Conflict and Tension
by Juliet Maruru, Storymoja Blog
Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, sex, work, and death. -Janet Burroway
Are you wondering why your publisher thinks your book might not sell, even though you have put in the better part of a year rewriting, re-editing and basically losing sleep over your work? Well, publishers look for material that will be appealing to readers.
Readers (humans in general) are attracted to conflict and tension in a story.
That’s why publishers snapped up Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code; they could see that the story itself would hold the reader’s attention, and also generate quite a bit of controversy in the media, which is very useful publicity. That’s why the writer(s) of 24 the TV series, and many other films, TV series and so on previously mentioned here are pretty much set for life, unless, of course, drug habits and divorce settlements bring on bankruptcy
What’s that? Kenyan examples? Alright? Why do you think the John Kiriamiti series were such a hit? David Mailu anyone?
Ah, you want contemporary. In describing the new Kenyan TV series, Changing Times, writer George Orido says: Changing Times is a drama about a powerful multinational and the man behind its success. Mr Kanyi, a brilliant businessman and a loving father, has got where he is by being discerning and perceptive. But in an uncharacteristic error of judgment he gets involved with the wrong people.
How much tension and conflict do you read in that? Well, yes, the content and production itself will decide how long the audience will hang on to it, but I believe the point is demonstrated. If you want your work to sell itself, it’s got to be good, it’s got to hold your audience, and yes, your publisher is one of them.
Of course, if you really don’t give a fig what the publishers think, you could always self-publish. But, that’s not the point, right now. The point is, what is Conflict, what is Tension and how do you bring them into your story?
Conflict produces tension that makes the story begin. Tension is created by opposition between the character or characters and internal or external forces or conditions. By balancing the opposing forces of the conflict, you keep readers glued to the pages wondering how the story will end.
Possible Conflicts Include:
- The protagonist against another individual
- The protagonist against nature (or technology)
- The protagonist against society
- The protagonist against God
- The protagonist against himself or herself.
Mystery. Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
Empowerment. Give both sides options.
Progression. Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
Causality. Hold fictional characters more accountable than real people. Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and, at least in fiction, commendable folks often reap rewards.
Surprise. Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
Empathy. Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that pleasantly or (unpleasantly) resonate with their own sweet dreams (or night sweats).
Insight. Reveal something about human nature.
Universality. Present a struggle that most readers find meaningful, even if the details of that struggle reflect a unique place and time.
High Stakes. Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious. Trivial clashes often produce trivial fiction.
Build to a Crisis or Climax
This is the turning point of the story--the most exciting or dramatic moment.
The crisis may be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn't been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. It's when the worm turns. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient--the character will seem rather thick. -Jerome Stern
Jane Burroway says that the crisis "must always be presented as a scene. It is the moment the reader has been waiting for. While a good story needs a crisis, a random event such as a car crash or a sudden illness is simply an emergency --unless it somehow involves a conflict that makes the reader care about the characters.
Find a Resolution
The solution to the conflict. In short fiction, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution and you often need to just show that characters are beginning to change in some way or starting to see things differently.
There are several ways to achieve this:
- Open. Readers determine the meaning.
- Resolved. Clear-cut outcome.
- Parallel to Beginning. Similar to beginning situation or image.
- Monologue. Character comments.
- Dialogue. Characters converse.
- Literal Image. Setting or aspect of setting resolves the plot.
- Symbolic Image. Details represent a meaning beyond the literal one.
Material borrowed from Professor Dennis G. Jerz’s Weblog.
Attempting to Write.... (continued)
Later, when I was all grown up and in long pants at secondary school, I thought I might try to write something. Inspired by 'Biggles' and other Boy's-Own heroes I concocted shallow imitations of them, written out in close lettering, no paragraphs, to conserve space in class exercise books.
At the urging of fellow students I was prompted to read my stories out loud during class meetings. This turned out to be a very good primer for public speaking, not that I cope very well and still turn to water, albeit water primed with the knowledge that you can never go wrong if you have something of worth to say and the emotion, tears, guts, humour, to say it.
