Conflict: Don’t Avoid It

Welcome to DecemBlog, Day 1!

Okay, that name isn’t great either. We’re working on the name.

Last time I told you that for my new novel (which is about 3000 words away from completion!) I’ve been using Jim Butcher’s methodology as outlined on his LiveJournal. Today we’re going to talk about how he—and I, at least for the moment—start building a novel, from the bottom up.

I’m not going to talk about his Introduction or Story Craft. Maybe I’ll get to those later, but for now, let’s jump right into Conflict, because this is a big one.

Jim says:

Conflict is the single most important facet of writing fiction. Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. In a previous article I said that stories are about following a character in pursuit of a goal, and who is opposed by someone with an opposite or conflicting goal. That’s the overall shape of a story.

But that format of Goal-Conflict is also the basic model for any scene. ALL of your characters need to have a goal. If they don’t have a goal, then what the hell are they doing wandering aimlessly around on stage?

Every story needs a goal and a conflict. Obviously. Say you want to write a story about me, and how I want some frozen waffles. If you just write a sequence of events in which I go to Marsh, find my frozen waffles, buy them, and go home, that’s not a story. Well, it is a story, but it’s a really boring one, and if you don’t see that, I probably can’t help you.

But if I head out to get my waffles, encounter a band of ninjas, find out the lead ninja is actually my dad, and then have to accept my ninja heritage and battle a band of pirates to eventually get our family waffles, that is a story. A really weird one, but it’s a story. It has a goal and a conflict.

Here’s the kicker, though: you need conflict in every single scene. Otherwise, why will someone keep turning the pages?

This is where my first novel has issues. For the first big action-packed scene, Eva, my main character, and her partner Joe are stealing some jewels from the richest guy in the country. That’s not an easy job. I didn’t make it easy for them, but there was no real conflict the way I wrote it. Their plan worked. They got in, got the jewels, and got out. Yay.

But the reader isn’t going to say, “Yay,” because the scene isn’t satisfying. There’s no holding of breath, no wondering if they could really do it. My fiance read it and said, “Well, that was easy.”

I undervalued conflict in each individual scene. I have other scenes I could give as examples: conversations that are agreeable and friendly and everyone learns what they need to know; romantic scenes that are just about as exciting and sexually tense as the original story about me getting waffles from Marsh, sans pirates. (Don’t pirates always add at least some sexual tension?)

I focused on the overarching conflict, and every scene was a step toward reaching the characters’ final goals, but I didn’t impede those goals often enough to make the story into a page-turner.

So when I started out on Shaken, I actually sat down and listed Mitzy’s goals. I also listed her partner’s goals. And her relationship character’s goals. And the serial killer’s goals. And… you get the idea. After I did that, I listed the conflicts to those goals.

And then I did it for each scene, which I’ll talk about tomorrow when I look at Scenes.

Take away for today: even if you start out with a character and not a plot idea, like I did, you need to think about conflict. Give your fabulous main character a goal, and don’t let her get to it.

And “hijinks happen” does not count as a conflict.

Preview of Coming Attractions

Well, now that November is almost over, it’s time for another challenge.

December is officially going to be KriBloWriMo. Yes, Kristin’s Blog Writing Month. (You know, I may need to rethink that name. Blo as in “blog” sounds fine, but blo as in blow sounds less than good. Hmm. Maybe “Decemblog.”) Once post a day, all month. Granted, at least one of those posts may only say “Happy Holidays!” but the idea is to boost the blog and my own social networking skills.

I’m a notoriously bad correspondent and social media user. I take days to respond to emails, I’m perplexed by Twitter’s popularity, and I read blogs every time they update without ever commenting. I do keep a pretty active Facebook presence, but that’s mostly because I can talk to all my friends and lots of my family in one place.

So, in December, I’ll be making a concerted effort to update here every day. For material, I shall do as Picasso said and prove that I’m a great artist by stealing ruthlessly. Emmie Mears did a series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest article 25 Ways to Improve Your Writing that were both interesting and informative. I’m going to steal Emmie’s style and engage with  Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal entries about his writing process.

Why Jim Butcher? I like the Dresden Files, sort of, but I like other urban fantasy series, like Kim Harrison’s The Hollows or Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels books more. But Jim Butcher is a super-successful guy, and his Dresden books sell like hotcakes. (Do hotcakes sell actually sell well? Or is it supposed to be hot cakes? ‘Cause I could go for a hot cake right about now.)

I’m writing an urban fantasy that I would like to sell someday, and Jim Butcher’s story is one that gives me hope.

He likes to tell the anecdote (I hope that’s the right interview) about how he dismissed his teacher’s techniques for writing a good story and continued to write bad stories. Then he followed her formula (which I believe was her teacher’s formula), and he wrote Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files.

So despite our inner artistes saying that formula-writing leads to crap, generic stories, apparently they have some merit and in fact can lead to entertaining, suspenseful, best-selling stories!

I’ve been using Butcher’s method to write Shaken, in combination with some tips from Plot and Structure. I’ll talk about what works, what didn’t, and my experiences rebelling against it from time to time.

So, readers, now you have your homework: Go read Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal entries, starting from the bottom, and I’ll be back in two days to start talking about them!