Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Creating Conflict with a Crucible

It's human nature to avoid conflict. Certain characters (ordinarily bad guys) may seek conflict as a tactic for aggression, but most of your characters won't. In fact, even when confronted with conflict by a bad guy, it's often in your character's best interest to turn his back on the conflict and walk away. If the reader asks herself why your character doesn't just walk away, you're in trouble. Her suspension of disbelief is at stake. So, you need a device to believably keep your characters locked in conflict.

A powerful device for doing so is the crucible.

A crucible is a piece of laboratory equipment you probably remember from high school chemistry. It's a small dish with a pouring spout, a dish that can withstand extremely high temperatures. Chemists use a crucible to heat solids to such high temperatures. For example, you might melt sulfur in one over a Bunsen burner. Or you may combine different substances in one and meld them together in white hot heat.

In the vernacular, a crucible is any severe trial people undergo.

As a literary device, a crucible is a relationship imposed by place or situation that bonds antagonistic characters together while their conflict heats up. The situation may be emotional or physical — moral or material. Characters caught in a crucible won't declare a truce or quit or walk away. This is either because they are trapped or because the motivation to continue opposing each other is greater than the motivation to walk away. A crucible can hold characters in it for a scene or a series of scenes, but usually it holds them throughout the story.

A marriage, a jail cell, a family, a lifeboat, a foxhole, a military unit, and the workplace can be such a crucible. Intimate blood relationships are a crucible. Dependency is a crucible.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Creating Conflict with a Closed Environment

A simple device for keeping your characters locked in conflict is the Closed Environment. No bond/relationship is necessary to keep the characters in it. It's simply a situation with little or no connection to the outside world.

What goes on in the closed environment is hidden from the outside world. Characters within the closed environment cannot readily receive help or escape. So, a closed environment protects the bad and makes the good vulnerable.

For example, the internal affairs of any private or secretive organization happen in a closed environment. An island on which your characters are shipwrecked is a closed environment. A space capsule. A home. And so on.

Notice that a closed environment can also be, or become, a crucible. But a closed environment isn't necessarily a crucible. For example, in Moby Dick, the ship, the Pequod, is a closed environment. But the whole sea contains the situation/crucible that binds Captain Ahab and the White Whale.

The difference? The characters in a closed environment needn't be bonded to each other. The characters in a crucible are tightly bound in a stressful relationship.

You can usually improve a scene by setting it in a closed environment to enhance the conflict. In fact, consider a closed environment for every scene, because it always increases the tension. To leaven the conflict in a scene that doesn't provide the stress of a crucible, see if you can change the location to a closed environment. All you need do is use a location that makes it hard for characters to leave.

Plotting Tip: In the beginning, while imagining your characters, consider what closed environments and/or crucibles they might interact in. It's like drilling for oil: you must drill in the right place. The plotting ideas you come up with this way will be much better than those you come up with by just drilling anywhere.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005


Lajos Egri, in his classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing, calls conflict the "origin of action" and "that titanic atomic energy whereby one explosion creates a chain of explosions." But perhaps James M. Frey puts it best in How to Write a Damn Good Novel. He says that story is struggle and that conflict is the "gunpowder" of storytelling.

Conflict and struggle go hand-in-glove with each other. No conflict, no struggle. No struggle, no conflict.

Conflict not only moves the plot, it brings characters to life. For, in the light of conflict, character is defined. That's because the way people respond to obstacles, resistance, barriers, and conflict sharply characterizes them, telling us who they are. This is largely because conflict forces them to make decisions and act. So, when you bring your characters into conflict, you breathe a soul into them.

A stretch of action or dialog without conflict — present or imminent — is, in a word, boring.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wordiness creeps into everyone's writing.

Wordiness creeps into every writer's work. Here are just a few examples of common wordy phrases and their potential concise alternatives.

Wordy Phrase >>> Potential Alternative(s)
is able to >>> can
due to the fact that >>> because
in an effort to >>> to
in order to >>> to
in regard to >>> about or on
in the course of >>> during or in
in the near future >>> soon
in view of >>> since
in view of the above >>> so
afford an opportunity >>> allow
on a daily basis >>> daily
by means of >>> by

If you would like a dictionary of fancy words and wordy phrases set opposite their potential alternatives, the Plain English Campaign offers one you can download.

