Posts Tagged Conflict

How to add jeopardy to your story before the main conflict starts

ministryofstoriesJeopardy is a sense of instability – and a powerful way to hook the reader.

Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.

What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.

Genre and generalisations

How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.

But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?

Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.

Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms

But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.

Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.

Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?

sidebarcropBeware of timebombs

Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.

Other characters
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?

When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:

  • relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
  • ways for characters to spoil things for each other
  • a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character

I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.

Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.

Thanks for the canned unease pic Ministryofstories.

Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!

If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter

 

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We can’t leave plot alone – first in a series of weekly chats with editor Victoria Mixon

Back in January, Victoria Mixon and I amused ourselves mightily with a couple of rambling discussions about writing and editing – here and here.

For those who don’t know, Victoria is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction, A Practitioner’s Manual, and her blog was rightly voted one of the top 10 writing sites in the Write To Done awards (in which Nail Your Novel was a runner-up).

We enjoyed ourselves so much in January we decided to do it again, this time with slightly more focus on the core elements of novel-writing. For each week in April we’re going to be tackling plot, character, prose and whatever else seems important. As you can probably tell, we haven’t firmed up the last topic yet – so if you have a request, get it in now.

Join us over at Victoria’s, where we’re discussing hooks, conflicts, faux resolution and climaxes – as well as the biggest problems we see with client manuscripts. And what saves the Terminator from being flesh-coloured goo.

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My book is Kryptonite: do I need a secret identity?

If you change your name, can you hide from the people you’re writing about?

I’ve had this rather interesting question: I saw you had written under pen names, and wondered: Is it difficult to keep your cover? I very much need an assumed name, as my novel will include details that will not go down well here with the powers that be. Said details won’t include names and faces, even so, I’d like to stay on the safe side. Do you have any advice or warnings?

As they say in magazines, names have been concealed and details changed to protect identities.

First – is it easy to keep my cover? Yes, because I’m not in hiding or in danger of being unmasked. The ‘authors’ whose names I ghostwrite under are real people. They appear on TV, they go to book signings and talk to the media and fans when necessary. Everyone who knows I wrote the books is within the industry and has a vested interest in keeping my cover. (But that also means I have to too…)

But it’s a different matter if you are genuinely worried about the consequences if someone can identify you as the author. And I’m probably not about to make you feel better.

Here is a law of writing. If you write a book, people you know will see themselves in it even if you categorically did not use them. Your family, your ex, your colleagues. Even your cat if he could be bothered.

Names have been changed

Will a pseudonym mean you don’t provoke those comparisons? It might be enough for situations where the aggrieved party might write an angry letter or exclude you from the Christmas card list. But this correspondent seems to fear a lot more than that.

If your revelations are sufficiently annoying, using a pseudonym is virtually pointless. The publisher is not obliged to keep your identity a secret if a legal letter arrives or the heavies call. They don’t have the code of conduct that journalists have, of protecting their sources. Publishing contracts, even for the sweetest book about daffodil husbandry, have a clause that requires the author to bear the cost of any legal claims or injunctions.

Changing names and faces does not stop someone being identified in your story, as many libel cases will demonstrate. If your friends will see themselves in your novel no matter what, think how sensitive someone might be if they suspected they or their organisation were the material for your book. You might find yourself with a libel writ, in breach of a contractual obligation, or even the Official Secrets Act. If you feel you must hide your true identity, maybe you would be better seeking legal advice and finding safe ways to use sensitive material. Much depends, of course, on what you’re writing, but an agent should be able to advise you, or a specialist media lawyer.

However, if you are determined to make fiction out of your experience, there’s a lot you can do without risking legal repercussions or concrete overshoes.

Spilling the beans – the safe way

Here was my advice.

First, write a private draft, with everything you have to say, for your eyes only. Then think about how to make it into a story. Real life has a habit of being messy, meandering and inconclusive. It often lacks coherence, artistry and all the neatness that make a crafted story satisfying.

