Friday, 4 March 2011

Reality and Conflict

Last week I was interviewed for a magazine feature about the terrible incident a few years when my daughter was mugged and hit in the face by a baseball bat. It had been shocking at the time, but the overall experience had been pretty positive as she - and I - discovered that in a crisis she'd kept her head and had reacted both sensibly and bravely. A bad thing had happened, but it revealed she possessed some tremendous character traits and boosted her confidence.

I was desperately proud of the way she behaved during and after the incident and was very happy to talk to the magazine about it (and promote the current novel at the same time). About five minutes into the interview the journalist stopped. 'Your relationship with your daughter was good before?' Oh yes, I agreed. She sighed. It wasn't a good sign. She explained that she'd thought there had been serious problems between us, and the mugging had brought us together. Instead we were obviously a normal, affectionate family and normal people weren't news, unless really dreadful things happened to them. This didn't count.

So that was that. I didn't mind. After all, I could see that we were normal, and the mugging, while horrible at the time, hadn't been disastrous for us - if anything the opposite. There was no conflict for the journalist to write about, no triumph over disaster. What had seemed a big event in my life, and certainly in my daughter's, was not worth writing about.

Story telling is all about conflict and the bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. Then there's what's at stake. Again, the bigger the stakes, the bigger the story. Be bold with your conflicts. Make the stakes as high as you can. Make the dilemmas impossible to resolve. Make your fiction bigger and bolder, more complicated and more dramatic.

I'm glad my real life drama was too small for the magazine. Let's face it, in reality it's better that way.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

I think journalism is a little different to fiction, at least book-length fiction. Time is against it and so it has to maximise its space – lots of big, bold, primary colours – whereas in books we can take our time over things. What happened to your daughter was awful but the first place I see conflict is in your family’s attitude towards the attacker and also the conflict, at first certainly, with the unknown – just how bad was this going to be? A journalist has to take a broad-brush approach. Your interviewer jumped right to the happy ending. You could write a whole short story will you just sitting in a hospital waiting room facing your fears and wrestling with your principles.

Debs Carr said...

You're poor daughter having to deal with something so frightening. I'm glad she kept her head and all was well in the end.

Henrietta Bird said...

Thanks for this post Sarah.

I am plotting at the moment your phrase 'the bigger the stakes the bigger the story' is a cracking one to remember.

I will be putting it as one of my 'written in big letters somewhere prominent' reminders!

Thank you!

Henrietta Bird said...

Hi Sarah

Me again. I have a question that I hope doesn't show my ignorance too dreadfully:

When writing light hearted or romcom style fiction, how does one ensure the light hearted/fun element doesn't get drowned by the conflict/grimly high stakes? Or equally, the issues don't get undermined by frivolity.

That's either a massive question or one I should know the answer to...I'm not sure?

Interested in your thoughts though.

Many thanks

Sarah Duncan said...

The story has conflicts all right, but they're not that big - but of course if I was going to fictionalise them I'd up the stakes some more.

Thanks Debs, we were lucky that it worked out OK as it could have been much worse for her - a man came to her rescue and ended up with a broken jaw.

AJ, it's a tricky one. You can tackle big issues in chick lit - think Marion Keyes who has done drug abuse and alcoholism - but it's a question of judgement about how far you go. I think if there's a whiff of sordid, you've gone too far. I'll blog on this I think...