Note that this organization is based in the United Kingdom and that some words are spelled differently in British English than in American English. The most common difference is that British English often spells words with "ISE" that American English spells with "IZE." For example, o-r-g-a-n-i-s-a-t-i-o-n is the British spelling of organization.



Monday, December 19, 2005

What Fiction Readers Want

Though a novel is a commercial product, like a drug or the performance of a stage play, it provides a service. So, the writer should think of novel writing as a performing art and a service industry. The key to success in any service business is a keen sense of what the customer wants. What he really wants — which isn't necessarily what he says he wants. For example, a tennis pro knows that his clients want, not just help, but also praise and encouragement. A divorce lawyer knows that his client wants, not just a big settlement, but also to make the ex suffer. Television executives know that in Europe and North America most people watch the news, not for the facts, but rather for "interpretations" of the facts that support their belief that their politics/political party is good and the opposition is bad.

So, you must be as perceptive about your readers as you are about your characters. What is the service a novel performs for the reader? In a word, transportation. Or absorption. James M. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, says,

As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.

In this altered state of consciousness, the reader can become so absorbed that you must shake him to get his attention.

Absorption is probably the better word: the reader is absorbed/transported into the story world. This experience is often called the "Fictive Dream," and that is as good a name for it as any. It's like a daydream, except that the reader isn't its author. It occurs at a subconscious level. Your success as a novelist depends largely on your skill at inducing it.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Role of Decisions in Conflict

As I tell tennis players, the best way to pressure people is to confront them with choices. That's because they fear making the "wrong" one.

If a person's fear of making decisions is greater than his desire, that fear extinguishes desire.

Have you ever known a person who cannot make a decision? I knew a woman once who couldn't even decide how she wanted her coffee. I kid you not: before ordering it, she had to play everyone at the table for their opinion on the matter.

Have you ever seen a group of people that cannot make any decision on how to deal with any problem? No matter how harmless that decision might be? And no matter how much they whine about the problem? I had the psychedelic experience of being caught in one once. You couldn't force those people to make any choice, any decision. The moment anybody proposed a solution to a problem and asked them to adopt it, the problem was suddenly "no problem." They found innumerable ways to indefinitely postpone voting on a proposal. In short, they couldn't make a decision to save their souls.

Don't put such pathetic characters in your novel (except perhaps as cartoon characters fit for a walk-on role in comic relief). Nobody finds them interesting = worth knowing.

They either want nothing enough to lift a finger to get it or they don't know what they want. As Lajos Egri says, you can't achieve anything but static conflict with characters who cannot make a decision. Result: no story. He goes on to say,

You cannot expect rising conflict from a man who wants nothing or does not know what he wants.

All you can do to move such a "plot" is introduce jumping (unmotivated) conflict. Which still doesn't result in a story.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Bait-and-Switch Trick

The opening scene you tease the reader with must be relevant. If your opening hooks potential readers, they buy the book. So, they hate the old Bait-and-Switch trick, which makes readers feel cheated. It can really hurt sales of future works.

In Technique in Fiction, Lanning and Macauley say that

... a writer has to discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes fairly irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story…. An exciting, dramatic beginning is entirely possible, but it must be justified completely by the story that follows.

So, no false advertising with a magnificent, breathtaking opening if nothing ever comes of the earth-shaking event that occurs in it. In the Bait-and-Switch trick, the principal hook is often a fascinating character we follow through this riveting scene. He is developed like a main character, and we read largely to plumb the mysteries of him. But, suddenly he vanishes on us, appearing only in the opening scene. Which proves to be an irrelevant bit of action, involving irrelevant characters, tacked on the front of a different kind of story told in a different way. Bummer. We are interested in that character and want to know his story! Indeed, the real main characters who then appear can hardly compete with him for our interest, because they seem dull and uninteresting by comparison. Gradually the reader discovers that significant story questions he has been pursuing the answers to will never be answered. In other words, he has been drawn off on a false scent by the opening. That isn't just disappointing, it's confusing and makes the reader miss, or misunderstand, a lot.

In the Bait-and-Switch trick even the quality of the prose often falls off after the opening. Gone is the captivating sensual detail that brings the story world to shimmering life and transports us into an exotic setting.

