Tag Archives: conflict

Conflict: Desire Meeting Resistance by Pat Bertram

In fiction, conflict is desire meeting resistance.

Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I learned this particular lesson when writing Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about various theories in the hope that the scene would seem more immediate, but since there was no compelling desire, just the relatively unimportant desire of the characters wanting to be heard, the dialogue came across as bickering rather than conflict. I kept the sections because they were a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and they did show the personalities of the characters in a fun and humorous way, but they didn’t have the immediacy true conflict would have brought to the piece.

In a novel, there are many conflicts. Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters wants something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.

So, to ramp up the conflict, figure out what the characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it, and let the characters fight it out. It’s as simple as that.

An Excerpt From Light Bringer with Bickering Characters

They barely had time to exchange more than a few words when Philip heard a thundering knock.

“That’s Faye.” Emery went to let her in.

Faye strode into the living room with all the delicacy of a drill sergeant. “Who’s this?” she barked, fixing her gaze on Philip. “Oh, yes. Now I recall. Toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, disposable razors.”

Philip recoiled, wondering if this woman in the royal blue, turquoise, and orange dress was crazy, then he remembered she clerked at the grocery store where he’d purchased those very items. “Over-qualified for her job,” Emery had told him, “but there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an ample woman in her fifties.”

He stepped forward. “I’m Philip.”

She grabbed his extended hand and pumped it as if trying to draw water. Or blood.

“Glad you could join us,” she said.

A brisk rap seemed to catch her attention. She dropped Philip’s hand and bellowed, “Go away, you gormless lummox. We don’t need your kind here.”

“Let me in, you draggle-tailed witch,” came a muffled voice from outside.

She opened the door and in walked a sharp-featured man wearing a yellow pullover shirt and plaid golfing pants.

“So how many widows and orphans did you fleece today?” she asked.

“Stupid ostrich! You know I’m retired.”

“Now you spend all your time trying to hit defenseless balls and hitting on show ghouls.”

He looked down his nose at her. “Show ghouls? That the best you can do? And anyway, Doreen is a sweet girl.”

She punched him on the arm.

An elderly, bow-legged man with a face the color and texture of walnut shells pushed past them.

“Gil isn’t coming,” he said, throwing up his hands.

Faye rolled her eyes. “Always so dramatic, Chester.”

Chester lowered his arms. “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“Oh, all right. Why?”

“He has a meeting with Santero. Santero’s selling his antique store.”

Faye hooted. “Antiques! Junk’s more like it. Broken rocking chairs, moldy patchwork quilts, and dusty canning jars. Who’d buy a place like that?”

“It’s a good location,” Emery said. “A downtown corner, not far from that monstrosity Luke’s remodeling into a bed and breakfast. Must be worth a bundle.”

Brian nodded. “The building’s in good condition, too — all new plumbing.”

“Well, anyway,” Faye said, “we don’t need Gil. Counting Philip there’s six of us.”

Philip held up his palms. “I’m not playing.”

“Nonsense.” She seized him by an arm and dragged him to the table.

He shot a beseeching look at Emery, who merely grinned.

“If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play, you overbearing hag,” the golfer said. By process of elimination, Philip decided he must be Scott, the ex-banker.

Faye stuck out her tongue at Scott. “Flush you.”

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

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Writing humor in fiction

Although I’ve write mostly in the mystery/suspense genre, my literary voice has evolved to a blend of humor with mystery and suspense.  Nelson DeMille is an absolute master at it. Now, after seven published novels, readers expect humor from a Michael Murphy novel.  I find a lot of wonderful writers tend to avoid humor, as if it’s some mysterious method of writing.  Don’t shy away from it, life is full of humor (thankfully), and so should your writing.  How does one make humor work in a novel without making it appear forced or contrived?  What works for me is focusing on what drives plot, conflict.

Drama does not exist without conflict.  Same with humor.  There are essentially three types of conflict to generate humor; a character’s conflict with setting, conflict with themselves and conflict with the other characters.

A climactic scene in Scorpion Bay demonstrates humor resulting from conflict between characters.  Parker Knight, a kick boxing expert, sweeps the feet of one of the villains who falls face first. With a bloody mouth, she spits out one tooth then another. The scene is suspenseful and full of conflict between the good guys and the bad. The next line is a one word dialogue that injects humor into the scene when Parker’s friend Justin watches the woman spit out first one tooth then another.  He looks at her and says, “Chiclets.”

