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Book Review: Conflict

In the too-many weeks since I’ve been well enough to write (if you’re interested, continual nausea shuts off my creative mind, just as constant pain does to other people) I’ve tried to keep a tiny bit of the Muse interested by looking at books on writing technique. OK, most of them get walled before I’m more than 20% in, usually because they are based on blanket prescriptions that I don’t agree with. But in the most recent survey I did come across one book that interested me all the way through and that inspired me to make copious notes.

It’s Understanding Conflict by Janice Hardy. The Kindle version is $3.99 (I’m a tightwad; this is about the top of my Kindle spending range). Maybe that’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict lately, and specifically thinking that I need less externally imposed conflict (supervillain). I’d like to write stories with a lot more organic conflict (all the characters have their own agendas, which forces them crosswise to one another). And that was inspired by re-reading some of my favorite Georgette Heyer Regency romances while I was feeling too ill to hold anything heavier than my Kindle.

For anybody else who’s thinking about that kind of issue, I recommend Hardy’s book. The writing is lively and she steers clear of a prescriptivist, everybody-should-do-it-my-way approach: instead, the focus is more on how to introduce and enhance various types of conflict depending on where you’re starting from. And how can I not love a book that’s full of laugh-out-loud examples?

For instance, she does touch on the Evil Supervillain concept, and leads us through a bare-bones approach like this:

Evil wizard: “Haha! I shall enslave this town and force everyone to work in the mines.”

Protagonist: “Okay.” Then she moves away.

If the protagonist has no desire or need to stop the antagonist, she won’t try. If she won’t try, there is nothing in conflict. Forcing her to stay and fight feels shallow without a solid reason behind that decision.

Hardy goes on through various iterations – the first one, clearly, being the protagonist’s motivation, and defining that isn’t a one-step job – to this:

Evil wizard: “Haha! I shall enslave this town and force everyone to work in the mines.”

Protagonist: “No you won’t, I shall stop you.”

Evil wizard: “Why?”

Protagonist: “My family has lived in this town for generations! I know these people and care about their lives, and I will defend them to my last breath. I shall not see those lives ripped from them for your petty gain.”

Evil wizard: “Yeah, okay, this sounds like too much work. I’ll try the town next door

Wait… what? See, goals and motivations aren’t just for the good guys. Without a strong motivation to act, even the bad guys can walk away from the conflict when things get tough. And if they don’t, readers might wonder why this guy is fighting so hard for absolutely no reason. Even if the conflict involves two sides fighting over a town filled with people, neither side actually cares or has any reason to fight. Let’s give our bad guy his own motives and see what happens.

Evil wizard: “Haha! I shall enslave this town and force everyone to work in the mines, because a bigger, eviler wizard is trying to steal my territory and I need resources to fight him off.”

Protagonist: “No you won’t! I shall stop you to save the people that I love and preserve their way of life.”

Evil wizard: “Then we shall fight to the last soul!”

Townsfolk: “Excuse me? We’ll be happy to work the mines for a fair wage if that means keeping that other evil dude off our doorstep.”

Evil wizard: “You will? Because that would seriously free up my minions to fend off the other wizard instead of standing guard over you guys.”

Protagonist: “But he’s an evil wizard!”

Townsfolk: “Have you seen the job market out there? This will be a huge boost to our local economy.”

She takes that last example farther and plays with a possible conflict between the protagonist and the townsfolk:

Protagonist: “But I’m your hero! It’s my job to protect you from evil. That’s why you love me, and I need that validation or my life is meaningless. I have nothing else.”

Townsfolk: “Your personal hangups are not our concern. We told you to learn a real skill, not all that sword swinging and inspirational speaking. This deal protects the town better than one gal with a shiny stick.”

Evil wizard: “We have an agreement then?”

Townsfolk: “We do. I’ll send you a contract by the end of the day.”

Wait… what? See, goals and motivations aren’t just for the good guys. Without a strong motivation to act, even the bad guys can walk away from the conflict when things get tough. And if they don’t, readers might wonder why this guy is fighting so hard for absolutely no reason. Even if the conflict involves two sides fighting over a town filled with people, neither side actually cares or has any reason to fight. Let’s give our bad guy his own motives and see what happens.

Protagonist (muttering): “I’ll show them! I’ll sabotage their efforts so they’re open to attack, and then fight off that other, eviler wizard to prove that I am indeed the hero this town deserves, and then they will love me again!”

Evil wizard: “Is this gal for real?”

Townsfolk (sighing): “Afraid so. We keep trying to get her help, but her parents were killed by an evil wizard and now she won’t stop putting herself in harm’s way.”

Evil wizard: “Her interference is seriously going to complicate things.”

Townsfolk: “I know. We’ll deal with that when we have to. Her parents died saving the town, so we kinda owe them.”

Reading this book was fun, and as an added bonus, it gave me lots of ideas for juicing up the conflict in the book in the world of Salt Magic that I was plotting B.S. (Before Surgery). Re-reading the good bits is inspiring me to get back to work on that book.

A lot of people here don’t have any trouble with creating conflict in their stories, and plenty of it to boot. But this is addressed to those who, like me, would like to improve that aspect of their writing. Come on – surely I’m not the only one who struggles with this issue. How do you introduce the conflict and make it plausible?

(Image cropped from Peter Fischer  on Pixabay)

 

11 Comments
  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Well, I can’t say that the “evil” wizard is really that evil if he (or she) is willing to come to an agreement with the townsfolk. 😉

    May 30, 2019
    • Oh, come on! He’s a capitalist who owns the means of production; that clearly makes him evil! Just ask any TV show writer if you don’t believe me!

      … And this is why there’s nothing good on to watch, isn’t there?

      May 30, 2019
  2. Mary #

    Evil Wizard: Why are you not fighting Eviler Wizard? With the resources from the mine, I can even make you a magic sword!

    May 30, 2019
    • Good plot!

      May 30, 2019
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        “…and that is the story of why the traditional weapon of the legendary heroes is an evil talking sword.”

        May 30, 2019
  3. My next book has two brothers who are not, shall we say, fond of each other. But they have to accomplish a task together. A few chapters in, when my beta readers got to a scene without their issues being front and center, they claimed the “oregano” was missing. Conflict helps. I added a dash more oregano.

    May 30, 2019
  4. Wups! Bad link. Proper link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074FYY5SX

    Getting this one, and looking at the rest of them (it’s a series) – although the other titles look a bit more like formula.

    May 30, 2019
    • Margaret Ball #

      Thanks for the link fix! At the moment WP isn’t allowing me to edit the post; if it relents, I’ll fix the link there.

      Agreed, the rest of the titles are not inspiring.

      May 31, 2019
  5. Sounds like a great read. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ve added it to my virtual pile.

    May 30, 2019
  6. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    For any of you interested in writing, this book sounds like it goes a step farther than the usual. I’m looking forward to consuming it.

    May 30, 2019
  7. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Turns out that I am a huge flake.

    In theory, I know I should be addressing this stuff, and a bunch more in my plotting.

    In practice, I work on a few goals, and a few bits of the plot at a time, and forget that other goals exist until the MGC or something reminds me.

    May 30, 2019

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