Friday, January 10, 2014

Patterns of Change--How Do You Create Strong Conflict in Your Fiction or Memoir?

Most stories foster change.  Either change in the situation, in the character or narrator, or in the reader and their understanding of a topic.

Most writers know that change in story comes from conflict.  Conflict is a dilemma presented to a person and it forces action.  It makes a person realize a truth, right a wrong, change behavior or thoughts, move to a new city or job or relationship, do something different. 
To be effective, conflict in story must be something that can't be ignored--even though we might try.   

It's a basic rule of story:  without conflict, discomfort, or an urge for something different, there is no change.  Without change, there is no story. 

Conflict Creates the Narrative Arc  

Conflict is presented in a series of steps.  Sometimes the conflict will be large, sometime small.  Sometimes internal, sometimes coming from outside the person.  This series of steps is called the "pattern of change" in story.  It creates the "narrative arc."      

You may have heard that term, "narrative arc."  It just means how the character, narrator, or reader (in nonfiction) grows because of the conflict and changes presented in the story.  Stories really need narrative arcs.  Change must be manifested in outer decisions, turning points, and new actions and directions. 

When you diagram this pattern of change, it is called a plot.  The series of small or large dilemmas that instigate change in the character, creating the "narrative arc," can be plotted along a structure like a storyboard or plot line.  We compose our plots from the dilemmas the story presents and the actions the character takes to either confront or avoid them.  


Simple, huh?  So story needs conflict.  Conflict drives the plot forward.  It creates the momentum that readers need to keep turning pages.   

Some writers tell me, "I want to write a happy story that will help others and change lives."  Or, "I've been through so much horrible stuff in my life; I want my memoir to be uplifting, not a downer."  Fine.  We all need upliftment and happiness in our lives.  In real life, you can be contented, and deal with conflict in a low-key way.  In story, you can't.  Story is all about facing the odds and changing because of them.  Without the grit of sand, the pearl is not formed.  

When everyone is happy, when conflict is ignored, when nothing is happening, story is dead in the water.  Why?  Because there is no movement, no change.    


Two Kinds of Conflict 

Internal conflict comes from a person's desires, fears, and longings.  The things they want and try to get, the things they are afraid of, the things they know they'll never have.  Internal conflict is a movement from inside the person that manifests in that person's external world.   

Even if the desire, longing, or fear doesn't manifest but stays locked inside, there will be signs of stress and this stress will cause some kind of action or behavior--which intensifies the external conflict.

External conflict comes from forces outside the person.  These forces cause them to change, alter course, make a decision.  For instance, a death, an accident, a disaster, a loss.  External conflict can also be a discovery--finding lost letters that reveal something, discovering you are not your parents' child.   

All external conflict causes friction and that friction will demand a decision, possibly a change of course.  A movement forward.

Plot is strongest when your choice of internal conflict and your choice of external conflict are opposed in some way.  Try to set up a situation where your character or narrator wants something, and this particular want is thwarted by an event in their outer environment.  

This Week's Writing Exercise 

1.  Make a list of the external conflicts in one chapter of your book or one story or essay.   

2.  Make a list of the patterns of change, how the character, narrator, or reader will change by the end of the chapter, story, or essay.

3.  Is there a pattern to the series of conflicts, and the way the person changes?  Is it fairly logical or have you skipped any steps?

4.  Brainstorm on paper about anything you could add or adjust to create a stronger external conflict, internal conflict, or pattern of change.

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