Sunday, 13 July 2014

Creating A Dynamic Story

Chess Knights
Conflict Is Always Exciting. Image courtesy of Dave Edmonds at

Boring, insipid writing is on the rise. The ease of writing a book on a computer means more people are putting out words which are better left unsaid. Overall, I would much rather read bad but exciting writing, than technical okay but dull writing. And sadly, over the past few weeks, I feel I've been adding to the collection of uninspired words in the universe. The only benefit of this is that I've now come to realise some of the fundamentals of dull writing and how to turn it around. 

The first is lack of conflict. 

In Story, (which, yes, I'm still reading after about a month, because I can only get through a page or two before I have to stop and reassess all I know about my writing and the stories I've created so far!) Robert McKee argues that stories are moved along by conflict. Internal conflict, external conflict, it doesn't matter. A gap needs to open up between the character's expectations of what's going to happen and what does happen. This creates conflict. 

According to my wonderful source, the Internet, conflict as a verb is to be incompatible or at variance. We as writers need to make everything around our main character somehow at variance with him/her/it. We all know that we need a major climax at the end, usually some at the beginning to start things off, and then probably two turning points and a mid point conflict. However this is not quite what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about conflict in every scene, almost every line of writing. 

Take dialogue as an example. 

Has anyone else ever written really easy dialogue? It seems to just flow straight out onto the page. But when you go back and read it, it doesn't seem to have much punch? 

Generally it's because all the characters are agreeing with what the others are saying. They all understand exactly what the other means, and say exactly what our main character expects. This is easy writing, because you know what you want to happen and it happens, then you can then easily move onto the next point. It is also very dull writing. 

Instead, other characters need to say things that our main character doesn't expect. This creates conflict, tension, good reading. The only problem is that if we are inside the head of our main character, we might not expect it either. So we then have to stop and think from both sides, flicking backwards and forwards. It takes longer, is much more of a mental exercise, but creates a much more dynamic set of characters, situations and story. 

One of the prerequisites for this is knowing all the characters in a scene in more depth. 

Minor Characters:

I love my main character in every story I write. Sometimes it even becomes a bit weird, as I cry about the awful things I have to do to them and promise them faithfully that I will get them out the other side stronger and better than before. (This might be one of the reasons I could never write The Hunger Games, as how Collins could write the final book in the series leaving her main character permanently mentally scarred is beyond me. I admit Tolkien did it, but then he sent Frodo off to the West, and that made all things good again).

However, I have recently discovered that loving my main characters too much has led to some rather insipid writing. First is the natural desire to keep them away from conflict. Who would willing thrust their beloved child into a warzone? However, unless you want them never to be read, this is exactly what you need to do. 

The other problem is that I'm so in love with my main characters, I often see things completely from their perspective. I get into that childlike belief that everyone else in the world disappears when not interacting with my main character. In Virtually Ideal, which is in the first person, Laurie will be talking to her boyfriend (no hints on who he is!), then go off to work, have a few crises, and then ring him up again and find him still in the same emotional state as she left him in. 


In real life people don't sit around doing nothing all day waiting for their girlfriends to call. They go off and have their own crises, victories, changes in emotional state. It is this element of the unexpected which makes using a phone so scary for a lot of us (come on, I can't be the only one that hates ringing people because I don't know what's going to be on the other end?) 

It is only through knowing what's going on in the lives of the other characters when they are not on the page that we can really introduce engaging conflict into the story. Laurie might ring up to cry on boyfriend's shoulder, only to find out that he's just had a really bad day and wants to have a cry on hers. Then Laurie is in conflict over fulfilling her own needs or his. This might lead to the realisation that she's selfish enough that she doesn't want to spend her time comforting him, she's just been using him for her own emotional needs. (Not saying that's what's happening, it's just an example). This then leads to a break up, or possibly personal growth in our character. But all this could only happen because we knew what was happening in the boyfriend's life as well.

Two Steps to Improve Conflict:

So I'm now incorporating two steps into my writing to make sure that I consciously consider these aspects. 
The first is in my warm up (which has now become totally indispensable to me. I can't imagine not taking this time beforehand to work out ideas, see my last post on the power of the warm up). Knowing which scene I'm going to be working on in the main session, I take the time in the warm up to plot out what my other characters have been doing prior to this, and to work out what expectations they are coming into the scene with. What do they want to happen?  

It's come as a real surprise sometimes that my other characters don't really want to go along with whatever I've planned for my main character. They happen to be just as selfish and self involved as I am about Laurie. Weird, huh? 

The second step is in dialogue. I always thought I was awesome at dialogue, because it always came so naturally. Now I'm realising that often I'm missing a lot of the potential conflict, and I'm just using it as a tool to get across what I want to happen. So now I'm consciously slowing down my writing of dialogue and developing multiple personalities. 

Dialogue really needs to be a harsh battle of wills, a take and take of selfish personalities. Writing it should be like being an actor in a one man play. I jump from one side of the table to the other, playing both characters, not letting either one overpower the other. Only it happens in my head. Usually. 

