Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Conflict, Research & Procrastination

I looked through my old files recently to see if there were any stories worth resurrecting and found eleven (count 'em--eleven!) that I had started but didn't finish. They all had something in common: I stopped working on them because I couldn't come up with a good external conflict, and decided that I needed to do more research before I could finish them.

You see, I hate conflict. I've spent my entire life avoiding it as much as possible. I mean, really, actively avoiding it. That makes it hard for me to write it--I don't even want to face it in my fiction.

Now, internal conflict, I have no problem with--my characters have plenty of that. But as far as I've seen, very few books sell on the sole basis of internal conflict. It's important, sure, but they still have to do something. Something has to happen, darn it. They need jobs, lives, external conflicts. Sadly, that always throws me. That's when I say, "Oh, well, I need to do some more research on this" and move on to the next exciting character.

As in real life, I avoid conflict like the plague. My stories may be rich in character, but they're painfully poor in plot.

Does anyone else have this problem? Is it just me? Makes me feel like I shouldn't even attempt to write. The most common advice I see when there's a plot stall is to kill a character, but obviously those people are missing my point. I like these characters--I don't want them to suffer. I don't want them to run for their lives and have to save the world with only a stick of gum and a shoelace. (Especially since I don't know why they have to run for their lives and whom they're running from--I'd have to do a little research on that and get back to it.)

Unfortunately, the market for character driven, introspective "quiet stories" is as thin as my plots. What's a cowardly gal to do?


Susan Miller said...

I feel your pain here and wonder about the resolution of it myself. For me, it seems that at times I have witnessed things that were horrific conflict but I wonder in writing...do I want to go there because by taking my characters to those places it seems I must follow. And there is where that "Is it worth it?" question comes in for me. Inevitably the answer must be...yes...you don't have to kill them, but you may have to make a character walk through your worst living pain.

Sidney said...

I don't know if this helps, but...

In the Donald Maas class I took he suggested working to have tension on every page. One method is of course to have characters in an argument instead of just a conversation.

However, he noted that unanswered questions bring tension also - secrets, puzzles, things of that nature.

He cited Erle Stanley Gardner as a master of tension.

I opened a random Perry Mason from my shelf,and it opens with Perry and Della at a diner having lunch. All is well in the first paragraph - then the owner comes to the table in the second.

"How's the service?" she asks then tells Perry and Della their waitress bribed a co-worker in order to get their table.

Of course there's the Why? The What's going on? I think quiet can still be filled with tension.

Hope that helps.

Kate S said...

Thanks Susan and Sidney. That does help.

When I put both of your comments together, I can see something. I have two (started) stories that people have responded to very positively, but that I haven't gone further with for two reasons: one, I felt there wasn't enough large scale conflict, and two, they were just too painful for me to write. I didn't realize that was going to be the case when I started, but found myself tapping into some deeper emotions and fears as I went along--"the worst living pain", like you said, Susan.

I'll have to dwell on it some more, but just that Perry Mason example, Sidney, gives me a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. There might just be a way for me to get them where they should go without throwing in a secret government conspiracy and serial killer. :)

Thanks! (Oh, and Sidney, I have the Maas book on writing the best seller, and the chapter on tension always depressed me, lol, but I think you explained it in such a way that I could identify with it now.)

Charles Gramlich said...

I hate conflict in real life as well, which strangely enough perhaps, allows me to enjoy it more on the page. I think one of the reasons I like fiction is that I "don't" have to feel guilty putting my characters through it. I keep always clear in my mind that while I'm a nice guy in real life, this is not real life.

Avery said...

I have a good time writing the conflict into my work. I'm horrible to my characters. I beat them down and then kick them and then wait until they stop twitching and do it all over again.

I think you're approaching this issue with the wrong mindset. If you start to pile the conflict on your characters, you're not only cranking up the tension in your story, you're getting free desensitization therapy for real life. It's a two-for-one bonus.

Kate S said...

Thanks, Charles and Avery. LOL, I guess that's another way of looking at it. Not sure if it will work for me, but interesting approaches.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I love conflict!!! What a surprise. In writing, with conflict comes a burst of ideas. I find that I take a problem and throw it at my characters, and if my characters are strong enough the plot rolls along.

I will tell you my secret regarding plotting. Come close. Don't tell anyone. My secret: What If.

I will now improv an idea using what if...

What if this guy was alone at home and he hears something sliding on the roof? What if he's disabled? Maybe a veteran? What if the thing on the roof is something he encountered while on the battlefield? What could that be? What if thematically the thing on the roof represented war, and the idea becomes that although one can return from war, it leaves an indelible mark ..a trace...

Okay..so he's home,disabled, and hearing something on the roof that reminds him of something horrible that he saw in battle. Okay..now I have a concept. Now I have to resolve the conflict.

In order to drive this home, I'll have to develop the character's pathos without making him mooshy. What if he's about to get married? What if he's been amazingly successful in his rehabilitation, gone back to school...establish him as an achiever.

The thing bursts through the window. He hears it downstairs and recognizes a chortling sound. Before this he had thought, had hoped it was a burglar, or someone...but the sound convinces him that it is his old nemesis.
He climbs to his wheel chair, hurrying to shut the bedroom door as it comes up the stairs..WAIT..

Make this thing sentient. It has spoken to him before on the battlefield, now it talks to him through the door.

"I never forget a dream, Michael."
"Not this time."
"Why? Why should this be different?"

Different? Does that mean that something happened on the battlefield?

Anyway Kate, if you are still reading this far, this is my process for developing plot. I start with an idea, ask WHAT IF, and sort of lurch about. One what if leads to another, one situation leads to another.

Kate S said...

Hey Stewart--that just pulled me right in. Now you have two stories to write--Micheal's and Tank's. :) Or maybe that was Tank crashing through the roof. :)

I'll ponder on your process, thanks.

Curt said...

Kate--you say you do internal conflict well. If you take one side of an internal conflict and embody it in another character, that's external conflict. Bill Martell has a nice article about how screenwriters do this in order to dramatize internal conflict on the screen, making it visible as external conflict.