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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

GETTING PERSONAL: Why Writing Conflict Can Get You In Trouble

Please welcome guest blogger Linnea Sinclair

“It’s all about me.” Isn’t that many a teenager’s mantra, many a parent’s nightmare? For a fiction writer looking to create gripping, realistic, and SALEABLE conflict though, it should be a requirement.

It’s all about me. Not me, the writer. But me, the main character. Because one very workable rule—okay, let’s not call it a rule. Let’s call it a TIP. One very workable tip in writing conflict is that conflict must be personal to the character in order for it to be effective.

For many of us raised on the big-screen disaster movies, that can be a somewhat hard tip to grasp. (And let’s keep in mind, too, that what works in movies often doesn’t work in written fiction. The two media are not the same, nor are they interchangeable.) Big screen action films almost always have cars sailing over cliffs, buildings exploding, tidal waves crashing, hurricanes roaring, and blizzards…well, blizzarding. Effective, eh? Certainly a cause for a character’s concern. Certainly a cause for conflict if one defines conflict as The Thing That Stops The Main Character From Achieving His Goal.

Trouble is—and yes, we’re talking about trouble—trouble is that trouble needs to be personal to reach maximum effectiveness. Trouble must have a reason to interplay with the characters.

Don’t believe me. It’s in the bible. In Matthew 5:45 we learn that rain falls on the just and the injust. Rain doesn’t care. Neither do blizzards. Blizzards blissfully blanket the antagonist and the protagonist. And a lot of other characters who might happen to be around in the chapter. The blizzard doesn’t care if it impedes the character’s goal or not. It just…blizzes. It’s what’s called Impersonal Conflict. The blizzard, the hurricane, the roaring forest fire doesn’t care about goals. It doesn’t have a goal of preventing another’s goal. It’s blind luck—or blind bad luck.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use impersonal conflict to create trouble in your manuscripts. It means you have to realize you’re using impersonal conflict, and realize that its overuse can get you into trouble. And not the kind of trouble you want for your story. Overuse of impersonal conflict leads to cartoonish conflict, a brand of TSTL plotting, if you will. You can violate the believability factor by overusing impersonal conflict. I mean, just how much bad luck can one character have? (Side note: in comedy, however, overusing impersonal conflict can be effective. But that’s a genre trope: the series of banana peels, the constant bad weather, the naked Chinese hit man in the trunk of the car…)

Personal conflict—conflict that has a specific if not thinking motivator behind it—is always the more effective. Sure, a blizzard that delays your hero from reaching O’Hare Airport by noon is certainly troublesome. But the Chicago cab driver who picks up your hero to take him to the airport—the cab driver who is actually a hit man hired by the antagonist—is some seriously scary stuff.

The blizzard is random. The assassin-cabbie is planned. The blizzard has no goal. The assassin-cabbie wants to get paid—and hence will act to keep his OWN goal from being thwarted. The assassin-cabbie will not give up. The blizzard will be in New Jersey by tomorrow.

The hero can wait out the blizzard.

The hero will have to out-run, out-gun, and out-think the assassin-cabbie.

Now, trap your hero in the cab with the assassin-cabbie in the midst of a blizzard…and you have a real fun story brewing.

Happy Trouble-making!

~Linnea

A former news reporter and retired private detective, Linnea Sinclair writes award-winning, fast-paced science fiction romance for Bantam Dell, including Gabriel’s Ghost, Games of Command, Hope’s Folly and her current best seller, Rebels and Lovers. Her short story, “Courting Trouble,” will be featured in Songs of Love & Death, an upcoming anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 16. 2010). Sinclair splits her time between Florida (winters) and Ohio (summers)—and the Intergalactic Bar & Grille at www.linneasinclair.com.

If you’d like to cause some trouble with Linnea, join her upcoming CHARACTER TORTURE 101 workshop here at FF&P: http://www.romance-ffp.com/event.cfm?EventID=89

11 comments:

Linda Leszczuk said...

Good thoughts. Thank you.

lynnrush said...

SWEET post! Thanks for this. I agree with, "trouble needs to be personal to reach maximum effectiveness."

Spot on!

Donna S. Frelick said...

