Thursday, June 28, 2012

The RIGHT Kind of Conflict--from James Frey

I'm on vacation reading James Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel as I stare at the Atlantic Ocean. Life is always better when you can stare at an ocean all day!

Conflict, conflict, conflict. That's the ticket to success. We need it in every scene, the kind that impedes our character's goals.

Frey talks about the criticalness of conflict and how it uncovers the nuances of character. Here's what he has to say (see pages 39-43 of How to Write a Damn Good Novel):

  • "First, plan your novel with rising conflict always in mind. Your characters should be facing ever-increasing obstacles, their problems should be multiplying, pressures on them should always be growing. As the conflict rises, the character changes.
  • The kind of conflict we want is RISING conflict. This means the conflict is developed in a nuanced way to show the character slowly and subtly going from one level of emotional intensity up the scale to another. Frey says, for example, the character can begin being annoyed then progress through the scene to peevishness to mild anger to insane anger. What he's saying is, the better a writer you are, the better you are at making these subtle changes which show the reader the many facets of character.
  • The character is fully revealed because the reader has seen her or him acting and reacting at each emotional level. The reader becomes gripped in the slowly rising conflict.

So how can you tell if you have rising conflict? Frey says you should look at your character's emotional level at the beginning of the scene vs. the end. "There should be a step-by-step change in the character from, say, cool to fearful, spiteful to forgiving, cruel to compassionate, or the like, in every scene. If there is conflict but no change, you have a static conflict."

Static conflict is bad. It means conflict without character growth. For example, two kids arguing over the television remote will have conflict but are unlikely to grow and change as a result of it. He also cautions against melodrama or jumping conflict, where the characters change but their motivations are off. You have intensity but no motivation.

"If the characters change emotionally a little at a time as a result of the conflict, you know the conflict is rising steadily, as it should."

So go out there and make sure you've got lots of conflict in EVERY scene, that it's slowly rising to show your reader the character's emotional growth, and always make certain you have an emotional change from the beginning of EACH scene compared to the end.

Incorporating these tips will make your scenes absolutely ripple with conflict--the right kind, that is!

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