"Brings alive almost every tough issue a writer of fiction must confront . . . friendly and fun to read."— Albert Zuckerman, founder of Writers House literary agency
The following is an excerpt from Page-Turner.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
by Barbara Kyle
I once heard an interview with bestselling author John LeCarré in which he spoke about the necessity of conflict in a novel. He said, “The cat sat on the mat—that's not a story. But, the cat sat on the dog’s mat—that's the beginning of a story."
All stories spring from conflict. A character who has no problems, no obstacles to overcome, is a boring character, and they are living in a non-story. So, as a writer, you want to make choices about plot that highlight the conflict between your story’s protagonist and antagonist. These counterbalanced characters are at the heart of all compelling fiction.
Science fiction author Nancy Kress puts the concept succinctly: "Fiction is about stuff that's screwed up."
Why do we, as readers, love to see characters thrown into crisis, forced to grapple with problems. I don't think it's because we're sadists. Rather, it's because we want to experience the emotional bond with a character who faces a dilemma. We get that intense feeling: What would I do in that situation? It’s one of the reasons we read stories.
Yet new writers often shy away from depicting their characters’ conflict. This only undermines the power of their stories. Instead, I advise you to embrace all the richness that conflict gifts you as a writer.
When I'm planning a book, scene by scene, I focus on what the characters do to try to get what they want and how the results of their actions increase the conflict. I do this so constantly, it's become a kind of comic mantra: "What could possibly go wrong?" I slyly mutter.
But I’m dead serious. And I recommend that you ask yourself the same question, very soberly, about every step of the story you're developing: "What could possibly go wrong?" Then, make that happen.
Remember, nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.
Even more important, conflict under pressure is the only way that characters truly reveal themselves.
Here’s a guiding principle: The compelling novel is built on situations that put increasing pressures on characters, forcing them to face more and more difficult challenges, so that they must make increasingly risky choices, leading them to take actions that eventually reveal their true natures.
Three Tips about Conflict
Tip #1. Conflict does not mean combat.
Don’t be intimidated by the word conflict. Conflict isn't about fighting. It just means “problems.” What problems does your protagonist—your main character—face in trying to achieve his or her goal?
Tip #2. Escalate the conflict gradually.
To be believable, characters in a story, just like people in real life, will naturally start by taking the most conservative action to get what they want. If they don’t—if they instantly leap into taking extreme action—they’ll come across as unrealistic, maybe even a little crazy, and you’ll lose your reader.
Therefore, the long middle section of your book will be composed of a series of events that spring from conflict that escalates gradually. That is, events force the main character to make choices in an ever-escalating succession of risks to try to achieve their desire.
Tip #3. Your protagonist can be in conflict on three possible levels.
1. Internal: conflict with oneself.
2. External Level 1: conflict in interpersonal relationships such as with family, friends, colleagues.
3. External Level 2: extra-personal conflict with the larger community in the form of institutions, such as the government, the church, the school system, the army—institutions that have power.
The most compelling stories, the stories that move us most deeply and stay with us forever, often involve conflict on all three levels: personal, interpersonal, and extra-personal. That’s partly what creates the enduring power of books like David Copperfield, Frankenstein, A Passage to India, Heart of Darkness, The Age of Innocence, The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
In contrast with those potent stories, it's instructive to examine the form of "soap opera." The term is often used as a pejorative. Why? After all, soap operas are highly engrossing stories that are loved by millions of viewers. I think the reason we sense weakness in the soap opera form is that it shows us conflict on only one level: the interpersonal. It does that with great panache; it's soap opera's tremendous pull, because interpersonal relationships are so engaging.
But it’s also incomplete. Characters in a soap opera hardly ever face internal conflict; there’s rarely a crisis of conscience. And they never do battle with the larger community. For example, if a cop enters a storyline in a soap, you can be sure he’ll soon be caught up in the highly personal concerns of other characters; the story will not be about corruption in the police department. So, there's virtually no conflict with the self, nor with society. It’s all one level—momentarily highly engrossing, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Not every story can involve conflict on all these levels, but if you can bring all three into your story, I recommend it.
The important point is this: never shy away from catching your characters up in the swirling currents of conflict. It will prove their mettle, and make them reveal their true selves. That's what enthralls readers, and leaves them saying, “I couldn’t put it down!”
In other words, you’ll have created a page-turner.
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About the Author
Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Thornleigh Saga series of historical novels, and of award-wining thrillers, with sales of over half a million books. She has taught writers at the University of Toronto, and is a popular presenter at international writers’ conferences. As a story coach, she has launched many writers on the path toward published success. Find out more at Barbara's website