1967 or 8?
The girl, who became my wife, (and whom I still annoy, yet who tolerates me after forty years,) and I were at a dinner party in a Carlton flat. Just four of us. The other couple? A ballerina from the Victoria Ballet and a television lighting pal, Mark Randal.
During that night together he told us about a book he had recently read. He extolled the writing, the wonders, the fantasy, but was vague about the author's name and even the name of the work. (Or, more likely, we were all a bit vague after too much good food and wine.)
Several years later, my sister received a package from a pen-friend in the U.S.A. When I saw the three volumes I knew them at once. They were the works my television mate had told me about. I began to read 'The Lord of the Rings.' I was entranced.
When I'd read it through, I read it aloud to my wife, then I read everything else I could get my hands on by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien...
I began to ask myself... Could it be possible? Could I write something inspired by Tolkien's wonderful creation? I already knew that whatever I might aspire to would be well below the standard set.
Tolkien was The Master. Is still The Master. Writers in the genre shy away from taking him on. But maybe there has to be a dumb mule, or a silly ass. Back then, in the 1970's anything was possible: 'Hey! Cool Dude! Right on! Flower Power! Or more likely Floor Power for those who found just how effectively gravity worked after a spliff or two. (I didn't inhale because red wine is too hard to inhale.)
Meantime I was asking myself, would I have the tenacity to reach the end of such a long journey? What would the storyline be? I had no formal training, I had not written anything except one or two short audio narratives and a half-hearted attempt at a television script which all came to naught. Apart from the youthful short stories through my schooldays, that was all I had to base an attempt to write a half million word saga.
Weeks passed, then months, while I wrestled with the idea and made projections on how long it might take, what I would have to research, what time I could devote to the project and how I could keep it secret. (Since it seemed doomed to failure even as I contemplated the project and I didn't want to be ridiculed from the start.)
Finally, I decided to make that start. I had nothing more than the escape of the central character from imprisonment to...somewhere...with elves...and then...well there would be plenty of time to find out what happened afterward.
It was much later that I read Tolkien's 'On Fairytales' and the sections marked 'Escape, Consolation and Recovery', which became the Volume Titles. And even later, when 'The Prose Edda' and 'The Elda Edda' came to me. And from those and many, many other works was distilled the overall title 'Varlarsaga.'
1. It took over twelve dozen H.B. pencils to hand-write the original manuscript. I know because I kept the one-inch stubs in a plastic container, just out of curiosity. (And also so I could quote this if I ever finished and if I had a platform from which to make the quote.)
2. I spent several months asking myself if I should even begin such a task. Half a million words (Even if they were the same word, let alone words that formed into a viable fantasy work.) would take a long time, depending on how quickly I wrote and how much time I could devote to the task. I calculated that if I managed a thousand words per week it would take ten years. A thousand words is not a lot of M/S. Professional writers can do that in a day, they could probably write much more. But do it every day, or even every week as I decided, whilst holding down a full-time job, keeping a marriage together and having a social life, that's something else. (Besides, I was working in television and had a burgeoning drinking-problem to support.)
3. To begin with, there was the research. You can't just launch off into a half-million word trilogy the size of 'The Lord of the Rings.' with nothing but conviction and determination. I had neither, but having convinced myself that I should give it a try, I realised that I would need to construct lists before writing a single word. What were the lists? They were of possible character names, place names, old cooking recipes and foods, beverages, ancient sayings, poisons, cures and purgatives, lists of attractive words in languages, (Old English, Old High German, Latin words, Frisian, Greek, a knowledge of Irish Ogham, Linear B, and made-up words which always sounds better if you say newly-constructed or invented.) weaponry, warfare and tactics, heraldry, armour, scents and perfumes, birds, animals, sea-creatures (Both real and mythical.) calendars and moon-phases, (I based my calendars on those at the beginning of the twentieth century) herbs and flowers, trees, insects... Shall I go on? No, I see that you're nodding off.
4. That process: the gradual accumulation of information and knowledge, (I carried notebooks around with me everywhere I went and jotted down any snippet or thought that came to me at any time of the day or night. I even kept a notebook on my bedside table, and one morning I woke up and jotted down the basis of a poem conceived in a dream.) continued over the next fifteen years, since that's how long it finally took to write the initial draft. But it was overwritten by some twenty-thirty thousand words, which to me was beneficial. I had the room to begin cutting the work back. Five hundred and thirty odd thousand words cut down to five hundred thousand. But which words of a precious M/S to cut? Answer. More than twenty/thirty thousand, much more. Yet there were other words to replace them. Hopefully, those words were better chosen, but could always be pruned further. So they were culled again.
5. I wrote the last chapter of Volume Three. (It was always designed to be a trilogy, following the first copy I ever read of L.O.T.R.,) and I noted as I celebrated alone, that indeed fifteen years had elapsed since I set out on such an insane journey.
6. Mapping. Well of course that had to be done. (Understood from the beginning. You can't have a journey over vast areas of an unknown world, albeit an early version of our own planet, without tracing the steps of the adventurers.) And of course I should have to do that, considering that I knew every step of the wayfarers. Luckily, I had some earlier experience with art: in pencil sketching, water colours, oils, charcoal, acrylics and other mediums.
7. So illustrations. Who ya gonna call? Just me. And I needed those illustrations and maps as they grew through all the fifteen and more years. Why? Because they became an affirmation of what I was doing. I could look at them. I could see a positive, not just folders filled with words.
8. Re-writing. From the pencil M/S to the typed. I did that first on an old typewriter then on a better one, and finally to what I'm using now, a keyboard. This is where someone else entered. Someone who represented the beginning of what was to come. She helped me, aided my progress and the progress of V/Saga into this new age of IT just as Bruce Cook from Author Me helped us into the age of POD. Without the aid of Lyn Fox ('Hollywood' my nickname.) Varlarsaga would not have reached this stage in its development. She has been my continual reader, critic, loyal friend and most importantly, guide through the maze. Her knowledge in the world of the Web, her understanding of creating avenues that can display and promote, and best showcase a work and her ability to actually get the work into the market place is vital to its success. She has invested ten or more years of her own life on my behalf.
9. When you reach a point which you judge as somewhere nearing half-way, there is little to be gained by turning back or abandoning your journey. Besides, you have to know how the thing will turn out. Like Tolkien, I plodded on, but with the shrugged shoulders and knowing looks of others who judged me as a total lunatic bent on a lunatic quest.
So far it's me. Zero.
Except, except, I did finish my chosen task. I brought it to a conclusion one late night. I wrote the last words of the final volume and thought 'It's finished, after fifteen years...What now?'
Well, my fellow writers and readers, what then indeed?
Re-write, revise, transpose, correct, cut, cut, get the thing into some semblance of cohesion.
In the words of an old football coach,
The writing is of course only a part of the overall process. Then there is the daunting task of finding someone who believes enough in your story to take it on and publish and then promote and market and distribute. This is where Bruce Cook comes in. It is he that I have to thank for promoting and publishing Varlarsaga. Without his considered and thoughtful encouragement V/Saga would not have travelled this far. At the moment that process is underway and I am contemplating a fourth volume, which has been in the back of my mind for some fifteen years, though not a word of it has been written.
It would tell the tale of what followed into the next age, tying up, on the way, several loose ends and answering some questions hitherto left unanswered. I could title it,
Attempting to write
A SMALLER BOOK.
With some prior experience
(And a few more crayons).
Ken has just released Volume 1 of Varlarsaga - Escape
Ken is Senior Editor (Australia) for Author-me.com
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Publishing New Writers,
June, 2010 (no. 1106)
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