Tag Archives: Conflict tension and pacing

Crafting contrasts: @TadWilliams and Tolkien – how contrasts drive the story #amwriting

One of my favorite quotes for writers comes from the Buddha. “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a significant reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. It was written in a highly literate style that everyone understood a century ago.

Lengthwise, the saga isn’t as long as people make it out to be when compared to Robert Jordan‘s or Tad Williams’ epic (and highly literate) fantasy series. The LOTR series totals only 455,175 words over the course of all three books.

Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, war and peace, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil posed no threat to their peace and prosperity?

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairTad Williams’s masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair, is the first book in the fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. These are the first three books in the epic Osten Ard series.  I read this book when it first went to paperback and had to re-read it again immediately upon finishing it. This book (and indeed the whole series) had a profound impact on me, and also my children when they became older teens.

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams’ Osten Ard books, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fantasy fiction. Both feature an epic central quest and smaller side quests, all of which must be completed for the protagonists to arrive at the final resolution.

Through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built.

It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. His work has inspired a generation of fantasy writers: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

In all his works, whether it’s the paranormal Bobby Dollar series or his epic Osten Ard series, Tad Williams’ novels come to life because he juxtaposes emotions in his characters and builds contrasts into every setting in his worlds. Ease and beauty are juxtaposed against harshness and deprivation.

f scott fitzgerald The Great GatsbyNo matter where we live, San Francisco, Seattle, or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to every reader. We have each experienced pain and loss, joy and love.

When the author successfully uses the contrasts of our human experience to tell their story, the reader empathizes with the characters. They live the story as if they were the protagonist.

So, what do I mean by contrasts in world-building? It can be shown in subtle ways.

Contrasting plenty against poverty in your world-building shows the backstory without requiring an info dump.

First comes the sunshine, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast gives the story texture, and pacing turns a wall of words into something worth reading.

In our real world, war, famine, and flood are followed by times of relative peace and plenty. The emotions and experiences of people living through all those times are the real stories.

This is not just played out in fantasy novels; it’s our human history and our future.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We shouldn’t limit our reading to the old favorites that started us on this writing path. You may not love the novels on the NY Times literary fiction bestseller list but it’s a good idea to read one or two of them every now and then as a means of educating yourself.

What you don’t like is as important as what you enjoy. Why would a book that you dislike be so successful? No matter how much money a publisher throws at them, some books are stinkers.

It’s alright to admit you disliked a book that Oprah or Reese Witherspoon recommends.

I despised House of Sand and Fog from page one but read it to the end. It begins in a bad place, and continues downhill, an unrelentingly depressing novel that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Ugliness followed by more ugliness doesn’t make the ugliness beautiful.

clouds ms clipartPlot, in my opinion, is driven by the highs and lows. You don’t need to pay for books you won’t like. Go to the library or to the secondhand bookstore and see what they have from the NYT bestseller list that you would be willing to examine.

Give that book a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—it resonate with you?

  • Did the book have a distinct plot arc?
  • Did it have a strong opening that hooked you?
  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?
  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?
  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?
  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?
  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?
  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?
  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing.

Answering these questions will make you think about your own work. You will put more thought into how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


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Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

When we sit down to read a book, most readers don’t consciously look for certain key elements, but we know when something is missing. Unfortunately for most authors, I am not most readers. I can’t just read a book anymore. I must dissect it to see what makes it tick. When a story works well, I  want to know why. Then, as needed, I hope to incorporate that bit of author-magic into my writing.

Consider conflict—What pushes the characters? What element drives and forces the momentum of the story?

My book reading group just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read it in 1985 when it was first published, re-read it for a book review five years ago, and re-read it again for the group’s February book. I don’t like the book, but I admire it.

I know–that doesn’t make sense. But it does, because I admire it in a purely mechanical, technical way.

From Wikipedia:

Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species which they dub the “buggers”. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.

Even though I had read it before, I became involved in Ender’s story on this third read primarily because the author did all the right things.

This, despite the fact I don’t care for Card’s writing style. His ability to convey both character and story outweighs the irritation I have with the prose and style of his work.

  • The plot is always moving forward.
  • There is no overuse of backstory.
  • Showing is well-balanced with telling—it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face with descriptions of minute facial expressions but has enough active prose to keep the reader involved in the narrative.
  • The characters are shown to have a believable internal/external struggle, even though the book is about training children to kill.

Card explores the theme of “Compassion vs. Ruthlessness,” and the book has some exceedingly violent scenes. The three Wiggins children are the primary characters, with Ender being the main protagonist.

Ender is compassionate, and yet ruthless. One thing I found disturbing is that in the book, Ender was 6 when he leaves Earth for Battle School and 11 by the time of the final examination battle. During that time, he has killed (in self-defense) two boys who were bullying him, and untold numbers of the enemy, although he never learns that he caused their deaths until much later.

Valentine, Ender’s older sister, is compassionate, but without the power of ruthlessness both Ender and Peter demonstrate. She becomes Peter’s accomplice.

Peter, the oldest of the Wiggin children, is ruthlessness embodied and is utterly without compassion—a sociopath. His one ambition is to rule the world, and he will stop at nothing and use anyone to achieve that end. Yet, despite his personal lack of compassion, he turns out to be a good ruler. Evil in this book is represented by his acting for the wrong reasons, regardless of the outcome.

I may not like his style, but I have a great appreciation for Card’s ability to reveal a character, and I admire the way he paced the narrative.

The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another—the author keeps the pressure on, raising the tension by always raising the stakes. Yet, he gives both Ender and the reader a chance to rest a little and regroup before flinging them into the (slightly more intense) action again. In these less intense moments, the story is still moving because we are learning something we didn’t know, and that knowledge is crucial to what may follow.

The serious topics of genocide and Western expansionism are explored. These actions are justified or regretted depending on the character in this book. Also, we see lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics acted out in a Military environment by bright young children.

The eternal problem of intention and morality is explored. Ender is able to strike and kill his enemies yet remain morally clean.

Those themes fuel the narrative and push the story when the physical action has temporarily calmed. They drive the conflict, create a constant raising of tension, and allow the pacing of the book to hard and fast but not overwhelming.

It is easy to unbalance a narrative by not allowing the reader to rest between scenes of intense violence and action. A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context. Conversations are crucial because they give context to whatever action follows.

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or prose.

The book group is going to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz next, for the May meeting. This is a book I haven’t read yet, so I’m looking forward to it. I will be looking at how characters are portrayed, what makes them compelling,  and how the pyramid of conflict, tension, and pacing pushes their growth.

Credits and Attributions:

Cover art, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, published 1985 by Tor Books,  Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ender’s Game,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ender%27s_Game&oldid=880941502 (accessed February 25, 2019).


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