Saturday, 20 March 2010

Let's Have a Fight, Right Here, Right Now

In real life most of us avoid conflict, but our characters should embrace it. Without conflict there is no drama, and without drama the writing is dull. But because we get brought up to smooth over disagreements there's a tendency to smooth over them in our writing too, even the little conflicts that we hardly notice - who took the last of the milk, where's my pen?

Big mistake. No conflict = boring to read.

So, how to add conflict? First think about the levels of conflict.

Conflict in your head - eg doubts, uncertainty, anxieties, negative personality traits.
Conflict with your body - eg ill health, physical disabilities.
Conflict with your family - eg domineering parents, disobedient children
Conflict with friends - eg rows over actions
Conflict with lovers - eg adultery, desertion, betrayal
Conflict with institutions - eg the tax office, the law
Conflict with individuals in society - eg policeman, traffic warden, doctor
Conflict with the environment - eg floods, cold weather, drought (natural) war, concrete jungle (manmade)

Now think about your main character. Going through the list, how many conflicts could your character potentially have.

For example, just thinking about the school environment a teacher could have conflicts with the rest of the staff from the groundsman to the head teacher, the staffroom tea/coffee rota, the education authority, lack of funding, Ofsted inspection, the school inspectors, exam boards, lost exam papers, marking, the government, nits, mumps, swine flu, poor weather, lack of heating, then there are the students, who may be needy, demanding, physically or mentally abusive, sad, super bright, gifted, challenging, abused, in danger...and I haven't even started on friends, family, lovers and life outside school, let alone the potential for inner conflicts.

Now I'm not suggesting that all these conflicts will have a large place in your writing, but they should be there supplying the grit that will create a beautiful pearl. Make your characters struggle against life, make life hard for them in every way, large or small, you can come up with. Isn't that why characters like Scarlett O'Hara, James Bond and Jane Eyre still resonate today? We follow their struggles and relish seeing them triumph in the end.


Lizzie said...

Hi Sarah,

I hope I'm showing persistence.

Yesterday, my ms was returned to me, which was disappointing. But the agent wrote an encouraging letter in which she said, amongst other things, 'you write very well.' Those four words meant the world to me and boosted my confidence. I felt I could send out the ms again and within an hour I'd emailed it to another agent. And I'll keep sending it out. I'll also send it to the RNA, which I haven't done yet, and go to Winchester again this year.

Sometime ago you said you'd be running workshops in Oxford, Truro and Bath. Have you got any dates yet?



Sarah Duncan said...

Hi Lizzie, rejection is always disappointing but it sounds like a good rejection. Keep at it - you only need one person to fall in love with the ms and like real life, you don't always meet the love of your life first time round.

Expect beginning of July for the workshops - life is being v busy right now so pinning down dates is tricky...