It seems to me part of the problem with impersonal trouble is that the character can have no control over it. You can't stop a blizzard, or get around it, like you can an assassin-cabbie. (Though I do remember Captain Kirk and others finding ion storms useful in a pinch. ) I wonder, Linnea, if impersonal trouble could be used for settings or initiating events, though, you're right, most of the examples I'm coming up with are from movies (plane crashes, hurricanes, and the like).

Linnea Sinclair said...

Totally, Donna, you can use impersonal conflict/ "complication" to set up or intensify events. You can even USE impersonal conflict as long as you UNDERSTAND what it is you're using...savvy?

That's like saying I have a screwdriver and a hammer, and the hammer is wrong. No, the hammer isn't wrong (or right) until you apply it to a particular situation. (Hanging a picture on a wall, for example. Or removing a doorknob...)

The same is true of flavors of conflict.

The problem comes (and I judge a fair amount of RWA contests, so that's where much of my consternation arises) is that many writers don't "feel" the difference between impersonal conflict/complication AND "true" conflict, and they think--when asked to revise or rewrite--that MORE or BIGGER (ooh, let's throw in an earthquake DURING the hurricane!) is better.

When you watch news coverage of disasters, notice how the news teams ALWAYS focus in on one or three "personal stories." The reason is that it's very difficult to care deeply about two hundred thousand anonymous people. But the little girl clutching her teddy bear as she stands on the roof of her house, flood waters raging by...THAT wrenches heart strings. It's become personal. THAT little girl becomes us or a little girl we knew.

<> Actually, you can. You can hop in your car and drive out of the path of the hurricane. The hurricane WILL NOT FOLLOW YOU. The assassin-cabbie will.

~Linnea

Linnea Sinclair said...

The deleted part (it didn't let me block out Donna's quote using arrows..)

**It seems to me part of the problem with impersonal trouble is that the character can have no control over it. You can't stop a blizzard** Actually, you can. You can hop in your car and drive out of the path of the hurricane. The hurricane WILL NOT FOLLOW YOU. The assassin-cabbie will.

Dawn Chartier said...

Thank you Linnea and FF&P for a great post today.

It's all about the "personal conflict" something that touches a spot in all of our hearts.

Dawn
www.dawnchartier.com

Jessa Slade said...

Great post. I often find myself throwing in too many "complications" instead of "conflict," and then having to revise to make it more personal. Both are good, but -- as you say -- used for different purposes. I wonder if you might add a note on the place of internal conflict within personal conflict. We could call them:

Complication (impersonal problems)
Conflict (personal problems)
Conundums (intrapersonal problems)

:)

Linnea Sinclair said...

Jessa,
Actually "Conundrum" is a really good white wine... but that's another issue. ;-)

Actually not, if we spell it WHINE. Where internal conflict ceases to be effective is when the internal conflict is little more than whining.

Impactful internal conflict is based on belief systems, morals, values, goals. Things that either define the essence of a character (ie: spirituality) or define a goal (ie: desire to succeed as an attorney). Whining is when the character falls into the Oh-Poor-Me syndrome. We don't like people who whine. We don't root for characters who whine.

"Rooting for" is also an essential component in making character + conflict work. So if your conundrums are based on belief systems or values, then it's easier for the reader to understand and root for the character's success. If the conundrum through is based on complication or impersonal conflict (ie: it's raining again and that'll make my hair frizz and the hero will think I'm ugly) then it goes from comical to annoying as a source of conflict.

Again, in the comedy genre you have more leeway. The dithering Casper Milquetoast character who oh-poor-mes constantly is an expected stereotype there.

An interesting "value system" internal conflict I like to use in my classes (I learned it from William Noble) is this:

When we are the only two people around because of a natural disaster and a burning girder traps the man who raped me, do I let him die or do I help him and use him to save myself?

THAT's awesome internal AND external conflict. IMHO. ;-) And one helluva conundrum. ~Linnea

Sandra Allan said...
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Sandra Allan said...
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Sandra Allan said...

Wow Linnea! Your last example was powerful. Thanks <An interesting "value system" internal conflict I like to use in my classes (I learned it from William Noble) is this:

When we are the only two people around because of a natural disaster and a burning girder traps the man who raped me, do I let him die or do I help him and use him to save myself??