However, this does take a lot more effort. Main character puts forward a statement, question, whatever. Then as the write I stop, listen to the statement from the mind set of character two, run that through their wants and desires, and then put back and answer. Repeat process. Ideally I would do this with every line of dialogue. But there is a slight short cut you can take.

A slightly faster way to do this is just to make sure that whatever the other person says is not what the main character expects. Sounds silly, but yields amazing results. You get to stay in the mindset of your main character, you just conflict with what they want to happen. 

Compare these two examples.

'Would you like a cup of tea?'
'Yes, thank you.'
'No, I'm good.'

Totally boring. What do we find out about these two characters? Absolutely nothing, other than that they are reasonably polite.

'Would you like a cup of tea?'
'Tea? Really? It just seems so English.'
'I suppose it is. Coffee then?'
'Oh, I never drink coffee, it's bad for my chakras.'

Much more interesting, and gives more insight into each of the characters. When the other character isn't really important, then just having them conflict with the main character is enough. Of course they need to be consistent, but you don't always need to know they unconscious motivation. However, for more major characters, such as Laurie's boyfriend, a true understanding of what's going on in their heads is indispensable.

In real life we might spend time agreeing with people, but usually it's because we aren't really paying attention or want to avoid conflict. In a story, an individual character may want to avoid conflict, but you as the writer want to encourage it. Understand and use your minor characters to move the story forward by disagreeing with the main character. 

Update On Buffyworld:

I'm currently writing Episode 14 of Virtually Ideal, which was going to be the last episode. It might still be, it just depends on whether I can get everything wrapped up. I've been getting myself through longer writing session by promising myself I can write as fast as I want and it will all be edited and rearranged once I know the whole story. This has resulted in me not being held up with fear, but also finishing with a manuscript that is currently 164,000 words. However, I'm actually looking forward to the restructure (which would not have been possible without the entire first draft, as I had no idea about some of the things that have come up and turned out to be really good). I plan to use some of McKee's plotting advice to map it all out, then rework it from there.

Going the opposite way, I've started using McKee's scene analysis to map out from scratch Five Nights in Vienna (or Wien, I haven't decided whether I want to use the German name yet). I've got about half of it sorted out, but haven't really got a handle on my main character. So more exploration needed there before I start writing. 

Every now and again I do a bit of work on Bootcamp, particularly as great ideas for extra bits come up. But I'm mainly focused on finish the first drafts at the moment. 

And, I'm going to have to do a second edition of After The Winter. Typos aside, my grandmother's best friend has just pointed out to me that there is no Joker in Bridge (I was basing it on my knowledge of Five Hundred. My bad.) So I've promised I'll fix that up. 

Also, I got feedback from the Christian publisher about Sally Hunt. It was very sweet of her to take the time to give it. She's not interested in taking the manuscript as it is now, but has shown me a few areas I could tighten it up (eg. it's still a bit preachy, which I worked out from something McKee said, and too much telling instead of showing). So that's waiting to go under the knife as well. However, I'm happy that they are things I can fix up. And I have to admit that I was reading over the beginning the other day and realised that in the years since I first wrote it, I've learnt a lot about writing.

Finally I got an appraisal back about my great grandfather's story A Little Bit Of Leaven. It is currently entered in the Caleb Christian writing competition, so I will still wait to see how it does in that. The appraisal said that it is quite slow (which I fully admit it is, but partly on purpose), and that the third person omniscient POV (point of view) makes it feel very 'old fashioned'. Since it was written over half a century ago, I think that's fair. However, I don't know if I want to change that, because I think that's part of its unique selling proposition. People don't write like that these days, but a large percentage of the population grew up with that style, and have a nostalgic affection for it. But they pointed out that it is unlikely a modern publisher would want it. 

The question that raises is do I keep it as it is, but reduce its modern appeal, or re-write it in a contemporary voice which will undermine its authenticity as a historical document. 

It is, in part, a similar problem to what I have with After The Winter. I set it in 1920, so wrote it in a style appropriate to the setting. However, some people have complained about that, saying it should be written in a contemporary style.

What do you think? Should historical pieces still have a contemporary writing style, or should they try to be authentic to the period? (within reason, obviously, they still need to be readable.)

And anyone put their main characters into awful conflict recently? How has it worked out?

1 comment:

  1. I'd prefer to read historical novels with era-appropriate narrative/vocabulary. That's the fun of reading historical novels - the way they spoke and wrote brings the characters to life. And they way people spoke and wrote has a big part to play in who they were. Because language affects thought.

    I know there are modern writers who write historical novels in a contemporary style, and while they might be entertaining, the novels are lacking, for me. A huge part of reading is the escapism into another world and time. If the language isn't appropriate for that time, then the escapism isn't complete. That's how it is for me. :)

    Congratulations on that massive wordcount for Virtually Ideal! That's a huge achievement. You must be delighted. :)