Then start to camouflage – by looking for ways to change the story into fiction while telling a core truth.

Find themes to highlight – this will allow you to hone your main plot/ sub plot structure.

Remodel the characters into roles. There will probably be far too many people in the real-life version, so you’ll have to merge some of them. And in fiction, characters tend to have defined roles. There will be a hero, an antagonist, perhaps a mentor, perhaps a loyal friend. Make a list of character archetypes.

Sometimes using archetype lists can seem too formulaic, but you’re not doing this to paint by numbers, you’re working out what to do with a messy, real cast. Terrell Mims has an excellent series on character archetypes and how they work in a story.

Make a conscious effort to let go of real events. You have passed into fiction now – the gods aren’t going to examine you on what really happened. Your duty is to make a story that examines the themes, motivations and behaviours that kicked you to the writing desk in the first place. Identify gaps in the story and invent egregiously to fill them. It will probably be much better than the real version was, and will carry your truths more convincingly to the reader’s heart.

If you’re having trouble getting it all in one book, don’t try. Save material for another.  This isn’t your only shot and publishers want a writer who can run and run.

Of course, all of us pour our life experiences, relationships, traumas and triumphs into our fiction – that’s unavoidable. For some of us the urge to write comes from a zeal to lift a lid, right a specific wrong. It’s possible to do that under quite a heavy smokescreen.

What would you add? Have you had to tell a story and camouflage it heavily? Relax… your relatives, friends, former employers will never read this blog… Share in the comments!

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How NOT to get the reader empathizing with frustrated characters

Don’t make this big mistake when you’re writing about a character in a dull or frustrating job

I was looking at a thriller script. It featured police officers protecting witnesses. There’s a scene where one of the MCs is sitting in the car reading Marvel comics instead of watching the house they’re in. One of the other officers says to him ‘can’t you act professionally?’. The comic-reading MC says ‘when I’m put in the front car I’ll act like a pro’. The screenplay is full of bickering like this.

Can we really believe that anyone who has a job would behave this way? Much less someone who has had to go through police selection and training. The writer wanted him to be a likable maverick, frustrated that he’s getting nowhere. But instead of empathizing with him, we think he’s an unbelievable jerk.

This is a problem I see quite often – in novels as well as screenplays. The character is frustrated with a ‘normal’ life. Usually that’s a rich seam to mine because readers find plenty of frustrations in their own lives and will understand them. But the writer shows them bickering, sniping, slacking off and being superior. They toss aside the dull report they’re supposed to be writing and they read scriptwriting manuals instead. They tell their colleagues how boring the company is. They act like they’re trying to get sacked because they really want to join a rock band.

 This is not how people in frustrating jobs really behave. Even when they are dreaming of something better.

 Ricky Gervais got it right in The Office. And Richard Yates has frustrating office life down to a T in Revolutionary Road.

Most of these characters hate their jobs. But they find ways to put up with it. They genuinely try to hide their frustrations and resentments, except with a few trusted people. Perhaps a collusive comment to an equally frazzled colleague at the water cooler; or letting off steam in the pub. Even then they may not dare expose their discontent fully – to other people or even to themselves.

Most people in frustrating jobs don’t bicker with their colleagues. They muddle along with them. They might even jolly each other through so it’s not so bad.

This is the key. Because these characters care about keeping the job. And that’s what makes their lives so frustrating. It’s why they don’t swagger around with an attitude that says ‘I’m a maverick and the rest of you are fools’. That version is the fantasy of a writer who’s been working on their own in Writerland for years and mixing only with other writers with the same lifestyle. (It’s possibly also why it has taken many writers so long to feature things that the rest of the world have had for years – like mobile phones.)

A frustrating life is an emotional state – usually a complex trap that the character is colluding with and has tangled feelings about. If it is being used to engage the reader’s sympathies, it needs to be presented with understanding, not superiority.

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