Thursday, November 24, 2016

Characters: Conflict Escalation and Resolution

Character Series
Part 08: Conflict Escalation and Resolution 

Higher and Higher

Stakes and conflicts need to raise through your story. Whatever problem and stakes you start with, need to get worse and worse, more and more desperate. And you should have a good idea of how this is going to happen before you begin writing.

One of the ways it will rise is your character’s own emotional investment. It’s the core of romances, the stakes raise as the characters fall more and more in love with each other, their emotional investment rises. Likewise, if your hero is a gruff, uncaring, world-weary cowboy, he will undoubtedly meet someone weaker and more vulnerable that he will protect, grudgingly at first, but who will then become a driving motivation as the story progresses.

Another typical way for the stakes it rise is that on your characters first (then often second and even third) effort to solve their problems, they fail. A character who always effortlessly succeeds is boring. No one can empathise with a flawless character, because none of us are flawless. Seeing their failure, their reaction to it, the way they fight to keep going, or maybe give up for a time, allows us to see who they are. And the higher their highs and the lower their lows, the more of them we see.

A character who has no emotional investment, or who doesn’t react to things, internally or externally, is not interesting to a reader. However if a reader can feel with the character, empathise as completely as you can manage, then they will remember that story and want to share it with everyone else.

Conflict Resolution

You have to resolve all the conflicts in your story in a way that will satisfy the reader. That is not to say they have to be happy endings, or the ending that the reader wants, but they do have to be resolved. EG: Let’s say in the middle of the book, the main character has to abandon his  beloved dog on the roof of a house in flood waters. He promises to go back for her. She’s barking as he paddles away and he orders her to stay with tears rolling down her face.

At some point in the book, even if it is toward the very end, you have to resolve that conflict. Maybe the dog is rescued by someone else, maybe he goes back for it, maybe he sees fly over footage of the site and sees the dog is dead. However the reader needs to know what happened to it, one way or another.

Loose ends leave readers feeling uncomfortable. If people are uncomfortable, if they leave your book feeling unsatisfied, they won’t come back and read your next book. So if you are leaving things unresolved, only do so if you have a really good reason, if that is your intention that readers feel that way.

Ultimately, you want to resolve your novel in a way that leaves them with a strong emotion—you decide what that emotion is, as the writer, but you want it to be intense. You want it to have as much impact as you can possibly deliver. With happy endings, you may then end with a mellower scene, something short to show everything has calmed down, or that adventures are ongoing, or that everything is back to normal, but this palette cleanser can’t be too long. It’s a reassurance—don’t let it drag on so long that it weakens your final emotional impact.

NEXT WEEK - Part  9. Characters: Heroes.

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Characters: Motivation and Stakes

Character Series
Part 07: Motivation and Stakes

What are stakes?

Stakes are what is at risk, or the consequences of failure. If nothing is at risk and the hero doesn’t stand to lose anything if they fail, why does the reader care? The stronger and more powerful your stakes feel to the reader, the more they will care. However don’t make the mistake of valuing quantity over quality. The lives of everyone on the planet may seem like a big, cool stake to have—its EVERYONE on the planet, right? But a man trying desperately to save the life of his newborn daughter, or a sister trying to protect her little brother from an abusive, alcoholic mother is going to have far more emotional impact on the reader and thus they will be more invested in the story.

What is motivation?

I have noticed, while giving feedback, quite a few of my fellow writers are confusing motivation and stakes. They are often intrinsically connected. Different sides of the same coin. Take for example the heroine saving her lover. Her MOTIVATION for saving him is that she loves him so much she would die so he could live. What is at STAKE is his life, and her future happiness. However don't be lazy and assume one automatically provides the other.

What if the heroine is saving her lover because he is the only one who knows who killed her daughter? What if she is saving him for the pleasure of killing him herself? What if she is saving him because he has the antidote to the poison that is killing her? As the motivations change, so do the stakes. In every case, she is trying to stop a man from dying. However the WHY alters what she will lose if she fails. He won't just die, she'll lose her only lead in finding her daughter's killer, on having revenge, of saving her own life.

What stakes matter to readers?

The most important thing is that, whatever the stakes and motives are, they should matter to the main character. If your plot is about a girl finding a neglected horse, there is a big difference between a character who sort of thinks horses are cool and who loves horses more than anything and is determined to dedicate her life to horse rehabilitation. The driving motivation has to matter enough to the main character that they can't just hand responsibility to someone else, or give up. The character's passion will be mirrored by the reader, if it is done well.

Generally speaking, motivations and stakes should also be perceived from the side of 'good'. EG: If your main character's goal is to kill someone, they should have a reason readers can relate to. If you tried to write a novel about a guy who wanted to raped and murder the wife of the guy who stole his parking spot at work, the novel probably wouldn't be super popular. It's hard to relate to someone who thinks that way. However if you were writing about a man who was seeking revenge on the guy who raped and murdered his wife because of a stolen parking spot, more people would be invested.

Generally people want to read about characters who are trying to help, protect and redeem, not people who are trying to hurt, corrupt and destroy. There are exceptions to this rule, such as American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Even so, society so abhors this kind of narrative, that in some places it can't be sold, or must be sold shrink wrapped as if it were hardcore pornography.

Readers also want to read about characters that resonate with them, whom they can empathise easily with. This is why people generally like to read about people their own age, their own gender and sometimes their own race (though this is more difficult for underrepresented minorities, since there isn't the same volume of works for them to choose from).

So when you are designing character motives and building stakes, you need to take your target audience into consideration. You want to take the problems they can relate to and make them bigger. J.K Rowling does this in her books with surpassing mastery. She takes that very real fear children have of having less than schoolmates and siblings, as well as the fear of being punished unjustly by parents, and amplifies it. It becomes an abused child living under the stairs, getting no gifts while his cousin gets dozens, never having anything new or special. It is easy to empathise with Harry instantly. Even if we had very good childhoods, we all suffered those anxieties and J.K Rowling brings them all to the surface again with breathtaking intensity.

In Harry Potter, the villains also outnumber the allies. Conflict comes in from all sides, both from Harry's enemies, as varied as they are, and his allies. The stakes and motives are constantly shifting and growing. Which is why the series did so well.

NEXT WEEK - Conflict Escalation & Resolution.

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Characters: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict

Character Series
Part 06: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict

Your story needs more conflict. That conflict then needs to be maintained properly, escalated and finally resolved in a manner that has the strongest impact on the character and reader.

This conflict post for the character development series was originally going to cover conflict, stakes & motivation and Escalation & Resolution.  It was so long, however, it has been broken up into three separate blog posts.

So welcome back to the character development series!

What is Conflict?

Once I instructed a fellow writer that every scene needed to have some sort of conflict, mystery or development. A week later she came to me and said 'I've been trying to do what you said, but it's really difficult to make the characters argue in every scene.'

I was floored--partly by her misunderstanding of the term 'conflict', but also that she would attempt to follow such blatantly ludicrous advice. I asked if her favourite book had an argument in every scene and why she would attempt to follow my advice when it was clearly inaccurate. She wasn't sure, but when pressed she couldn't identify any conflicts, in any scenes, other than arguments between characters.

So what is a conflict? defines it as:
1. A state of open, often prolonged fighting; a battle or war.
2. A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or interests; a clash.
3. Psychology A psychic struggle, often unconscious, resulting from the opposition or simultaneous functioning of mutually exclusive impulses, desires, or tendencies.
4. Opposition between characters or forces in a work of drama or fiction, especially opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot.

A conflict could be inside the character--guilt, shame, fear. It could be an external force the character is fighting against--a fire, a storm, the cold, an earthquake. It could be another character--the love interest, the villain, a misunderstanding, direct insult, physical altercations, verbal altercations or simply emotional tensions.

And yes, you should try and have conflict in every scene. Just don't always make that conflict an argument.

Three Types Of Conflict

Inner conflict is usually an emotion, thought or belief that has a detrimental effect on a characters choices and actions. Maybe they want to be brave and do the right thing, but fear stops them. Maybe they believe they can’t do something, so they never try.

A good inner conflict is seeded throughout a novel, then comes to a head in a critical scene, giving characters a choice that allows them to overcome their conflict, or fail. Often, depending on the emotional arc of the book, they will fail on their first attempt, then succeed later.

EG:  A man is deeply resentful of his ex wife. So much so, he wishes she was dead. He arrives at her house to pick up their children and sees the children are huddled on the lawn and the house is burning. She is still inside. He can overcome his hostilities and run in and save her... or he can fail and let her die.