The Bait-and-Switch trick can kill your career. That's because the reader doesn't bother to taste the opening of your next novel when he comes upon it in a bookstore: he doesn't trust it to show him what the novel will be like. And he remembers feeling cheated by your first one.

A common example of the Bait-and-Switch trick is pushing sales with a steamy erotic scene tacked on the front of a novel that doesn't keep the promise this opening scene makes about what kind of story this is. That too is false advertising. Beware a publisher who recommends doing this, because that publisher knows this trick can score a fast buck on your first novel but ruin your chances of a successful career under that pen name.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Inner Conflict

Inner conflict is the most powerful conflict, and it's the key to creating memorable characters.

Inner conflict is opposition from an antagonist within, in the form of doubts, misgivings, guilt, remorse, or indecision. Since a character's wants won't interest a reader unless the reader views them as important, inner conflict is usually moral conflict with the character's self-worth (self-concept) at stake. You can think of it as a battle between two internal voices, one the protagonist and one the antagonist. They may be the voices of conflicting passions, or one may be the voice of reason and the other the voice of passion, or they may be the voices of equally desirable choices. They tear your character on the horns of a dilemma.

Hamlet is a story of inner conflict. In most of his soliloquies we hear the voice of the Critic Within. The inner dialog of the old man in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is another story in which we hear this voice. It distances us from ourselves by addressing us in the second person. It's a little voice in the head that pipes up at every opportunity to say things like
You couldn't hit a backhand to save your soul.
There you go, choking again.
You are a klutz.
Don't confuse that voice with the voice of the real person inside — the one that thinks in the first person. The Critic Within is the internalization of others' voices. It thinks what we think others will think. Or it's the voice that delivers speeches to a mirror. Its thoughts are speeches, not really the inner person's spontaneous thoughts.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Adavantage of Opening Story Questions About the Core Conflict

When you begin reading a novel, you begin a journey, not a bout of wandering. Opening story questions about the core conflict are like road signs that tell you whether you're headed toward Topeka or Timbuktu. Would you follow anybody on a journey if he didn't tell you where it lead? Of course not, because you know there are only bad reasons for him to withhold that information. At best, he does so for absurd, conceited reasons; at worst, he is a con artist.

In my opinion, contemporary authors undervalue these road signs. Business writers and technical writers learn the value of "stating the bottom line at the top" with an opening summary. Writing is like a trail, and an opening summary is like a compass heading that makes the trail much easier to follow, because it tremendously aids the reader in seeing what you're getting at. Long-range opening story questions about the core conflict are the fictional equivalent of that precious opening summary. Even if they are mysterious, they at least give the reader a heading. And she can always turn back to page one to get her bearings whenever she wonders what to make of the story. So, I think authors should strive for opening story questions about the core conflict.

But not at the price of selling the book. The aim of hooks is to hook the reader, so that is Job One. Try to make the bait irresistible. That's usually best done with catchy short-range story questions about exciting action or dialog in the opening scene. Which can hardly be about the core conflict, because you haven't set up the core conflict yet. But, whenever you resort to short-range hooks, remember to then start revealing the core conflict as soon as possible.



Friday, December 09, 2005

Hooks: Opening Story Questions

The most important story questions are the first ones, the ones you plant in the opening. Story questions posed in the opening are called hooks. Get your hooks in the reader immediately.

Why? Remember that prospective readers pick your novel off a shelf in the bookstore and start reading the first page. Make them take it to the cash register.

They are as fussy as trout, who have countless offerings to pick from. So, you must tie very tempting flies and tantalize your prey with them.

You have but seconds to sink your hooks into them!

These initial story questions are also the hardest to devise, because nothing has happened yet and you have no characters yet. Consequently hooks ordinarily create Type 1 Suspense, arousing curiosity only. If you write literary fiction, strive for opening story questions about the core conflict. If you write mainstream or genre fiction, your opening story questions needn't relate to the core conflict. They can be short-range story questions about the action or dialog in the opening scene.

Which type of opening story question is better? It's a question of form versus function. Purists prefer rigid classical form with long-range opening story questions about the core conflict, so that "the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end."

