Posts Tagged Conflict
This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.
And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.
So how can you flesh them out as individuals?
1 Look for incompatibility
The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.
So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.
Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.
2 Include this in the story
Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.
A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.
Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).
3 Humour, stress and swearing
Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.
4 Keep track of their different outlooks
With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.
Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.
Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.
5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters
You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.
You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)
And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?
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.
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!
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.