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Tag: conflict

MisCon 28: Creating Conflict

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Creating Conflict
Panel members: S.A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Manny Frishberg, Joyce Reynolds-Ward (Ann Gimpel, Vicki Mitchell, and Kevin Noel Olson were originally scheduled for this panel, but they were not available.)
Panel description: We all know conflict is the heart of any story, but how do you create conflict, how much is enough, and what do you do when you need more conflict? We’ll also discuss how to find the conflict inherent in your characters, plot, and setting.

JRW: Do you have any general thoughts about creating conflict? Are they big things? Little things? How do you define conflict?

SAB: It’s something the character has to overcome. The conflict can be as simple as trying to start the car. It’s anything that drives the plot.

MF: It’s the obstacle in the way of the protagonist. Conflict has to have some stake, something at risk. Conflict can be internal to the character.

BC: There are two types of conflicts. One moves the story forward. For the other, a conflict is just a conflict. Determine which conflict is important.

JRW: It’s not important if it doesn’t advance the plot. Conflict has to change and affect the character. The reader is “meh” if the characters are not different in the beginning or end.

SAB: For any meaning, there needs to be action to advance the plot. A story about refusing to eat eggs is not an interesting conflict. But what if the wife was trying to get the husband to eat the eggs, but he was refusing to eat them because they were poisoned?

JRW: There are the classic conflicts. Man versus man. Man versus society. Man versus nature. Man versus himself.

SAB: But there are many stories now. You can make interesting stories about conflict with the self.

BC: In a conflict, there is a “villain” of some sort, pushing the character forward. Sometimes it’s a human being. Sometimes not.

JRW: How do you go about creating conflict? Is there a strategy or does it just happen?

SAB: For me, it just happens, but it follows logically from the rest of the story. It forms from the plot and drives it forward. The conflict is the crossroads for the character to ask, “What am I going to do?”

MF: Many of the conflicts in my stories are internal but I have a direction for them to go to drive the story. Sometimes I initially make the character black and white in order to have more room for them to grow. For instance, the main character in one of my stories was an ambiguous character involved in a scam. In the end, he finds redemption. However, my beta readers didn’t think he changed enough. So I made the character a bastard in the beginning so by the end he finds a revelation and is changed.

JRW: Often times, I need to rewrite the conflict. When I’m plotting, I don’t see the implications (especially at book length) with the small conflicts.

BC: Conflict can be a small thing or embedded in a larger story arc. It’s only when you get to the end that you get a sense of where everything is going.

SAB: When I write a story, it’s only when I get a third of the way through that I see the overall point. What are your characters fighting about? What are the stakes? What are they going to lose? If there’s no conflict and nothing’s happening, create a bigger conflict. If in doubt, make something happen. Ramp it up.

BC: Increase the tension.

MF: I usually know the arc ahead of time. The incidents in between scenes are a shock to me. It’s only in the course of writing the scene do I figure out why things are fundamental to the plot.

JRW: In one story, I needed a conflict. The idea hit during a snow day. It didn’t change the beginning or end, but it brought the middle to life.

SAB: Where do you (the audience) get trouble in writing conflict?

Q: I like to avoid conflict in real life. So I don’t want my characters in conflict. How do I change that?

MF: There’s a problem with the term “conflict.” I think of it as dialectic opposites, like yin and yang. Conflict is an interplay between the two. Think of it as a contradiction. Shift that to change the nature of the whole.

JRW: You’re trying to resolve that contradiction. There’s a change of status between beginning and end. It could be small or large.

SAB: If you’re hesitant about putting your characters into conflict, just turn them loose. For example, let a character say all the stuff that you wanted to say. It’s hard to create conflict with people who are only nice.

JRW: But there was conflict with Pollyanna when she couldn’t positively think her problem away.

SAB: Step outside your comfort zone and what you were taught about creating conflict. Do something bad so you need to fix it. Real people aren’t nice all day.

Q: Is there an expectation in science fiction and fantasy for more conflict than other genres?

MF: Not necessarily. Conflict is just something that happens.