Purism is folly. Nonetheless, there is a good reason to consider using classical form, and I'll talk about that tomorrow.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Suspense by Hanging

The old movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo illustrates the power of suspense. Released in 1944, the title hinted that it was about the daring bombing raid the United States conducted less than six months after Pearl Harbor. This, of course, was a historical event that the audience already knew the outcome of. No suspense there.

The purpose of this bombing raid was to cheer American morale and to set Imperial Japan on its heels with the knowledge that we could strike the Japanese homeland. Those bombers getting off aircraft carriers and making it to where they could crash-land in China was a miracle.

The movie opens with an officer telling a group of fliers, "Boys, you're all volunteers to perform an exceedingly dangerous mission. It's so dangerous that it would be best for the safety of all of you not to discuss your possible destination even among yourselves." With that, the audience was left hanging.

Though there was no conflict in the first two-thirds of the film, the audience sat as still as if hypnotized, awaiting those thirty seconds over Tokyo.

Unlike your novel, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo had some powerful help generating suspense. There was, of course, still great suspense over the outcome of the war. We didn't know about the atomic bomb yet. We had already lost a half million lives, and at the unbelievable rate of about 20,000 lives per South Pacific island. We were looking forward to an invasion of the Japanese main islands, with its 100 million inhabitants armed and trained to fight to the death.

Much of the suspense about this horrible war itself got transferred to the movie, so the movie could afford to forgo the usual conflict between main characters and still hold the audience.

Normally, powerful as it is, suspense wears off. It must constantly be renewed.

Though you renew it, however, you cannot maintain strong enough suspense about the core conflict to hold the reader to the end of your novel. In other words, you cannot maintain enough suspense about whether your hero will achieve his main goal. A novel is simply too long.

Though it grows, in the beginning, suspense about what will happen in the end is hardly gripping. But urgency increases suspense, so suspense about what will happen next can well be gripping.

Therefore, in every scene create suspense about the outcome of the conflict in that particular scene. Doing so gives the reader something immediate to wonder and worry about, heightening suspense.

In The Basic Formulas of Fiction, William Foster-Harris writes,

We do our best to paralyze the reader — freeze him to the book. All quivering helplessness, he waits to see what is going to happen next.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Type 1 & Type 2 Suspense

There are two types of suspense:
  • Type 1 Suspense: suspense characterized by reader curiosity (i.e., wonder)
  • Type 2 Suspense: suspense characterized by reader anxiety and apprehension (i.e., worry)
Type 1 Suspense can be created with a few words any time. No reader involvement is necessary. Type 2 Suspense can be created only if the reader is emotionally involved in the story. The reader is then interested as though affected by it. This type of suspense is usually connected to some sympathetic character, so it can hardly be created in the opening before any sympathetic character exists.

Type 2 Suspense racks the reader's strong desire that the hero achieve his goal. For example, we have a strong desire that Hamlet bring Claudius to justice. This is a positive goal. The hero's goal could just as well be negative, because he could just as well be trying to prevent something as accomplish something. Positive goals and desires create positive suspense, and negative goals and desires create negative suspense.

Negative Suspense makes readers hope that something will NOT happen. A good example is Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. He keeps us on the edges of our seats, hoping that French President Charles de Gaulle won't be assassinated.

This novel is also an example of how powerful suspense can be. Stein writes that, proposed as an outline of the plot, it was turned down by many publishers, including himself, because de Gaulle was already dead (of perfectly natural causes). So they doubted that it could create strong enough suspense to hold the reader. They were wrong.

Fortunately, Forsyth went ahead and wrote the manuscript anyway. True, Type 2 Suspense about the fate of the former French President was impossible after his death (and probably was impossible even before it in de Gaulle's case), and that is what literary fiction — with its emphasis on subtlety and character — usually strives for. But we didn't have to like and care about de Gaulle. In the manuscript Forsyth used plot to arouse gripping Type 1 Negative Suspense. He did this so masterfully that, even though de Gaulle was deceased, Forsyth achieved that resurrected him in the reader's mind.

Thus lowbrow mainstream fiction teaches highbrow literary fiction a lesson. Just as a hammer is no better than a screw driver, character is no better than plot for initially arousing suspense. Just always use the right tool for the story at hand.

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