07 July 2010


From my slushpile and the class I just taught, as well as this post by Les Edgerton, I've surmised that the biggest issue that newer writers struggle with is CONFLICT.

Conflict drives Story. In fact, I'd go right out there and say Conflict IS Story. And that conflict essentially amounts to the events, people, and character traits that stand between a Protagonist and his or her goal.

The best stories state that goal very early on; hell, even in the first line, maybe. Protag wants X. Will they get it? amounts to the story question. (The easiest way to think of this is in a murder mystery: the detective wants to find the murderer.) Event number one establishes what our protag wants (inciting incident). Event two is something that keeps him from it. And so on, until the end, when Protag finally overcomes all the obstacles to achieve what they want (or not).

The best stories have conflict at every turn. Absolutely NOTHING works out for our poor protagonist. (Think of the hotel suite waking scene in THE HANGOVER as a prime example.)

If someone throws up, he should get it on himself. If a girl walks down a lonely alley, something bad should be lurking. If a boy wants to meet a girl, someone had better step between them. If a character is scared of spiders, its best for your story if one drops on the top of her head by the second act.

Exercise: go through your latest story, chapter, whatever, and see if anything works out for your character. Nine times out of ten (actually, closer to ten times out of ten) the story will benefit from it not working out.


Kat Heckenbach said...

I would agree with this to a point. There is the opposite argument that the story needs to make forward progress. Some writers take what you said too far, and the story becomes nothing more than a series of mishaps, leading around like a wandering rabbit trail, until the protag stumbles upon the resolution. Each "bad" thing that happens needs to be an obstacle overcome that gets them closer to their goal in a tangible way. If something good comes from the bad--information that would otherwise have been missed, for example--then the reader gets even more satisfaction from the conflict.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Good points. And often the goal isn't quite what they started out thinking it was, or they achieve other smaller goals on the way to the big one.

And of course conflict doesn't work if you have a protag who isn't actively trying to get to their goal.

I'm trying to simplify it, though, for writers who don't have nearly enough conflict or obstacles in their writing, which is a far more common problem in my slush than writers who have unrelated, random obstacles.

lesleylsmith said...

Good points Betsy and Kat! :)
I'm off to add some more conflict...

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