Friday, October 1, 2010

Conflict; or, Keeping Things Interesting

One of the things I struggle with in my writing is keeping enough conflict going to make the story interesting. I find that I often create friction between two characters, only to have them resolve it a chapter or two later and then everything is fine again. Life's not like that; good characters aren't like that; and frankly, it makes for boring reading.

The other thing I have to work to keep in mind is that emotional displays are not the same as conflict. So while it might be a natural reaction to have a character run off and have a crying fit when she gets some bad news, it's more interesting if we see her struggling to come to terms with the bad news and figuring out what to do about it.

This week, I spent some time editing chapters of my WIP, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, so that I could submit them to my on-line critique group. The chapters are about a third of the way into the book, when my MC, Celia Winterbourne, learns that she is not her father's only child, as she has been led to believe for all nineteen years of her life.

In my original draft, I had her running away to the neighboring cemetery to have a good cry, then returning to have yet another good cry with friends before actually confronting her father. While there were notes in the cemetery scene between Celia and her love interest that were rather sweet and helped develop that relationship further, after several readings (and some feedback on the previous chapters), I decided that rather than have her friends convince Celia to confront her father, it makes for a better story -- and makes Celia more interesting as a character -- for her to decide for herself that she needs to talk to her father. Showing that conflict within herself -- the desire to run away vs. the logical decision to meet with her father -- is much more interesting, at least to me.

But conflict doesn't always have to be a big, loud confrontation. Once I'd made revisions to my chapters and sent them off, I decided to go back and look at the beginning of the story once again. The opening scene, while it does a good job of establishing who Celia is and shows us how she and her father relate to one another, always felt a little flat to me. In it, Celia lands her father's airship. She and her father talk about how she will be leaving for the Academy of Science in a few days, one of the first female students to be admitted to the school. (Sadly, much of this comes across as an "As you know, Bob," kind of scene, and I wasn't terribly happy with that.) Then they get in a carriage and go back to London. Not very exciting.

So I revised. Celia still lands the airship, but this time, she and her father talk about how much he's going to miss having her around, and how they won't be able to just go off in the airship whenever they feel like it ... but I never have them say why. (Astute readers might figure out that it's because she's going off to school, but we don't know which school, or that there's anything special about her being accepted to attend it.) That increases the tension, at least a little bit.

After they land, they learn that there are reporters waiting to talk to them, since Celia's father is a well-known airship designer, and Celia is equally well known for her skill as an airship pilot. Celia doesn't want to talk to them, but does anyway. And that gives the scene a tiny bit of conflict that makes it more interesting.

Over the course of the interview, we learn that Celia is off to the Academy, and that yes, she is excited to have been accepted and so on. Then one of the reporters asks her if she's read a recent article stating that women are physiologically unsuited to the rigors of university life (the story is set in 1873), and what she thinks about that. Bingo! That's the conflict the scene needed.

So restructuring the scene this way accomplished several goals:

1) Increased conflict/tension = more interesting reading.
2) Eliminated the former "As you know, Bob" info dump between Celia and her father to establish the fact that she will be off to the Academy soon. Yay!
3) Helps establish the fact that Celia is a minor --and somewhat reluctant -- celebrity. Since this plays into some of the conflicts later in the story, I decided it was important to make more of a point of it up front.

I'm happy with the results.

So what have other people done to increase conflict in their stories?


Anonymous said...

Keep on writing Sheila. Speaking as a member of your critique group, I'm enjoying this story a lot...