Tag Archives: creating conflict in the story

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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Conflict #amwriting

Winter has embraced my Northern home. For the last two weeks, cold and clear days have been followed by freezing, foggy nights. Each morning the roads have been covered with black ice, making the morning commute an adventure. We expect black ice here, but we don’t enjoy it.

The sun was so brilliant I had to locate my sunglasses when I went to my writing group last week. Driving east as the sun rose was like driving into a solar flare.

Alas, this week the rains have returned. But I am warm and dry here in the Room of Shame. I am now rewriting what was spewed forth during NaNoWriMo, turning garbage into something marketable, I hope.

I am taking a piece set in Neveyah, my Tower of Bones world, and rewriting it, so it is a story. This is something that happens to me all the time—4,000 words of a character talking, with no reason for them to be there. I loved the character that emerged, and I wrote what I thought was a story, but something was lacking.

Situations like this are why it is good to have a group of fellow writers whose opinions you value, and who can be trusted to see your work with unbiased eyes. I sensed something was wrong with it but didn’t know what, so I showed it to two of my writing friends, and they both gave me good insights.

What I had written was a character study. My characters are engaging, but there is no obvious obstacle for them to overcome, other than a minor quest for self-knowledge. So, now I am taking these people and that quest and turning it into a larger quest, making it a real story.

The story is for an anthology and can be only 5,000 words long so only one quest will be explored. That quest will not be the obvious quest, in which the hero believes he must free a kidnapped girl. The real quest will be for self-knowledge, and for his superiors, who see promise in him, to help him develop humility.

If I do this one right, there should be ample opportunity for hilarity.

So how do we create conflict in an established story?

We must ask our characters three things:

  1. What is the core of the problem? In the case of my story, the core of the problem is my Main Character is a cocky, arrogant sort, a young man who is good at everything and is quite “honest” about it. His Mentors fear his boasting will hold him back, as no one wants to work with him.
  2. What do the characters want most? The Main Character wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. He desires approval and admiration. Everything he does is calculated to make him look like a hero. His Mentors have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage that can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.
  3. What are they willing to do to get it? The Main Character has boasted many times that he will overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult the path to success is. His Mentors devise a simple quest with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for, and they ensure that when he does “rescue the hostage,” he gets their message quite clearly.
  4. How will it end? Quite messily, and with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for. But somehow, he won’t feel quite as proud as he thought he would. (Cue the evil laughter.)

I started with the core conflict: his arrogance. I didn’t see the way to take that arrogance and make it a story until my writing friends showed me what it was lacking. They didn’t tell me what to write, but their input gave me that “Ah hah!” moment where I knew just what had to be done. I think this will be one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark—it’s full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


Credits and Attributions:

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

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Elements of the story: calamity, villainy, and the hero’s struggle

Tolkien's art work for Hobbiton-across-the-water

Hobbiton-across-the-water, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most writing coaches agree that the first 1/4 of your story is where you reveal your characters and show their world while introducing hints of trouble and foreshadowing the first plot point. That is the first act, so to speak.

The Calamity:

Something large and dramatic must occur right around the 1/4 mark to force the hero into action, an intense, powerful scene that changes everything. Quite often, in epic fantasy the inciting scene will be comparatively disastrous, and one that that forces the protagonist to react. He/she may be thrust into a situation that radically changes their life and forces them to make a series of difficult decisions.

  • What incident or event will occur at the first plot point?
  • What negative effect does this event have for the protagonist and his/her cohorts?
  • How are hero’s efforts countered?
A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain:

Conflict drives the story.  We know a great story has a compelling protagonist, but in order to have a great conflict, you must also have a great adversary. The hero has an objective, and so does the villain.

  • Identify the opponent–who is he/she, and what is their power-base?
  • What is the adversary’s primary goal, and who or what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
  • Do the hero and the villain know each other, or are they faceless enemies to each other?
  • How does the adversary counter the hero’s efforts?

In fantasy, and often in thrillers and horror, we have an adversary who is capable of great evil. They may have supernatural powers, and at first they seem invincible. Their position of greater power forces the hero to become stronger, craftier, to develop ways to beat the adversary at his game. A strong, compelling villain creates interest and drives the conflict. Write several pages of back-story for your own use, to make sure your antagonist is as well-developed in your mind as your protagonist is, so that he/she radiates evil and power when you put them on the page. If you know your antagonist as well as you know the hero, the enemy will be believable when you write about their actions.

Bilbo comes to the huts of the raftelves by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft elves by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero’s Struggle:

Now the story is hurtling toward the midpoint, that place called the second plot-point. The characters are acting and reacting to events that are out of their control. Nothing is going right-the hero and his/her cohorts must scramble to stay alive, and now they are desperately searching for the right equipment or a crucial piece of information that will give them an edge. The struggle is the story, and at this point it looks like the hero may not get what they need in time.

Their weaknesses must be first exploited by the adversary, and then overcome and turned into strengths by the hero. The hero must grow.

During this part of the story you must build upon your characters’ strengths.  Identify the hero’s goals, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts during the second act to the midpoint?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?
  • Midway between the first plot point and the second plot point, what new incident will occur to once again dramatically alter the hero’s path? This will be a turning point, drama and mayhem will ensue, perhaps offering the hero a slim chance. What stands in his/her way of realizing that small chance and what will the hero sacrifice to attain it?

the hobbitThe first half of the book can be exciting or a bore–and because I’m always growing as an author, my new rule is “don’t write boring books.”

I say this because the books I loved to read the most were crafted in such a way that we got to know the characters, saw them in their environment, and bam! Calamity happened, thrusting them down the road to Naglimund or to the Misty Mountains.

Calamity combined with villainy creates struggle, which creates opportunity for great adventure, and that is what great fantasy is all about.

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