Friday, September 25, 2015

Big Fights and Little Fights--How Conflict Drives Your Story's Success

This week I am teaching about fighting--at a serene writer's retreat on beautiful Madeline Island in Lake Superior.  An odd topic for a retreat, maybe, but conflict seems to always be in the driver's seat in successful books.

We began our first lesson with a brainstorming session about big fights and little fights.  I wrote the word fighting on the whiteboard and asked the group of thirteen writers to call out different ways fighting can appear in life--and in stories.  We came up with dozens of ways.  Everything from jihads and riots to hate mail and stony silences.  We also explored the subtler kinds of fighting that happen inside a character or narrator in a story--or even a reader trying out a new idea by reading a nonfiction book.  What does a person have to give up to grow?  And how does this internal resistance to surrender cause conflict in their outer lives?

Once we talked through the ways conflict can appear in story, we sections them into the big fights and the little fights.  Big fights are deal-breakers in a book:  think earthquakes.  Or 9/11.  Or escaping from a civil war.  Or a train wreck.

Big fights, in fact, do cause a train wreck in story structure--they stop everything for a while, because people need to recover and figure out what to do.

Big fights in some books may not be catastrophic externally--like an earthquake definitely is--but only internally.  Big fight could be a divorce.  A death, even an expected one after long illness.  I categorize big fights as anything that brings forward movement to a standstill; there is only reaction, not action.

Little fights are different.  They are the everyday problems, the small annoyances, and the internal challenges.  Life can go on despite little fights.  They can be acted against.  They don't bring everything to standstill.

Structuring Your Big Fights and Little Fights
Most stories start with something called a triggering event.  That can easily be a big fight, for your story.  Look at any number of recently published books and see if you can find a triggering event within the first pages, or first chapter.  So many have these now, because as readers we've become less tolerant of slow starts.  Blame movies!  Or video games.  Whatever the reason, our brains are changing and we aren't as inclined to wait.

(Doubt this?  Rent a movie from the 1980s or 1990s.  See how slow it begins.  Watch your attention span--do you want to fast forward?)

Because of our inclination toward more dramatic triggering events, many agents and publishers look at manuscripts to see if there's a big fight in the first few pages.  If there's not one, it can be considered less dramatic, less intense--and not "right" for that agent or publisher.  I've been there, as a writer submitting manuscripts.  And also as an editor reading them.

Structurally, big fights are placed most logically at the main turning points of a story.  It may be the same fight, in different iterations.  Or slightly different aspects of a big fight. 

Little fights are placed throughout the story, and they often increase in size.  Little fights are so important because they cause the forward momentum.  A little fight, such as jealousy or a small lie, causes a person to act differently.  Which causes, perhaps, a reaction in another person.

In fiction and memoir, this is pretty straightforward.  Nonfiction writers, think of the reader as your character who is experiencing the fights.  What they are having to give up, face, or change as they read your story and consider your ideas.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Freewrite or brainstorm this question:  What is my book's big fight.  Then skim the draft of your first chapter.  Can you find the big fight?  Where does it happen?

2.  Make a list of the little fights in your story.  Does each primary character or narrator have them? 

It's very helpful to study your favorite books for their big fights and little fights.  You'll discover how carefully they are placed, and how they create a strong structure that the reader may not even be aware of--but enjoy nonetheless.

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