Friday, January 8, 2021

Strange Alchemy--Creating the Weave of Conflict, Character, and Place in Your Fiction or Memoir

In pre-Covid times, I regularly visited friends in Boston to hear the legendary Boston Cecelia chorus perform each holiday season.

At one performance a few years ago, I remember how a soloist with a particularly liquid voice sang a few pieces, then disappeared into the rows of the alto section. I strained to hear her voice rise above the other altos--but it was impossible to distinguish. She blended so well, the group became one voice. Then she came to the front of the stage for another solo, and we fell back in astonishment once again.

In a way, her ability to stand out as well as blend into a larger voice is exactly what writers are trying to achieve with the three elements of conflict, character, and place.

Each of these needs to be intense and well developed in its own right, as this mezzo soloist's performance was. As readers we need to really grasp a character, be present in a place, and feel our hearts race in moments of story suspense.

But in the end, the three elements must blend together to create a magical wholeness--which is what makes a novel or memoir memorable.

Singers learn their individual parts, rehearse them apart from the group--just as these elements do--but when they come back together, if the performance is successful, a strange alchemy happens. The dynamics of each individual voice combine to create a greater magic.

Alchemy in our writing is not unlike the ancient base metal into precious stone transformation. We writers develop our ability to transform individual elements into something greater, right? We're after that "dream state" that readers enter into when they engage fully in our stories.

So how does a skilled alchemist combine these three elements on the page? I've long been curious about the particular dynamics needed for each, first of all. Then, how to blend them together to create a seamless sound.

You can start with any of the three, but I often examine characters first.

Character Dynamics
In music, dynamics are the forward and backward movement, the up and down, the rhythm and enunciation and volume of each note. Singers might sing one section of a piece loud and full voice; then sink into softness later. The pulse of these extremes--and all the variances in between--creates a dynamic sound.

Characters have the same dynamics. This is called a narrative arc in fiction and memoir, and you've probably heard that. If you haven't, it's just a fancy term for the movement and growth of a person through story.

A character begins the story with certain questions, understandings, and perspective. They "present" themselves a certain way to the world, which is their point of view about themselves. "I am honest." "I love hats." "I hate my teenager."

If these character beliefs stay the same throughout the entire story, never moving from the status quo we begin with, there are no dynamics, no growth. No narrative arc. The character may be fascinating, but readers will not engage with that person. And the book will suffer.

When I began writing, I wanted to keep my characters safe. I didn't really go for change, because that meant putting them in danger, in despair, in distress. After studying and taking classes and getting my MFA, I saw how useless this safety approach was. In real life, yes, safety might be a goal--especially now. But on the page, no.

So you might begin with a character sketch, deciding who this person is at the start of your story. You might take them to the therapist, inventory their refrigerator and shoe rack, or look under their bed. How do they present themselves to the world--and how true is this presentation?

We're trying to find the gap. Between who the person thinks they are, what they long to become, and what stands in their way. This creates more than just characterization, or the presentation of character to reader. This creates character change, which drives the narrative arc--and makes alchemy.

I like to look at place next--an element of story that is often overlooked. It's a character too.

Place (Container of Your Story)
Place in literature is not just physical setting. Because it's broader than setting, I think of it like a "container" holding the story, including the culture, history, political and religious values--anything in the story's environment that reflects and reveals character.

If this container is well developed, it becomes as vivid to the reader as character. Doubt that? What about the locations and culture in West Side Story, The Wire, The Goldfinch, The Namesake, The Glass Castle, Educated, Where'd You Go Bernadette? None of these stories would come to life without fully realized container. Skilled writers choose their story locations deliberately. Then design them to be vivid and memorable, to carefully reflect the characters' longings, fears, and desires. Container, or place, is not just background. It must be as dynamic as the action or the people on your story's stage.

A first question to ask yourself: Why have you chosen a certain location for your story? If a scene happens in the kitchen, why there? If you're writing about real life, what camera angle have you chosen--and why? What is the camera picking up that informs us about the meaning of this place? We writers often don't consciously choose location for our scenes--they are sometimes just default or chosen by intuition. Making them conscious choices, as the reader will do, makes them count.

The reader must clearly know why we are in the kitchen pantry, facing the ancient fridge, rather than in the cloudy meadow behind the farmhouse or the back booth at the local diner.

I like to explore place by designing maps, creating collages, detailed observation, and research. But even more vitally, by careful placement of backstory, changing the camera angle, using objects of obsession, and finding out how each character bounces off their main settings. Sounds like a lot of work? It's exactly as much as plot or character require, no more, no less. And it pays off, big time, in emotional effect.

One more option: a setting storyboard. I chart how setting changes in my character's eyes during the course of the story. A place will grow and evolve, maybe from hostile to nurturing or vice versa. Maybe a place will teach, give back, by the end of the book.

When well developed, then blended into the chorus, place becomes an important element in the triad.

Then there's conflict. It's super important, as you know, but the rule to making it make sense to readers--not just be a bunch of action white noise--is to weave it with the character and place.

Conflict is the key to story momentum. If not enough happens in each chapter or scene, or if too much happens, momentum will stall. But it also has to connect with the other two aspects.

Conflict: Momentum to Drive Your Story Forward
If your conflict is irrelevant (there's a battle but no one we know is involved, there's a train derailment in another state but it never figures into the plot), we don't perceive this needed story momentum. If the character shelters herself from all conflict, we don't perceive any momentum. If the characters run around but nothing changes because of it, we perceive speed but not story momentum.

Alchemy is created only when each conflict is connected to a character's change and to a particular setting's effect on that character. We're talking about cause and effect--when an event happens, the character must respond or there is no conflict.

Conflict comes naturally to some writers. Their task, in creating alchemy, is to dial back the conflict so it has meaning to the inner story, or the character's growth. Those writers who tend to protect their characters, keeping them in their thoughts or in the kitchen drinking good coffee but never moving much, will need to create more trouble.

Putting It All Together
Like the soloist in the Boston Cecelia chorus, a skilled writer puts in plenty of practice. Each aspect--place, character, and conflict--must be handled well, developed carefully, and rehearsed on the page. But once these tools are learned and in place, the writer begins to intertwine them, weaving them together to create a seamless blend of music for the reader.

The work behind the scenes, like the hours of concert rehearsals, is invisible by the time the writing is ready. All the reader feels is complete engagement in the dream state of the story.

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