I had a great time during the holidays. I connected with friends and relatives, and I got pretty much just what I wanted for Christmas. Which started me thinking. That would not be a great situation for a novel. We want life to be nice to us, but we canâ€™t be nice to our characters.
Because Iâ€™ve been knee-deep in contest entries recently as judging season rolls around, I wanted to talk just a bit about conflict. You may remember recently that I advised taking time to think about what each character wants out of a scene. Itâ€™s also important in constructing both your book and your scene to have the reader clear on why that character canâ€™t have what they want.
Yep! Your main character canâ€™t get what they want most, or even whatever they want out of a particular scene, for most of the book. If the scene looks like they do get what they want, there has to be an unforeseen outcome or some kind of a mistake which puts that character right back in conflict. Maybe they got what they thought they wanted, but the reader knows better. If they donâ€™t get what they want, take that opportunity to make not getting it have an even worse consequence. Letâ€™s look at an example. Sally wants to have John ask her to take a ride in his new car. He does. But they get in an accident and are stranded miles from town. Or he does, but the reader knows that heâ€™s secretly a rat who will take advantage of her, and she shouldnâ€™t be going anywhere alone with him. Make it worseâ€”heâ€™s a serial killer! Or heâ€™s a great guy but he doesnâ€™t ask her and worse yet, he asks her arch-rival Ann, instead. And they run over her bicycle which is her only transportation to school. And they laugh at her! You get the idea.
So the question you are asking yourself in each scene is â€œDoes my character get what she wants?â€ The answer is either, â€œ Yes, butâ€¦â€¦â€ or, â€œNo, and furthermoreâ€¦.â€ Itâ€™s hardly ever just â€œyes.â€ Until the last scene! Okay, I only put in â€œhardly everâ€ because Iâ€™m not a believer in rules. But I do believe that if the main character gets exactly what she wants without her having reservations or without the reader feeling that it was a big mistake, you are letting the story tension seriously lapse. If you do that at the end of the chapter, the reader may close the book and never pick it up again. You leave the reader feeling, â€œNice, but so what?â€ instead of being on pins and needles to see what happens next.
Now letâ€™s talk a little bit about the beginning of a book (remember, Iâ€™ve been reading a lot of contest entries, and theyâ€™re always about the beginning.) Here, setting the conflict has to come as early as you can manage it. Iâ€™ve seen lots of entries where the first pages set the stage, and things are just fine. Uh, oh. Setting the stage can work, but the character has got to have some problem. Okay, she may not have been transported to another universe where she will have to save earth from certain destruction by aliens yet, but sheâ€™s got issues! They can be internal conflicts, relationship problems, character flaws, somethingâ€¦. but â€œthings are just fineâ€ doesnâ€™t capture a readerâ€™s interest. Start things off in the middle of â€œnot fine,â€ and go from there.
Going back to the example I gave of character motivation, what the hero and heroine want is, ideally, in conflict. I used The Companion as an example in my last blog, where Ian and Beth both want to return to the life they once knew. He canâ€™t because heâ€™s a vampire and a normal life is denied him, and her father died, forcing her to abandon her life as an itinerant archeologist. Okay, that means each has conflict between what they want and what they can have. But when we find he wants to return to England where she has always been wildly unhappy and she wants to return to North Africa where he suffered as a slave and has vowed never to return, their goals are in conflict with each other as well. Of course, we know that they are more the same than different. Itâ€™s what draws them together. And we suspect that during the course of the story, what they want will change, but the idea is to start them off with things, â€œnot being fine.â€
So, letâ€™s consciously separate ourselves from our characters. I hope the holidays were everything you wanted and expected, and I hope in 2006 you make your characters suffer until the last possible moment!