Tag Archives: conflict

Story By Numbers

“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.

I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.

Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.

So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.

(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)

Last week, a local college with offices on-base provided a free two-hour workshop: How to Write a Short Story

Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels. 

Cool idea


Emotional problem

Outer problem

False solutions

Final solution

For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story. 

Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.

The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted. 

Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.

Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.

The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.

Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?

But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.

It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept: 

Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.

The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.

Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?

What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.

Elements of Critique: Intensity

Yesterday’s post on critiquing hooks talked about looking for a device that creates reader interest and pressing questions at the beginning and end of a piece.

Today, I’m considering what to look for in the middle. Hooks might get me started, but something has to keep me going. There has to be some level of intensity in the piece.

Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

When critiquing a fiction piece or personal account, I’ll look for the conflict between characters and their circumstances. (I could have used that as my ‘c’ post, but constructive criticism is so essential to get right, it trumped conflict for that position.)

A character may struggle with internal conflict due to mutually exclusive values. “I know what I should do… but I know what I want to do to that conniving, rotten scoundrel…”

Interpersonal conflict should be present especially in dialogue. Otherwise, why pit those two characters against each other in a scene? If Bob and Jim are chatting and agreeing about everything, who wants to read that? They should have differing viewpoints on the subject in question, leading to a verbal clash, which keeps intensity high. If they don’t disagree, I suggest using different characters who do.

There’s also environmental conflict, where some circumstance or outside force is creating trouble for the characters in a piece. Maybe that’s an army invading their nation; maybe it’s an impending natural disaster. Something needs to create a constant pressure in order to sustain that intensity. If the reader is breathing easy for a batch of characters, then something should change fast to put them back into peril.

Finally, there might be thematic conflict where the characters and events serve to compare and contrast two ideas or positions. “Justice versus mercy” might be such an example, and for that I’ll point to Les Miserables. Societal ideals or even competing societies might clash to create that intense conflict the reader needs to keep interested.

Truthfully, in a long-length work, all of these can coexist. In a shorter piece, perhaps only one or two, done well, will fit.

The key with intense conflict is ensuring stakes are high. The character’s internal decision must have a profound impact on her life. The arguments between characters should have consequences beyond just a potential loss of friendship. The outside forces creating environmental conflict must matter. There must be a true threat to life as these characters know it.

That’s what I look for in a fiction piece.

In non-fiction writing, it’s more difficult to maintain intensity. Melodrama should be avoided, so everything can’t be the end of the world. “If I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, the bomb would explode, destroying the United Nations headquarters and plunging the world into war!”

No, not so much.

In order to consider the intensity of a non-fiction piece, I look for the above conflicts where applicable. Some writing might include true stories where those conflicts can shine and maintain interest.

But more often, I look for the “So what?” to the subject. What is the reader going to get out of this? Does this piece convince me as a hypothetical reader that it has something to say to me, something I need to hear?

If it’s a personal account of overcoming adversity, was the obstacle challenging enough that I can relate my struggles to the writer’s? If it’s an article about health or lifestyle, am I compelled by what the writer says on the subject? Would I even consider changing my ways?

Conflict comes into play here too, but it’s not quite like anything previously mentioned. The conflict for non-fiction is between a writer’s passion and a reader’s apathy. The writing has to make whatever points are necessary to persuade someone to care. It’s like a dialogue in a way, where the writer may have to assume and counter some of the arguments the disinterested reader might make.

No writing is going to be all things to all people, of course. Hoping so would be foolish.

But the biggest facet to intensity in writing is that the piece must mean a lot to the writer, so their passion shines through. Without that, to paraphrase Leonard, we might as well leave out the whole thing.

We’re a third of the way through the A to Z challenge. Thanks for joining me on what started for me as a spontaneous journey. Once I considered how passionate I am about critique group, it became easy to write the series – further proof of the point I’m trying to make in this post.

I’ve hit on several potential problems thus far. So the next two posts will take a turn toward the positive, starting with consideration of the journey we’re all on as writers.