One of the funnier scenes in the novel happens at a Phoenix Suns game. Parker has implemented a carefully orchestrated attempt to listen in on a remote conversation so he can learn information about who is behind his wife’s murder. To Parker’s consternation, he’s seated next to Justin’s high maintenance girlfriend, Tina Banks. While the plot moves along and Parker learns valuable information, Tina’s series of demanding requests add conflict and humor to the scene.  Though Parker finds no humor in the girlfriend’s unending requests, the reader does.

Plot is driven by conflict and so is humor. Humor adds an additional dimension to a novel, so look for opportunities: to enhance your next manuscript by extracting humor from conflict, as well as drama.

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The Many C’s of Writing

I went through my notes about writing to find a topic for this blog, and I came across a reminder to always remember the five Cs:

Character (characters are paramount, they personify the story)
Conflict (without conflict, there is no story)
Change (characters change, circumstances change, the plot twists and turns)
Contrast (contrast in settings, between characters, in dialogue)
Caring (what the character cares for, and making the reader care for the character)

Those should be the main considerations when writing a story, but why stop with just five Cs? As I was writing this article, I thought of several other Cs that can help bring depth to our novels, such as:

Continuity (the hidden structure that relates everything in the story to the beginning)
Creativity (not settling for the first idea that comes to mind, thinking beyond clichés or stereotypes, creating interesting twists and quirks)
Culture (the world your character lives in, not just the setting, but the times, conditioning, habits, expectations and societal pressures)
Connection (the seesawing between connection and disconnection that comprises most relationships)
Complement (contrast is good, but sometimes like likes like. Twins — whether people, places or ideas — will show a different facet of the story than two contrasting things. Three complementary ideas can create a theme, two or three mentions of an important point throughout a novel can underline that point)
Challenge (the challenge to find a new way of seeing the same old story, the challenge to write the story only you can write)
Compose (the way you write. All the other Cs are worthless if you can’t write readable prose)
Climax (all stories need a climax, the summit where the conflict is resolved)
Consequences (every action has a consequence, every fight whether mental or physical leaves scars)
Conclusion (the ending does not have to be happy, but it must be satisfying for the reader, a payoff for all the worry you put them through)

I’m sure there are plenty of other Cs, but for now, this should suffice.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fire,  and Daughter Am I.

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The First Commandment of Writing

I just finished reading a dozen chapters of a book online. It wasn’t bad, merely boring; it read like a synopsis rather than a fleshed out novel. Several people left her comments explaining how to improve her writing, and to each she responded, “This is the way I write.”

She seems to be perfectly content in her little world, writing her little book for her online friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we can all write the way we want. We can mix genres; we can have long rambling discourses and internal monologues; we can show off our dazzling knowledge in great passages of exposition. After all, we are the masters of our story universe.

We can do whatever we please. Unless, of course, we want to be published. If so, there are certain conventions to which we must adhere. The novel must have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. There must be a protagonist and an antagonist. There must be conflict between the two of them. There must be enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested.

Readers have certain expectations, and they have a right to have them met. Sure, we can write however and whatever we please, but if we want a wide readership, we must consider the reader. And the first commandment of writing is “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.”

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire, available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

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Hooking a Reader

The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel is long past. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through unnecessary verbiage. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through the first five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”

That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.

So what will hook the reader?  A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.

Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.

A practiced writer knows how to adjust the tension by temporarily letting up on the main conflict and interjecting intermediate conflicts, or even adding inner conflicts to shadow the outer ones, but all conflicts must be somebody’s conflict. For example, you might be concerned about war, but seeing a specific soldier dealing with his experiences makes you care, maybe even makes you cry. And you will want to know what becomes of him.

That’s what hooks a reader.

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One,  and A Spark of Heavenly Fire now available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

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Conflict: Where a Story Begins

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that seems to be run by the major corporations, the stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure the presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, the conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the two are always in conflict. I prefer it when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or an employee of a corporation as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous than fate?

My heroes never bring on their fate. Perhaps my books would be more dramatic if they did, but I cannot sympathize with characters who are the cause of their own problems. And why do they have to when life itself is always ready to cause problems for them?

When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

Pat Bertram is the author of More Deaths Than One,  and A Spark of Heavenly Fire now available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.

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