Monday, August 17, 2009

On Building Conflict

I was reading this morning in an attempt to find inspiration for this entry and stumbled across a great comment. I was reading an article by Linda Barlow where she is talking about conflict. She describes how it is crucial for the writer to keep throwing the characters into a series of building conflicts to keep the reader in suspense. She states that the ultimate goal is to keep the reader thinking that there is no way they will get together. But here was the twist that I want to talk about today. She goes on to state that the romance genre has a unique situation to deal with. We already know the ending. We know the hero and heroine are going to get together.


When I read a manuscript partial I ask for the first three chapters. The hope is, in those initial pages, I can see two things. A) The attraction that the hero and heroine may have to each other down the line; and B) Some level of conflict that is going to make this a tough decision for the two of them to work through. Let’s look at each:


THE ATTRACTION – Too often I put a manuscript down immediately when the only attraction the hero and heroine have is physical. Sure, this is the first contact before words, but in most cases, most mature people do not think this way. The first thought is not about how they really want to jump in the sack with the other person. Sure, teens might, but… The problem I have with this is that I lose my respect for the character when they think this way. I am hoping there is much more to the character than this lust. I want to see these characters as being right for each other. I want to know that the relationship WILL continue after I close the book in the end. Too often, all I see are characters that build the relationship off of lust of the satisfaction they get from the suspense of the moment. Is this really all they have?


Therefore, I am looking for an attraction that appreciates the other person for what and who they are. The characters may be on opposing sides of the table (the contractor and the environmentalist, the politician and the social worker) but we can still appreciate the command the other has in the room. We can appreciate the way they help each other. If anything, seeing that in the other person might bring up feelings from the past in one of the characters lives of things they wish they had, or of good feelings from another person.


THE CONFLICT – In this case, if the conflict you have set up for the reader is too easy to fix, then what is the point of the book. Sometimes, I don’t see any conflict at all. I was working with an author at a workshop once and we were talking about her book. The hero and the heroine knew each other once before, and now they were seeing each other in a different light. He was one that could always fix things and make it right (and he still does), she had a secret that she couldn’t tell. Oh, and they both love each other. Now what? We had several problems here. First of all, her secret didn’t have to be. There was no justification for why she had to keep it hidden. Along the same lines, it had nothing to do with why the relationship couldn’t move ahead. As for the relationship, if they liked each other, why not move ahead with that. We sat down and had to create a confliction that forced the characters to make some serious decisions. They each had to learn to sacrifice and give up things they held precious to each other. (Yes, I know I’m not giving all of the details out about the story because I know she is still working on the project, but you get the idea).


On the other hand, when thinking about conflicts, we are not talking about issues that are the same and happen over and over again to the characters. When I see those, I think immediately of Susan Lucci in All My Children. Week after week she is faced with the exact same problem but always with a different guy. When you start seeing this in a story, you lose all respect for the character. I keep screaming, “Can’t you learn from your prior mistakes?”


I think the key to all of this is to think before you write. Plot it out. Know what the characters are really about and what is going to make this a good story. What the characters face in the story may be a surprise to them, but not to you.


Scott C. Eagan



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