SAB: Conflict doesn’t have to be like those written by George R. R. Martin.

BC: There can be too much conflict, if you don’t know the people.

MF: If you start a story with conflict, no one cares. You need to care about the characters. Otherwise all the action in the world won’t move the story forward.

SAB: Some people want less violent conflict and more subtle conflicts, like in real life. We authorize other people (like cops and soldiers) to be violent for us, to carry the load for society. They can be mushy even though they’re scared stiff. You don’t have to have swords to have tension.

JRW: Like Pride and Prejudice.

Q: When is the best time to introduce conflict? Can it be too early or too late?

JRW: Introduce it in the first sentence.

SAB: Or at least in the first page. You should launch the story early, but it doesn’t have to be a gunshot.

MF: Ask what is the worst you can do to your character. One military science fiction author set the conflict at the captain’s table.

JRW: You can be very nasty to people and still sound polite.

SAB: You can have tension between ordinary people. We want to know where it goes.

JRW: In a story, you need something to trigger the next conflict. And another one after that, all the way to the ending.

BC: You can’t have conflict without character. Figure out what the character really, really, really wants. That’s what the conflict is about.

MF: Write a character sketch. What is the character’s deepest secret?

SAB: One example is the character Marcus in Babylon 5. His secret is that he can’t let go of his own pain. But he won’t even face it. Another example of a non-violent conflict is a character attempting to light a fire and knowing that he will die if he doesn’t get it. There are many ways that humans can die.

JRW: You don’t have to kill off your characters. Conflict can be about what they really want. For instance in romance, the character may think they want a person but then they discover that’s not what they wanted.

BC: It doesn’t have to be an actual death. It can be a moral death. Or psychological death. Or societal death.

SAB: Like in Stephen King’s The Stand. The society is gone. How you build your society will lead to conflict.

Q: Could there be needless conflict? Or can we just write extra conflict?

JRW: Conflict has to advance the plot. It has to do something in the story.

MF: You leave out getting out of bed and brushing your teeth because it’s not interesting.

SAB: Sometimes you have to write a lot of stuff in the draft to get the story straight in your head. You need to understand the world first and then strip out stuff. Decide what the reader needs to know.

MF: In journalism, they say that you need to know ten times as much as what you actually put into the story. Only 10% is important.

SAB: It can be hard to understand what needs to be on the page. Think about character motivation. What drives him?

BC: Sometimes conflict is about choice. It either gets worse or better.

MF: They’re all choices. Good stories make difficult choices which are understandable whether they are good or bad.

JRW: In stories, you have to keep the plot and character development in mind. If the conflict doesn’t advance them, it doesn’t belong there.

SAB: Characters are human and they handle things in human ways. How he handles it depends on experience.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 12

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Writing Yourself Into (and Out of) Corners
Panel members: M.H. Bonham, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Dave Gross
Panel description: In this panel we’ll talk about to write your character into a corner (literally, figuratively, emotionally), and how to get them back out again.

JB: What happens when you write into a corner? How do you write into a corner and what does it mean?

DG: I wrote about a character I didn’t create (like Spiderman). The character was not revealed yet. But I had to write it in a short period of time. Others who owned the character changed the character’s motivation and told me I had to revise it by Thursday. The conflict still paid off with the different character, but there were shifting relationships.

MHB: Throw everything and the kitchen sink at the character. Sometimes you have to take a break and work on something else. I get ideas when driving. Don’t use the God card too much–only once in a great while. Think out a solution.

JB: At the beginning of writing Grave Peril, there was no mystery or bad guy, so I needed to throw out those chapters. If I’m in a corner, there’s no clear path and I don’t know what to write next. During a deadline, getting a character into a corner is easy.

JG: I write mostly game related material, so there’s mostly action. I wrote about a vampire and a gunslinger and I found myself in that situation frequently.

JB: How do you get out of it?

JG: I killed him. But the gunslinger was also undead. I don’t like blood, so I go as far as I can go and twist it.

JB: I don’t think there are corners. I think they’re for something awesome to happen. Think laterally. Look for a solution that is not two-dimensional, outside the box.

