Writing Powerful Scenes, Part 4: Conflict

From My Story Doctor:

When writing strong scenes, conflict is key. If there is no conflict, the “scene” probably doesn’t contribute much to the story.

Every story needs conflicts to drive it. You can write pieces that aren’t stories and that therefore have no conflict. We typically call these “slice of life” pieces or vignettes. They might simply be powerful bits of description that bring a setting or character to life, but they aren’t a part of a larger story.

At the heart of each story, you need a powerful conflict. This needn’t be a life-or-death conflict. It needn’t put an entire world in jeopardy. It only needs to move us powerfully, and that can happen for a couple of reasons. For example, conflict may move me powerfully because I relate to it so well. I’m often charmed when I see a shy boy struggling to let a girl know that she has become the object of his affection. I was terribly shy when I was a teen, so I get it.

On the other hand, the movie An Education is a beautifully crafted story about a promiscuous young woman who is in the act of “throwing her life away.” While I recognize that many people relate to that, the truth is that for most of my life, that was never a problem for me. I set goals and didn’t let things—like my attraction for a woman—get in the way.

There are of course conflicts that I can’t relate to at all, and if you start discovering early in a movie or a book that you just can’t “get into the story,” very often the problem lies in that the conflict doesn’t engage you.

As a writer, you can get around that problem by creating more sympathy for your character. You might create a protagonist who we care deeply about. Sometimes it helps just to create a likable personality, but that’s not always the case. Even a flawed character can gain sympathy if you pile on multiple conflicts for that character.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

Do What You Love

From David Farland:

When you choose to do what you love, you have the greatest job in the world. If you love writing, it’s worth doing.

Years ago, I had a reporter call and ask, “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?” The only answer I had was, “I’d just keep on being a writer.” Since it was Career Day, the reporter wrote an article in which he posed that question to dozens of people. As one person chose a career, he would call someone with that job and ask what they wanted to be. So a teacher wanted to be a doctor, a doctor wanted to be an astronaut, an astronaut wanted to be a senator, and the senator wanted to be? Me.

I’ve always loved that. As an author, I’ve got the greatest job in the world.

First of all, I can write in my pajamas. I don’t have to get up in the morning and shave.

In fact, I can keep my laptop by the side of the bed and write from bed, if I want.

On my average day, I don’t have to spend an hour getting up to dress properly, nor do I have to worry about my commute.

I rarely have to concern myself with office politics, so my stress levels are low.

I get to schedule my own work hours and my own vacations. Guess what? Because I love what I do, I get up at 4:00 A.M. to start the day, and I will work as long as I like without my boss whining about how I put in too much overtime.

I can work anywhere in the world. In the past, I’ve gone to Cabo San Lucas to focus on a project. My favorite place is to write on the beach, just as the sun is coming up on a perfectly still morning. But I’ve also had good writing days in mountain cabins, in busy airports, and even while relaxing in a coffee shop.

And I make good money as a writer. When my daughter was twelve, she came home from school one day and asked tearfully, “Are you a drug dealer?” I told her no. She knew I was a writer. But she said, “Well, that’s what everyone says.” Apparently, my new neighbors felt that I had no visible means of support, that I spent too much time sun-bathing in the middle of the day (usually by 2:00 P.M. I’m ready for a break), and that I wasn’t smart enough to be a hedge-fund manager.

To be honest, I often feel bad for those poor folks who aren’t writers, folks stuck in dead-end jobs. I was on Facebook earlier and saw that one friend had been “made redundant” at his school in England, another had found himself in the same crappy job for 14 years and had never been able to get ahead, since his managers felt that his health issues kept him from being the kind of person that they could trust to be at work every day.

Several friends that I’ve known for more than thirty years wanted to be writers but took nice safe jobs with major corporations. Over the years, many of them lost those nice jobs time and time again.

So I’m feeling very grateful to be a writer today. Even when the going sometimes gets tough, I just keep doing what I love.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

Three Mistakes In Tone

From Dave Farland:

One of the most common problems I see with new writers is a “mistake in tone.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever played in a band. A new kid comes in, you’re trying to play a song, and he blats out a sour note on a trumpet. The same thing happens in writing.

It usually happens because the writer wants so badly to impress the reader that he tries too hard, thus calling attention to himself and sounding a sour note.

Over-exaggeration

For example, the writer might want to put a character in gripping danger, so he might say, “The crocodile opened a mouth as wide as the Nile.”

Well, that’s exaggeration.

Usually the writer will continue exaggerating, telling us that the crocodile is a “perfect predator,” “honed by a three hundred million years of evolution,” “with bullet-proof armor” and so on. But really it’s just an oversized lizard.

The writer doesn’t understand that truth can be terrifying in fiction. If you give us the right details of sight, sound, smell and texture, creating the perfect descriptions, you can bring the crocodile to life and you don’t have to exaggerate. They’re scary enough.

 In fact, by over-exaggerating a description, the reader is silently thinking, “Yeah, right.” And because they know that you’re stretching the truth, instead of creating greater danger, you may be undercutting your work, actually reducing the sense of fear that you’re trying to engender.

Maudlin Prose

You can also ruin your tone when you’re trying to arouse strong sympathy for a character. Perhaps your heroine Penelope starts out in a story doing just fine, and then her boyfriend dumps her, her kitten dies, her evil stepmother tries to sell her as a whore, and she discovers that the pimple on her face is filled with flesh-eating bacteria.

Somehow it seems that when an author tries to overemphasize a character’s problems, they just start piling them up until they sound absurd.

Now, in real life, a person can indeed have problems stack up until they are overwhelming. I was just reading about albinos in Tanzania who are hunted and killed because the locals believe that they’re reincarnated ghosts. A young albino girl with skin cancer was attacked by her father and a bunch of machete-wielding men. It turns out that witchdoctors like to make potions out of the albinos’ body parts, which can sell for up to $75,000 on the black market. I can imagine that if I tried to write a story about that 14-year-old girl, it might sound maudlin even if I didn’t exaggerate her problems at all.

But that’s the point: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. A true story written as fiction can feel contrived. Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t mean that it should happen in fiction.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland