|Photo Credit: Shiny Things, Creative Commons|
The thing to keep in mind when we are writing is that the core of a story is conflict. I know I have caught myself going easy on my protagonist. Sometimes I just miss opportunities to heap a little extra conflict on because I start thinking how I might react in a situation and then write my way out of it instead of letting it unfold in a way that will actually increase the drama, and the stakes for the character, making the story a little richer in the process. Without conflict there is no story. And even though we have sympathy for our creations, maybe even love, we still have to punish them for the sake of the story. Conflict is the engine of our story and if we keep finding an easy path out of trouble it just makes for a lot of prose without a whole lot actually going on. The fiction becomes lifeless.
One of my instructors shared a story about getting a manuscript from an elderly neighbor who told him it was a memoir of their life. It was thousands of pages long and in the form of journal entries that covered decades, but even though there were so many volumes there was no actual story. She had led a very easy life with almost no conflict. How do you tell someone that their life story doesn’t really have a story? It was tough I’m certain, but the bottom line is without struggle or strife there is nothing to hang the story’s hat on.
Every scene should have a purpose to move the story along and little conflicts drive scenes. Not every scene has to have something epic, but there needs to be some point of contention. I read recently that you should never have two people in a scene that agree with each other. The person that agrees is simply redundant. It’s fine to have them in the background, but the core conflict for that scene should be between opposing stances.
Pay attention to the little opportunities that pop up to add some tension.
Now go write.
I’ve started reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and he has a refreshing take on how to craft your stories. One of his main tenants is you have to have a Theme. The theme is the thing you’re trying to evoke or to relate to real life, something to hang the structure of your story on. It’s really crucial to keep this in mind, especially if you’re a pantser like I am. What is a pantser? It means you write by the seat of your pants. The phrase developed as a reference to pilots at the turn of the century, as flying by the seat of their pants. There were no instruments in those days so they had to rely on their own senses for a lot of navigating and maneuvering, which could be very tricky. It relates well to writing without a strong outline, letting your characters dictate a lot of what happens. There can be a lot of pitfalls with this approach if you aren’t careful.
I had a very illuminating moment a while back in my current work in progress, where my character was going down a path that was making him question a lot of his feelings and motives and it was making him extremely uncomfortable. He wanted to change the direction of the story on me; it was that uncomfortable for him. Luckily, I realized the ramifications of taking that fork and I didn’t get too far afield before having to backtrack and force my character to man-up! I knew where the story needed to go because I had a strong theme and it kept me on course with only a minor deviation. If I hadn’t had the theme in mind I could have followed that fork to its logical conclusion and my story would have lost a lot of potency. I would likely have had to revise the entire end of the book, and it wouldn’t have been as rich a story in my opinion. We fall in love with our protagonists and sometimes we really want to listen to them and get them out of pain or trouble, but that is the path to a weak story with no Theme, not to mention boring. Theme is the lifeblood to an interesting and perhaps tragic tale, but also allows for those heroic moments that really bring the power to your story.
Good luck with your writing!
I have a question for you writer’s and aspiring writers out there…do names matter?
I know there are many approaches to actually writing a novel from outlining to discovery, and every iteration between those poles. NaNoWriMo taught me to write every day, and I’ve read over and over again that when you write you should just keep going, letting it flow out the right side of your brain and fix it later in the editing phase. But my brain is already full and if I learn something new I have to forget something to make room for it, and I have no idea what that lost tidbit is going to be. It might be the great idea I had for the edit that I didn’t take the time to fix earlier.
I’m one of those people that have to fix it on the spot, if I can. I can get hung up on a scene if I’ve introduced a new character that I wasn’t planning on, and I don’t have his/her name. So much is wrapped up in a name; their whole essence is in that name. I’ve heard the horror stories of editors or publishers demanding a name change! Don’t they understand what you have invested in that name!?! You might have spent hours or even days trying to find just the perfect name. And it’s not just characters, it’s ships and planets and weapons and continents and lakes. You get the idea. This is world building, but to me it’s more than that, it’s world CRAFTING. I’ve heard people say that names don’t matter…WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE!?! We world builders know different! We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into those names, they have power!
Okay, maybe I’m getting a little carried away, but I do think it matters. Names set a tone and paint a word picture when they are done well. If I name my main character Rupert or Sterling, it creates an image in your head. Doesn’t it? What about Mad Dog or Killer or Whysk?
Names anchor the ambience of your setting, whether it’s grim and dark or whimsical and magical. They evoke image and imagination. They have soul or lack soul. Names alone won’t make your story good, but I do think they can help both the writer to imagine and the reader to get absorbed. I would love to hear your opinions on this, unless you disagree with me you cretin! (j/k)