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Posts tagged ‘conflict’

The Gentle Art of Escalation

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!

Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.

I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…

Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.

Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.

The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.

Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?

Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!

A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.

And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…

Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.

The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.

Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.

The cake is not a lie

The cake is not a lie


Books, T*ts, Guns, and….

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to talk to you about getting attention.

You all know I’m in  school, and many of you will have fond or not-so-fond memories of college, yourself. This semester my classes are a mixed bag, as always, of things I enjoy and things I must endure. I am taking (it’s a requirement for my major) a public speaking class, for instance. Yesterday the professor outlined ways to get the attention of your audience, and it seems to me they are also relevant to a non-verbal form of communication, like, say, a blog post. Or a book.

The first was Familiarity: audience like to hear about, or talk about, things that are familiar to them. Shared experiences, like my comment above about college. Or when I post on facebook about what book I’m reading, and ask others to share what they are. I always get lots of likes and comments on such posts.

Second is Vital. This, she told us, is anything that is important to everyone. Safety, health… I realized that this could be Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, when you boil it down. We all need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. Which is why it’s a little odd that today’s neovictorianism seems to have gotten the stick by the wrong end and rather than being discreet about sex, as the Victorians were – at home, they were deeply sexual and passionate, they just weren’t public about it – the pendulum has swung from summer of free love, to a ban on booth babes and ‘sexy’ cosplayers at the big game cons. Is cosplay important to everyone? Probably not. However, it is a great way to get attention, unless of course people decide that you are getting too much attention. Freedom is important to everyone, that I think we can agree on.


Activity is the third one, and the hardest to do in a textual manner. Although I will say that gifs work rather well. And puppy-dog eyes.

Asking for your attention.

And yes, of course we can go back to the cosplayers here, although frankly I think it’s a cheap out, because, well, I know it works!

They look like they are having fun. And it’s certainly eyecatching.

Ahem, where was I?

Oh, yes, the one that is perhaps least relevant to us fiction writers: Reality. In a speech, the audience wants reality, she told us. Frankly, I really enjoy some fantasy – again, look at the popularity of cosplay, for a brilliant illustration. Why, when there is obviously so much joy taken in that escape from reality, would we take that away from the people who enjoy it? Because they succeed at getting attention?

Novelty: plan to have a back-up plan, she told us. Some things only work once, she told the class, and if you don’t get your timing right, they can be a big flop. I know I’ve seen this in writing. ee cummings, for instance, was pretty much a one-off with throwing out punctuation and being successful at it. The rest of us schmucks need to face up to grammar and get it right. Labeling it as racist is just a lazy ploy.

Suspense is one we fiction writers know very well. In the real world, you might never know how that situation turned out, in a story you’d better let your readers in on at least some conclusion.

What do we have here?

No one said suspense has to be frightening…

And finally, the last thing she gave us for getting attention is Conflict. You know the old saying, if it bleeds, it leads. Although that’s not always what conflict means, as we writers already know. You can have plenty of conflict with the build-up to a first kiss. Or conflict over just how much skin are we allowed to show in public, now? How can they reconcile these two images, where one is perfectly acceptable, and the other is asked to leave her place of work and go change? We are indeed entering the new age of judgement, and it’s not a pretty conflict, at all.Still-Not-Asking-for-it

lillopop costume














I suppose this is as good a place as any for my book cover. Pixie Noir is on sale this weekend. I caught some grief over this image – and yes, Sarah used it on one of her books as well, since evidently we share a taste in chicks. But it gets attention! Pixie Noir Cover final text


Postscript: I have a Pi(e) recipe over on my blog today, in honor of Pi Day! Happy eating…