Friday, January 18, 2013

Finding the Key Conflicts in Your Story--How to Sift through all the Problems to Find the Pivot

The main reason books are rejected, according to one of my colleagues who is in the business?  Nothing happens.

The stakes in a story must always be high enough to make us care about the people, the information, the place.   

But some writers downplay conflict, protecting both readers and characters from the mess and chaos.  Ironically, this is quite dangerous!  Unless key conflicts come forward right away, something to drive the story and create tension, there's little chance we'll keep reading.

This is true, no matter the genre.  Novels must have something at stake for the main characters.  Memoirs must show us challenges and the learning that comes from them.  And nonfiction books must address the big Why should I care? that readers bring to the table.

So, bottom line:  you need conflict.  You may not crave it in your real life, but your readers will crave it in your book.

How Do You Find the Key Conflict?
You may have read the above and thought, Not a problem for me!  Maybe you're an action writer who thrives on making things happen on the page.  The more twists and turns, the better.   

So what, do you think, is the key conflict--and why is this important?

Theme is built on key conflict.  The main problem that drives the story will usually be thematic. This means it occurs both internally and externally, and it moves through the story like a thread.

Often, the key internal and external conflict circulates around a loss, something missing inside.  This is echoed in the outer drama.  In really top-notch literature (the books that everyone loves, that often win prizes), every aspect of the outer conflict connects with someone's internal conflict.

The two are neatly woven together.

Doubt this?  Even in genre fiction, arguably the most plot-driven literary form, readers (and publishers) are most "sold" on a story if the characters also have something inside themselves to overcome, as well as a problem outside themselves to solve.  Internal and external key conflicts go hand-in-hand. 

What kind of internal conflicts exist in story?  There are so many.  Maybe it's about letting go of the past.  Or believing in yourself.  Or even believing in someone else.  Human beings face conflicts every day of their lives.  

One of my favorite slogans for figuring out conflict in a story comes from screenwriting guru John Truby.  He advises writers to ask this question:  Who is fighting whom for what?   

This could be internal, as well as external.  But it really needs to be both.  
A reader of this blog emailed me about internal and external conflict last week.  For more in-depth information on this, go to my book Your Book Starts Here (writing exercises and lots of examples there).  This writer wondered:  "When analyzing conflict via the Who is fighting whom for what? question, can the whom be part of themselves or does it need to be an outside force for good conflict

Outer story (the outside force) will illustrate or demonstrate the inner challenge.  Mostly, readers only believe what's also demonstrated.  The inner story is essential, as I've said above, but it has to have a reflection in the outer story.

One of my favorite examples in fiction is from Andre Dubus's The House of Sand and Fog.  In a pivotal scene, a discontented police officer and a woman who is trying to get her house back from squatters meet in a restaurant on the top floor of a San Francisco skyrise.     

The inner story is about trust--both of them are very shy on trust, because of many betrayals.  They are considering a relationship, as well as an illicit partnership to get back the woman's house.  The outer story conflict takes shape in a confession the cop shares--he has done something illegal out of compassion, and he's never told anyone about it.  The act of sharing it is putting him in real danger.  She could expose him, he could get suspended or go to jail.  But he is testing the love that's growing between them, seeing if it's strong enough to hold him.

As the woman listens, the restaurant revolves.  The beauty of this scene is how Dubus depicts the woman's extreme disorientation--she doesn't expect this straight-arrow cop to have such a secret and she's teetering on the edge of what will happen between them.

Both of the conflict elements work because they are mirroring each other perfectly.

And rather than "telling" us that the woman is blown away by what she's hearing, Dubus chooses to demonstrate this inner story by using the ever-changing setting.  Not overdone, just right.    

A Writing Exercise to Find Key Conflicts in Your Book
I sometimes can't find the conflict in my own stories, so I use this simple exercise.   

1.  Take a sheet of paper and make three columns.

2.  In the first column, list the main players in your story.  (In nonfiction other than memoir, you'd use either those people mentioned in important anecdotes or your reader.)

3.  In the second column, next to each person's name, write the thing they are most afraid of or want the most.  This is their key internal conflict.

4.  In the third column, next to each person's name, write an outer situation that threatens to make this inner conflict worse--either by facing the thing they are most afraid of or by taking away something they really want.

See if these answers surprise you.  Then check your actual chapters to make sure both levels of conflict are present on the page.