MHB: By thinking outside the box, ask what is the worst thing that could happen. Delaying the problem could make it worse.

DG: You could avoid getting into corners by outlining. Outliners are like the idiots that drive too slowly and pantsers are like the maniacs who drive too fast. You need to balance between the two.

JB: There’s great strength with solid structure. Have a good idea before you start writing. For example, if you’re driving to California, you need to know which highways to take.

Q: Have you ever come up with an idea where the solution to the problem is a McGuffin that comes out of nowhere?

JG: Yes.

JB: It’s cheating.

MHB: I used to be a pantser but now I outline. If something goes off, I write WTFIDK in the manuscript to indicate where other things go.

DG: I’m an outliner. 90% of my writing is licensed work. They want to know what you want to do. There was one author who had an 80k outline for a 100k manuscript. I try to have tight outlines. I try to get it down to 5k but usually it’s around 15k. A good editor once said that you have to lay the pipe down early.

Q: How horrible is it to insert flashbacks with characters and themes?

JB: If it’s right there, that’s obvious. Lay the groundwork for it.

JG: I like to use flashbacks more for character development. I try to avoid using flashbacks as the solution.

MHB: I use flashbacks as character development or to reveal a piece of the puzzle.

DG: I use them as action beginning the chapter and use them as explanation, but I only use them at the right time.

Q: Do you find yourself coming up with a clever solution first and then writing the character into a corner or is it more common to write into a corner and then bang your head against the wall trying to come up with a solution?

MHB: I used to come up with the trouble first, but now with outlining, I know where I’m heading.

JB: The danger you run into as a writer is that craft can overcome the character. If it doesn’t make sense, you need to let it go if it doesn’t go with the story. The outline helps you get to those places without too much fuss.

DG: I started reading many authors. I’m a film fan and I learned from Buffy. You can pen the story sooner than the audience expects as long as you have something bigger later.

Q: Have you come up with a cool solution that you have to make up a problem for?

JB: Sometimes, depending on the story. But it can be hard. You need to predict how characters will react, what the response will be, and what the emotions are. Does it make psychological sense?

MHB: I agree. You need to consider the emotion of the character. One author had a love interest in a space opera. She wrote a sex scene and afterwards the characters acted differently because there was too much emotion. So she had to cut the scene.

DG: I mostly approach it like a mystery. Think who gets killed and why. Determine the mechanical resolution and how to obfuscate or delay the answer.

JG: Yes. I’m like an outlining pantser with a highway map especially for character motivation. I once had a poker playing character I needed to kill off. So the character died in a cyclone of cards.

Q: Do you ever realize halfway through a book that you need to redo the outline? Or do you just continue?

MHB: I just continue and return back to where I need to go. Sometimes I need to change and don’t reoutline unless it’s really messy otherwise.

JB: I do change the outline and seek an alternate route, a new way to get there.

Q: For that route, do you go with the vanilla option or the science fiction/fantasy option? Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman?

JB: That was Spielberg in a corner. He couldn’t film a sword fight scene so he decided just to shoot him. When writing fantasy, using fantasy is usually more fun getting out of a corner. Use what’s close at hand. Consider the creator versus the character getting out of the corner.

DG: Go back to who the character is. If the character thinks that he is human but he isn’t, maybe that’s how he survives the situation.

MHB: I once had a sword with a personality. When all the magic was taken away, we can still use the sword. Come up with a solution which is a way around. Or go in the opposite direction.

JG: I don’t want to use a supernatural solution if it’s not a supernatural story. Ask, what can the character do?

Q: Is it more beneficial to get the character out of a corner instead of making the corner collapse and having the cavalry come in to rescue the character?

DG: The character must have earned the rescue, otherwise it’s a deus ex machina.

MHB: Only have the cavalry come in to clean up the mess.

JB: You can have the cavalry show up but only under specific circumstances. Don’t have them show up in the middle of the story. Instead, they should show up at the end of the book.

JG: You should also establish earlier that the cavalry even exists. You can use it to get conflict. And remember that you’re writing the book about the character and not the cavalry.