Thursday, April 08, 2010

How To Train Your Conflict

Whether you love him or you hate him, Bob Mayer has a jam-up definition of a novel: it's a story about a person with a problem, and how s/he solves it.

Okay, so that's a rough paraphrase that came from a workshop at RWA a few years ago. That being the case, it could be a really bad paraphrase, or he could have scrapped his definition in the years since.

But I like it, because it sums up what a novel is all about: conflict.

I don't care what kind of genre you're talking about, if you don't have conflict, you don't have a story worth reading.

I mean, strip away the symbolism and everything else in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, and you find that the reader hung on to see if the old man would make it back alive, and with his fish. (If you haven't read it, I'm not telling you whether he did or not. Hemingway rocks. Go read him, but don't ever try to write like him.)

Yeah, yeah, I know, we loves us some heroes, and we identify with our heroines, but if they're set in a picture perfect world with everything coming up roses, we'd start to hate 'em pretty fast.

We talk alot about "hooks" and "high concept" and all those nebulous industry buzz words. Me? I think it all boils down to conflict. Oh, and not minding putting your characters in their worst nightmares. We writers are sadistic like that.

I find that animated movies make for great illustrations of conflict. Maybe it's because it has to be fairly clearcut for kids. Maybe animated script writers are just better at it. Maybe I just have a thing for animated movies and I never did grow up. (Hey, you don't have to agree with me!)

Take How To Train Your Dragon for instance. I saw it last weekend, and I love, love, love it! (Okay, you, in the back row, no teasing about me still liking kiddie movies.)

The plot boils down to this: clutzy son of dragon slayer wants to grow up to be like dad, but then, aaack, discovers he likes dragons. How can he be like dad if he doesn't want to kill a dragon? How can he kill a dragon if he likes dragons?

The thing that makes readers keep turning those pages at 2 a.m. when they should be in bed, asleep, ready for that 6 a.m. alarm and work, well, it's conflict. It's the question: how will they EVER solve this?

So conflict has to be ...

Organic: notice that in How To Train Your Dragon, the son was already different -- not a natural at dragon slaying. The conflict came out of his own personality. He didn't suddenly decide he wanted to be an accountant or something (not that there's anything wrong with accountants.)

Sustainable: it has to last and last and last. It has to look unsolvable. In a romance, the best way to do that is to make sure that if the hero wins, the heroine loses and vice versa. Bonus points, too, if the writer can make said couple love each other so much by the end of the book that they can't stand to see the love of their life lose.

Solved by growth: a novel's characters grow and mature and learn during the course of the story -- or they should. So any solution or resolution has to come (again organically) from the story. The clues should be there all along, and please, please, please don't spoil it with a plot device that screams, "Oh, I painted myself into a corner, so, er, don't mind the footprints."


Piedmont Writer said...

Fantastic post. "The thing that makes peole stay up until 2am reading..." That's what I want to do in my book, and I think I'm achieving it now with my Thursday posts. (I post excerpts from my current WIP and I actually have *fans*)

Charmaine Clancy said...

I LOVE this post. Simple and clear. : -)

Stephanie Faris said...

Great post! And so true. Have you read Goal, Motivation, and Conflict? It's old...from the 90s when I started writing, but it's all about listing what your main characters wants, why he/she wants it, and what is standing in the way. That book and workshop helped me SO much.

Cynthia Reese said...

Anne, you are SO much braver than I am ... it's all I can do to send my stuff to my CPs and my editor. In fact, there have been times when I've wanted to chase the Fed Ex guy down and get that MS back! :-) I've really been enjoying your excerpts.

Charmaine, glad that for once I was simple and clear. Can I quote you to The Husband??

Stephanie, I love me some GMC! It's not old ... it's a classic!

Michelle McLean said...

Great post, and so true! Who wants to read a story about a perfect character with a perfect life who gets everything they want when they want it and live happily ever after? Not only boring but pretty irritating too :) Gotta have me some conflict! :)

Al said...

Great post.
It just gets all the more complex when you weave in additional characters all with their own potential for conflict.

Mia said...

Wonderful post. I like Bob Mayer's definition of a novel. Obviously there's more to a book than just that, but if you strip everything else away, it really does come down to a story about a person with a problem ;)

And ahem, in my WIP, I'm in the 'oh, snap, I just painted myself into a corner! How am I going to end this?' stage. *sigh* I'm slowly figuring the ending out, though :)

Cynthia Reese said...

Thanks, Al! And you're right ... just like in life, the more people, the more complex things get!

Mia, I SO know the feeling of painting myself into corners ... I've done it so often that I am going to consider my words latex and not oil-based -- easy clean-up with the delete key!

Linda G. said...

Love the post!

I contend I come up with some of my best scenes by writing myself into a corner, and thus forced to write myself a window to crawl out of. Maybe I need the pressure. ;)

Tawna Fenske said...

All you blog readers should pay special attention to Cynthia on the issue of conflict! She's the one who makes sure my books actually HAVE conflict (something I'd be lousy at without her!)