internal comes out on the external plane, sort of like Freud said! If you're in conflict about your realization of mortality, you don't just sit and think about how lousy it is that you have to die. You decide to take up skydiving! Or if you're a different type of person, you decide to go to medical school and learn to save lives so that you can make a difference in your short time on earth. Or what?

Anyway, a rule of thumb I try to invoke (this is just a rule of thumb, not even a real rule, much less a LAW) is that what happens only in the character's head doesn't really happen. If the thought or conflict or preoccupation doesn't cause some ripple on the external plane, well, it's like that tree that falls unheard in the forest, only there's no real tree and no real forest. If a thought doesn't cause something to happen, it doesn't affect the plot, and it doesn't cause change.

So I'm trying to suggest that you "bring it out," or as Theresa says, "Make it happen on the page."

For example, you've done all this character work, and you know that your young man hero uses sports as a way to avoid intimacy with his girlfriend. So you have a passage which makes a clear connection between sports and avoidance of intimacy:
Kyle watched Sarah go into the bedroom. He should follow her. He could kiss her. But it was Monday night. Denver was playing the Steelers. He'd watch the game instead. Maybe drink a few beers. He'd let Sarah get a good night's sleep for now.

Okay, we get the point. He chooses sports over sex, like all those guys in the beer commercials. Trouble is, his thinking this doesn't DO anything. He thinks it. Sarah doesn't hear it. So she can't really respond to it. Yes, she's probably soon to huddle in her bed, weeping, but we won't know it or experience it. Most important, his thinking that doesn't cause anything to HAPPEN. Next Monday night, when the game comes on, he's going to think the same thing.

Contrast that with a scene where he actually DOES something that manifests what he's thinking. He could even SAY what he's thinking, what the heck.

Kyle watch Sarah go towards the bedroom. She stopped at the door and turned back to him, inclining her head invitingly. "We could go to bed early."

He ought to rise. He ought to go with her. He ought to kiss her. But he glanced up at the clock. "Game's about to start," he said. He picked up the remote.

"Oh, right. We can't miss that."

"It's Denver against the Steelers! You know what that means?"

"It means you would rather watch football than make sweet love to me, that's what it means!"

"No," he said in a soothing tone. "It means which of them gets the last wild card in the playoffs."

"And that's more important than sex. Than me."

"Of course not. But--" he hit the power button and, as the game came on, said, "Kickoff's about to happen. And it won't happen again. But you'll still be here after the game. And then-- I promise! I'll do anything you want!"

"Don't bother," she said, shoving the door open and disappearing into the bedroom.

Okay. She was mad. He could deal with that. Later. Now, the Denver kicker put it into the endzone, and the game began.

Sometime in the second quarter, she moved out. But Denver, who would have thought it, was two touchdowns ahead, and his fantasy football team -- wow. And everyone said he was nuts to have drafted Kyle Orton.

(Apologies to all those who find it really unlikely that Denver has any chance at a wild card berth:)

Showing the conflict in action (turning on the TV) is more powerful than lack of action (his not going into the bedroom). Dialogue (his saying it to her) is more powerful than thought (his thinking the same thing). And change (her leaving him) is more powerful than routine (her weeping unfulfilled in her bed).

Put it in the scene. If it just happens in the realm of pure thought, it's unlikely to inspire much action, interaction, reaction... or plot and character change.

Confront the conflict. Otherwise your characters will become minds without bodies or mouths, and your readers will end up in bed like Sarah, weeping softly and feeling unfulfilled. :)

(And I know some of you are going to say -- not just think! see?-- that "thought" is fine if it leads to decision. Sure. But SHOW the decision, or at least its effects, like Kyle can wake up in the morning and find himself alone in a bedroom devoid of womanly things.)


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