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  1. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Conflict in a novel.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by The Backward OX, Sep 23, 2009.

    I seem unable to create conflict in a novel.

    I’d been discussing this inability with a friend via email. Then in a separate email, I got onto a personal topic and told him about the trouble I’d been having with a government department. I used 400-odd emotion-laden words to tell him about it. I gave him details of all the misunderstandings and arguments, including the conversations that took place, and details of the way it was all resolved.

    He replied by saying, “So what’s your problem with conflict?” (imagine a sarcasm smiley here)

    My response is that while I can write convincingly about the conflict that occurs in real life – my real life, that is - I seem unable to carry that skill over into fiction.

    It seems as if perhaps I don’t feel stuff about my characters the same way I feel stuff when it involves me personally.

    There must be a magic button somewhere, and I haven’t learnt how to push it.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this?



    I bounced that question off my live-in Oracle. She said, “Put yourself in the character’s shoes.” Someone else once asked me how I relate to characters – do I get inside their head or do I see them as separate to myself? My answer to that is that I see them as separate to myself. I don’t feel what they feel. Is this relevant?
     
  2. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is relevant. Even if they are separate from you, and you aren't actually feeling what they are feeling, you should still be able to understand what they are thinking and feeling and create believable responses. Just think of how people would behave if it were real, how friends or co-workers would respond in a situation.

    You don't have to get angry about it. You just have to know what they would do, and why a situation would be a problem for them. What do they want, how can they get it, and what is getting in the way?
     
  3. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    You can't force anger. If your characters are not doing things that appear truly terrible there is no reason for characters, or the audience for that matter, to be angry.
     
  4. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Sorry. I misquoted myself. I've changed the post. Anger isn't the issue.
     
  5. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Whatever the emotion is, it's okay if you don't feel it yourself as long as you can understand what the emotions are and know how to describe them.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    More peoplewatching. Go where people are tense already -- airports, train stations, laundromats, the DMV, department store customer service areas. Pick out the people who strike you as being mad at each other, and pay attention to the cues you picked up on. Whenever you can, listen to the conversations.

    The description of people in conflict is the harder part to get, so focus on the outward signs. The reasons the conflicts are there are not as difficult, and you may not always really need to spell that out anyway.
     
  7. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    Also, try to think of your characters as real people with real problems. Many books - even books where conflict is present - tend to dehumanize people in some fundamental way that is difficult to explain.

    I was just listening to some guy on YouTube talk about an everyday trouble with eating at McDonalds, and I thought, "Y'know, that's something that you'll never see in a novel or a movie."

    Some movies, in some ways. Shoot 'em Up had that one part where he was annoyed with this guy who was driving slow, and I really enjoyed that part of the movie. But that's just one little section of one movie.

    Perhaps if we gave our characters-- more things that annoy them, bother them, frustrate them, or things which they simply perceive in general; which they become aware of for what ever reason, then we could find it easier to give conflict to a character.

    That's just my thoughts, though, and doesn't really sum up how I feel as well as I would like, or to the extent thereof.
     
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sometimes it's just about finding the right character chemistry. Like with people, some just get along. A long part of my own story felt kinda dull to me, because the characters in it happened to get along too well. For a long time I tried to find ways to introduce conflict but it all seemed contrived. Then one day, the idea for an additional character came to me--a complete misfit in the group. Voila, conflict arose everywhere and all the time.

    If you sympathize with your main characters, then introduce them to someone you really dislike. That should spice things up. Maybe play with the idea of adding that government person to your story world, just as an exercise...
     
  9. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    Conflict pops up all the time in real life. Take a look at a page in your story. Any page, but preferably one without combat in it- combat is live-or-die stuff and it's easy to have conflict that will drive the reader onward.

    Is there conflict on that page? If there is, then turn to another page. If not, then think about these tricks.

    1. In dialogue between friends, set them at odds with one another. One of them brings up some issues that the other one doesn't want to talk about. One of them is asking for something and the other, for whatever reason, is reluctant to give it. Conflict- even temporary opposition- can bring out the best and worst in rounded characters. Make the reader wonder if the main character will get what they want out of the conversation.

    2. In terrain or setting splurges, toss some threats in the main character's path. Their road is narrow and their enemies, whether real or hypothetical, have cover. The buildings in this area are full of nooks and crannies where criminals might hide. A beggar is looking for prospects in the crowd around him, and for a moment his eyes spy your character. Even that will be enough to make the reader worried about your character's immediate future.

    3. In summaries, make the main character uncomfortable. They're staking out a known drug circle, and the main character isn't allowed to speak- but they want to. The main character has moved in with the love of his life, and wants to change the wallpaper- but the love of his life likes it the way it is. The main character's garden is growing- and the neighbors complain that it's an eyesore, or it stinks. Make the reader worry for the character's distant future.

    4. Other places, or more generically- never let the tone of the story reassure the main character that he is safe. Always preface positives with "for now," or "seemed to be." Whenever the main character feels safe and secure, make sure that's the very opening of the story before everything goes wrong, or make sure that the reader knows it won't last. Dramatic irony is beautiful in these situations.

    5. Make use of the phrase "Little did he know" and equivalents. Those phrases will hold a reader's attentions through a dozen pages of safety. In "At the Mountains of Madness," Lovecraft starts with a paragraph explaining that the main character survived whatever he's telling you about now. He then goes on for sixty pages, telling the reader what was meant to happen, how things were meant to go down, that the first parts of the expedition, at least, went according to plan. It's dreadfully good at building the tension up.
     
  10. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    I really appreciated the ideas you presented here ~ until I got to "Little did he know." I put that in the same category as "With a single bound, Jack was free."

    Seriously, the rest of it is good stuff. Thanks.
     
  11. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't have to use the actual words, "Little did he know" Just express the same thoughts, like hinting at things that the reader will know, but the characters don't, but using whatever words you want.
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I personally dislike the "little did he know" gimmick. It yanks the reader out of the character-centric POV with all the subtlety of a skyhook. I'd much rather make use of another POV to expose infornation hidden from the focus character, or better yet leave it hidden until thecharacter encounters it.

    Build your suspense from what the character suspects or fears, not from certain knowledge. If the protagonist is creeping from room to room in the enemy's apparently deserted lair, you don't need to reveal that the enemy is hiding in the kitchen with a meat cleaver in hand to know that the situation is dangerous and volatile.
     
  13. luckyprophet
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    luckyprophet Member

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    "There must be a magic button somewhere, and I haven’t learnt how to push it."

    Perhaps just imitating?
     
  14. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I don't know if this will help, but I found it helped me as a biproduct of another piece of advice someone once gave me about dialogue. What he said was, rather than having one character ask a question and another character answer it, try having the answering character avoid answering the question entirely and in such a way to show that avoidance and why that avoidance is significant. So, maybe it'd go something like this (as I try to think of ways to tangentialize the conversation rather than making it just plain back and forth) ...

    ***

    John looked distant. Preoccupied, Molly thought. "How was your trip?" she said.

    John set down his briefcase next to the kitchen table and loosened his tie. "Is that liver and onions?"

    "It's leftovers," Molly said. "Did your presentation go well?"

    "Amos is such an idiot. You know how that goes."

    Molly didn't know Amos. Not personally, anyway. So, no, she didn't "know how that goes." She tossed a lump of butter toward the pot with the potatoes and missed. "So he's an idiot?" she said. "What does that mean?"

    "I'm going to order a pizza," John said and reached for his phone as he walked out of the room.

    "But--"

    "Pepperoni okay?"

    "John!" Molly said, "Supper's ready. I just have to put it on the plate. What's wrong with you, anyway?" She swiped at the butter now melting onto the stovetop.

    John was already ordering a large pepperoni with extra cheese and hunting for the remote when Molly stumbled over his briefcase spilling papers onto the floor. Then, three shotgun shells rolled onto the floor.

    *****

    So, not a great example, maybe, but this kind of tangential behavior seems to me to create some tension that leads further into something altogether different, out of which you can grow your story in some particular (sometimes unexpected) direction.
     
  15. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Thanks to all so far. Some good stuff there.
     
  16. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    OX, I wish I could see a sample of your work, where you feel it lacks conflict.

    To me, conflct is not so much the words you choose, but the situation itself. If the situation is right, even if you write blandly, the conflict will be there.

    If she killed herself, people would miss her, like her parents and little brother. Oh, her little brother, how he would miss her. She was his only friend; he might never recover. But if she continues living, she will suffer every day that horrible feeling of doom for hours on end, never ending, always nagging at her soul, picking her apart. None of the antianaxiety medication worked. To live or not to live, that was the question.

    Ha.

    Anyway, I think it is more the situation that delivers the conflict. Either choice she makes sucks. Either way people suffer.

    Force your character into a sutation where either choice he makes has consquencies he doesn't wish to face.

    As far as choosing the right words, well, we never can choose word that please everyone. Some people write plainly, perhaps even dully like in the novel Strangers in a Strange Land. Some people write flowerly, like Bujold. And some people write casually.

    I think conflict can be felt in every style, so long as conflict is there to begin with.
     
  17. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Maybe I'll put something up for a crit one day.
     
  18. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    "Little did he know" is a bad idea. I'm sorry. What I meant was an extension of the previous paragraph- try and instill that foreboding into the reader, regardless of what the character is feeling. Never let them rest. Don't tell the audience what's going to happen- god no, I never meant that, even if that is what "little did he know" means- but make sure they know that the character's current peace won't last.
     
  19. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    But every horror movie ever filmed rely on this trick. Showing the mass-murderer lurking outside the cabin before the young teens decide to go and play games in the dark woods.
     
  20. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    That's why I don't like horror. . too many lame showbiz tricks, barely any content. If your story is primarily a series of cheap tricks and stunts, it won't be much of a story. . That kind of thing works much better on screen than it does in a book. Reading a book is more work, and readers take more time to think about things. It has to hold up to that extra level of scrutiny.

    Books are also more immersive than movies, enabling consumers to get much closer to the characters, even become those characters, if only for an hour. . Cheap tricks like the above tend to break the immersion that is unique to reading.

    Consider how the introductory grand overview works so beautifully in movies, but fails horribly in books (the classic example of an infodump).

    We're talking about two different things here, two completely different entertainment mediums, each with their own dos and do-nots.
     
  21. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    You can do that in a novel with multiple points of view.

    Show the killers POV. He is outside the house, trying to find a silent way in. The next scene or chapter is from the ignorant MC's POV. Dean Koontz writes most of his novels from the POV of the protag and antag.
     
  22. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Yeah, I think that's what Cog was saying:
    Multiple POV can be awesome. In fact, most of my favourite books make use of this. It's still character-centric, though, and different from a movie.
     
  23. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    To be honest, the kind of thing you're describing, Arch, is one of my pet hates in fiction. Like, is it really necessary to switch to this character's point of view just so I can see the build up to his intersection with the MC? Can't you just keep it to one POV and let me work out the rest for myself? I mean I get that it builds tension which is probably why someone like Koontz uses it, but IMO its a bit of a cheat. Like dramatic music in horror films, its just something thrown in to build up the tension and heighten my anticipation. I'm not saying it doesn't work, just that I don't like it.

    That said, multiple POV can be awesome, as Kas says. If you want proof, go read The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis.
     
  24. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's almost a necessity in stories of moral ambiguity. You need to understand the mechanisms that drive each character, equally.
     
  25. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    But then its not ambiguous. In a situation like that, I would prefer to be shown one side explicitly and be forced to draw my own conclusions about the other characters based on the implicit information communicated in the text.
     

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