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message 1: by Kat (last edited Feb 10, 2011 04:19PM) (new)

Kat M (cataraqui) | 64 comments Mod
There are so many important aspects of a story that it's hard to focus on just one without bleeding into the others, but today I'm going to tackle my thoughts on conflict and it's importance to the story.

It probably goes without saying that conflict is a necessary component and that, without it, you really don't have much of a story to tell. However, the difficulty in inventing conflict is that too often we are lured by the most obvious answers. The word 'conflict' invokes images of war or two lovers screaming at each other, but there are quieter and no less interesting facets of conflict that add layers of depth and meaning to any one scene.

I'm going to use Harry Potter as an example because most people have read it and it's the first thing that comes to mind right now. I'm still frozen from outside, shhh.
First, the three main types of conflict: character vs. character (Harry vs. Voldemort), character vs. self (Harry's struggle with his capacity for good and evil), character vs. environment (Harry vs. Hogwarts castle trapping his leg in a trick staircase). I used ONE book as an example here because the best stories incorporate all different types of conflict. Character vs. Environment can be situational, or nature-driven forces (Twister) or the struggle in a Dystopian society (1984) as well, while character vs. self and character vs. character are pretty self-explanatory.

That said, one or all of these forms of conflict should be present in every scene, every line, of your entire novel, or it is not driving the story forward. One might argue, 'but what about character development?' The truth of the matter is that character development and conflict go hand in hand. Your character's favourite food or hobbies don't tell us who this person is; we only truly come to understand a person when we observe their ACTIONS when put under pressure.

My main character's brother betrays him: does he forgive him, ostracize him, give him a second chance with a warning? How he conducts himself given this scenario will define whether he's a benevolent man with a huge capacity for forgiveness or whether he's the type to hold a grudge, or whether he's guarded in his trust since this betrayal. Nothing will define your character better than his/her own decisions. The more pressure he/she is under, the greater depth of understanding we'll have of this character's nature. Conflict IS character development.

The different layers of conflict I mentioned can be multi-faceted, there can be the conflict on the surface and multiple other conflicts going on subtextually that may be hinted at, but the audience isn't told the full story. This manner of layering conflict will lead to a much more satisfying climax, as the problems we KNOW are there battle against the ones we can't see, and all is revealed in the end to give the reader a revelation which makes them reevaluate every scene that came before it. This 'twist' ending result is what many movie-goers and readers alike seek in a story.

Ultimately, readers evaluate the conflict and immediately develop expectations concerning the resolution of said conflict. For example, in a romance, the conflict could revolve around the various things preventing the main couple from being together. As writers we hope to evoke emotion in the readers so that THEY want what the characters want - they feel that desire just as viscerally as your fictional characters - however, simply handing it to them will not get the results you hoped for. If the solution is too easy or predictable, the reader isn't satisfied. The key to conflict (and it's resolution) is to give the reader what they want, but not in the way that they expect.

Conversely, there are stories that DON'T give the audience what they want. These are usually called tragedies, and you toe a fine line between provoking the reader's tears or their rage if you don't treat it properly. The key with a tragedy is to build the conflict in such a way that the reader not only KNOWS this can't end well, they feel on some perverse level that it shouldn't and it wouldn't be right if it did. This is how I felt about the Hunger Games - while many complained about the lack of fairy tale ending, I felt that books of such a nature were deserving of something much more bitter sweet. A fairy tale ending would have seemed contrived, given all the characters had been through.

These are just some of my thoughts on conflict, I'll have to update this any time I think of something else.


message 2: by Tristan (new)

Tristan Wong (TheMonolith) | 82 comments "Conflict is Character Development."

Conflict is character development, but I believe there is more to it than that when it comes to writing characters into the story itself and it really (for me anyway) boils down to what the story is all about and how one writes it. For example, if you're dropped into a story (in the middle of the conflict from the get-go) then it be nice to know history of each character the main character is associated with. But this comes with it's own twists and turns.

While history of a characters past is nice to have on the back slate, there is such a thing as over indulgence and inane information. Take it this way, when doing character against society (rebellion stories) and the main character is apart of the very thing she'll rebel against, histories can do wonders to implore this effect. Tyranny takes the father of a friend of yours, there's one reason for your main character to start rebelling.

But character history can also mar conflict progress. Told too much and it levee's a nasty effect of sludging the story along. If it doesn't have anything to do with the story or the main themes of the story, set it on fire, because there isn't much a reason it should be there... less you have nothing left to burn (oh god, the pain of that reference).


message 3: by Kat (new)

Kat M (cataraqui) | 64 comments Mod
Actually, I really believe exposition or back story should arise from conflict too. Exposition is a tricky nut to crack, and should never be used for the sake of character development alone. An experienced reader will smell contrivances a mile away - if the exposition or backstory is not necessary for their comprehension of the story, they will know, and they will feel belittled that you must stuff this down their throats when it isn't necessary. Revealing ONLY the exposition which the reader needs and wants to know is the key to avoiding bad back story.

Make your audience desperately WANT to know the exposition before you give it to them, or they will sense that it's nothing more than authorial masturbation... Make them curious. Drop hints, have your character behave in such a manner that would seem strange to an observer, but makes sense once you understand the history linked to this behaviour.

Going to use a very recently watched anime as an example. Have you ever watched Baccano? It's a very rare thing they've done, to smash a story into so many pieces and only reveal little bits to the audience at a time. They do it in such a way that you understand NOTHING, but you want to, and only after more and more of the exposition is revealed do we understand the events of the present day. They only managed to do this by relating parts of the story with no chronology bit by bit. The style may not be for everyone - it has twenty characters so if you like to cling to a specific character and go along for the ride, it won't be your style, but it's really a masterful thing to watch. They manage to include characters of varying personalities and get the audience to fall in love with some of them despite how disjointed the story is. It would not have worked if the story was told chronologically, and it made sense to jumble the audience's comprehension because most of the characters are no more knowledgeable about what is taking place than you are. My point being - it's their masterful use of keeping the exposition hidden until you NEED to know to understand, and you WANT to know because they've made you curious, which makes the story that much more successful.

Another example, from another anime, is the character of Chrona from Soul Eater, who behaves in very strange and unpredictable ways, and who exhibits certain unique traits. His backstory, which explains his neurotic behaviour, especially toward the villain of the series, is only revealed much later when one of the main characters does a very literal 'soul exploration' to revisit his memories and see why this kid is messed up - and she only does it because if she doesn't manage to 'tame' the beast so to speak, he will very likely kill her, so there is much at stake and a lot of conflict driving the exposition. There are other layers of conflict in this alone, but I won't get into it because I don't think it'd make no sense unless I explained all the rules of that universe.

Exposition shouldn't come out in a bland talk over coffee where character's spill their secrets. It's contrived, it's boring, it doesn't make any sense. The more meaningful and relevant the exposition, the more tightly the character should guard it - or he will simply appear a puppet miming the words to a history he feels no attachment to. Only when the character is under pressure (ie conflict) should the exposition come to light anyway... Which brings us full circle. Conflict, even in the case of exposition, STILL drives character development. Conflict drives the narrative and holds the reader's interest, and it should motivate whether or not there is necessity for exposition.


message 4: by Tristan (new)

Tristan Wong (TheMonolith) | 82 comments Perhaps it depends on the story as well. I mean, I wrote most of my first draft of my first story based on immersion sake. It's about a soldier who doesn't want to lead to put it shortly (the story gets much more complicated unfortunately as the story progresses). He knows all these people, he wants to protect all his friends, but on the verge of total duress, it becomes a question if he can or something (I'm too tired to continue :P, just woke up.)

In order to show the pressures of being a leader, I decided to write a detailed backstory to have the reader connect a little better with each of the characters the main character is forced to connect (and since the main character knows most of the characters from the get go, I could skip ahead of conflict or lead up, logically that is). The back story was to put a good immersion trail into his position--put yourself in his place and see what it's like to lead a six man team into the brink against a nation undivided.

Several near-death experiences, several heart breaking decisions and moral dilemmas. And the only way I could figure out to make all that meaningful and terrifying was to detail the back-stories of each character to have the main character understand what he's losing with every word he utters under pressure.


message 5: by Kat (new)

Kat M (cataraqui) | 64 comments Mod
What I'm sorta prodding at is that the execution of back story is crucial. If it's consistently being told through dialogue or dream sequences, I start to get frustrated that the author can't come up with a more active way to show what's happened. If so much of it is THAT important to the story, why not just start the story from that point onwards? The other commonly used method of backstory execution I've seen is where they flip between timelines from chapter to chapter. If done well, I enjoy this a lot (Baccano), but more often than not I find myself not giving two shits about what happened THEN and only caring about what's happening NOW or vice versa (Immortal, that badly written crap I've mentioned in past posts). It gets even more dicey if you're flipping the focus or perspective from character to character... each has to be just as interesting as the last or I skip entire chapters about a character I don't care for. What it comes down to is this: does the reader NEED to know what you're telling them for the main spine of the story to make sense or is it more like the flavourless mint you get with your tab after the real nourishing part of the meal. If it's just fat, trim it. If no one in their right mind should care except you, trim it. If it's necessary for the comprehension of the story, then keep it. Stephen King calls it 'killing your darlings.' It's great that you have this backstory as a means for better understanding your characters as the author, but the truth of the matter is that unless it's needed for the reader's understanding then it's NOT needed in actual narration on anything but a subtextual level.

Some of the best back story I've ever seen never actually describes the event that shaped this character to such an extent, it is only darkly hinted at and the characters are never forthwith about it. One such story is about the generations of this family, and in particular a daughter who is molested by her father, but the molestation is NEVER shown, talked about, anything... it's just subtly hinted at through character behaviours and once the reader is given the final clues, it makes everything that much more horrifying to consider. Much of the time it is what we don't see, rather than what we do, which terrifies us and has the greatest emotional effect.


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