Addictions, mental illness, trauma and deeply ingrained cultural or religious beliefs can also be inner conflicts—though often more difficult for people to overcome. EG: a man choosing between heroin or his children, or a war veteran trying to trust her brother when he promises her the hallucinations aren’t real.

Interpersonal conflict occurs between people. Romance novels often rely heavily on the interpersonal conflict between the hero and heroine as their relationship develops. There needs to be a lot of tension between them to make their romance compelling to the reader. The relationship between the hero and villain is also an interpersonal conflict and these are often the most powerful, intense relationships we get to see in fiction. EG: Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, John McClane and Hans Gruber.

Interpersonal conflict can be a central conflict in a novel, sustained from beginning to end, or it can be short. A disagreement between two characters for a single scene. Conflict and tension between characters is one of the best ways to engage and sustain reader interest.

Consider ‘The Hunger Games’ where every single relationship Katniss has, even with her allies, is fraught with tension and conflict. And every time she does open up and trust someone, they are wrenched away from her. Which usually then changes the conflict between her and President Snow, or one of the other villains. I would argue The Hunger Games nonstop conflict, without any room to breathe, is what made it so successful and interpersonal conflict was the lion’s share of that.

Environmental conflicts are difficulties and dangers arising from the surroundings. EG: Rain causing a laptop to die, a bushfire threatening lives and homes, a hurricane knocking out power, a snake bite on a hiking trail, a snow storm trapping tourists in a remote cabin. While all of the dangers in The Hunger Games are controlled by man, the things within the arena were environmental conflicts that Katniss had to overcome. The movie Cube (1997) the characters are trying to survive the maze (environmental) and each other (interpersonal).

The primary conflict in a story can be environmental. Any catastrophic event is usually enough to base a whole story around—though you would expect there to be inner conflict and perhaps some interpersonal conflict as well. A good environmental conflict feels like an interpersonal conflict. The environment feels like a hostile force. It’s not a static backdrop. It breathes and hunts and devastates. We all sometimes feel like it rained just because we hung out washing. Environments can be malicious.

Generally speaking, you expect to find all three types of conflict in longer works. It’s difficult, in a well written story, to leave one out. That is because we all experience all three of these conflicts on an almost daily basis, just in minor forms. Trip and bash your toe? Environmental conflict. Children won’t eat their dinner? Interpersonal conflict. Choosing between a salad or burger for lunch? Inner conflict.

Mysteries and Hooks

What is a hook?

Imagine you are a fisher and the reader is a fish. You are at the end of the book and they are at the start. Your goal is to draw them through the story to you. The hook is what pulls them through the water/story. It is the element that keeps them reading.

The type of hooks you will use will vary greatly depending on the genre and target audience.  Often, hooks are promises the writer has made to the reader in the blurb and the book’s cover. That is the first hook. However you then need to have a fantastic hook in the first chapter, preferably in the first line too. Something that will keep the reader turning the page to see what happens next.

Next time you pick up a new book and enjoy it, stop and ask yourself why you want to read more. Your answer will probably start with the phrase: ‘I want to know X’ or ‘I want to see X’. For you, that is the hook at this part in the story. Different readers will be hooked in by different elements—which are again, generally about genre and target audience.

However a good hook will general involve a compelling character, a compelling conflict of some kind and a question or mystery the reader wants the answer to.

Drawing the Reader Through The Story

Once you have a reader's attention, you have to keep it. That means raising the stakes and creating new hooks as the plot progresses. I think Karin Slaughter is the master of this. Her crime thrillers draw you through, from start to finish, very easily.  She is very good at jerking you backwards and forwards, leading you to one conclusion, then providing fresh information that forces you to look at the situation in a new light and question your earlier conclusions.

She is also great at ending chapters on cliff-hangers, so you feel compelled to start the next chapter, just so you can find out what happens before you put the book down. Her books are fast paced and intense. It's no wonder I usually read through them in a single day.

Karin Slaughter's novels are told from multiple POVs too. Which allows some characters to have information other character's need. Sometimes characters keep information from the reader too. Which allows her to build massive anticipation because we know a character is walking into danger when the character doesn't. Or we know a problem could be solved if two characters could just meet and share information. Or we know that the hero was only a few feet shy of finding the unconscious victim... but missed them and gave up the search moments too soon.

These all come back to raising the stakes in your story. Which begs the question:

What are stakes? Come back next week to find out!

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here: