Would You Rather? An Exercise in Creating Max Conflict in Fiction

From the movie "Would You Rather?

From the movie “Would You Rather?”

Last week, I was blessed to attend and teach at the DFW Writers’ Workshop Conference. Edgar-Nominated Author David Corbett taught a really excellent class about building dimensional characters. There was a particular message in his talk that stood out for me.

Force your characters to exteriorize. Thoughts and feelings can be taken back. Action makes characters commit to consequences.

Genuine Drama=Commitment

There is a newbie author mistake we all make. Thinking, feeling, more thinking but nothing happening. I’ve blogged many times that writing can be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. I feel that Corbett’s point really crystallized what I was trying to say, but couldn’t seem to articulate nearly as well as he did.

As Long as We are in the Character’s Head, NOTHING is at Stake

There is no push-back, no opposition, thus no conflict. This really gets to the heart of the SHOW DON’T TELL line we have all had drummed into our heads.

I LOVE good horror movies (not slasher flicks). I have two reasons. First, if I am having a really bad day, a horror movie reminds me that life can always be worse. Yes, I am warped that way. But, for me, why I gravitate to horror is that GOOD horror authors understand people.

They have this way of digging down into the primal parts of who people are, for better or worse. Good movies—even horror movies—make you want to discuss the film (or book) afterwards. They rattle you and make you think. I believe this is why Stephen King is such a genius (particularly his early works).

King gets people. He pokes at the tender parts and makes people squirm.

The Higher the Stakes, the Better the Story

There’s one particular movie we watched recently (and I will do my best not to ruin it), but Hubby and I talked for at least an hour after the film was over. In the film Would You Rather? the protagonist is a young woman whose parents have died, leaving her the sole caretaker of her brother who has cancer. It’s a bit more gruesome of a film than I care for, but the character dynamics were fascinating.

Essentially, a sadistic aristocrat seeks out people who are in dire straits, seemingly willing to do anything to solve their current plight. It could be an ill family member who needs an organ donation (the protag’s brother needs a bone marrow transplant), crushing debt, whatever. Play the game. One winner. Winner takes all and the aristocrat has the power to solve all “the winner’s” problems in an instant.

The players are invited to dinner. They chat, get to know each other as people…and then the nightmare begins.

Slowly at first…just a taste.

The crux of the movie is that everyone has a price…or do they? The participants are toyed with through dinner. For instance, the alcoholic who’s been sober ten years is given a bottle of scotch. How much money can coerce him to drink the bottle of scotch? What amount of money will make him compromise all he’s worked for?

Movies are great for studying the show don’t tell rule because it is a purely visual medium—everything is externalized. We see the former alcoholic swear he will never drink again. He’s worked too hard to kick the habit that has landed him in his current desperate situation.

The host has his butler set $5000 in cash right next to the drunk. A dare. Five thousand dollars for just one sip. The alcoholic sweats. He pulls at his collar. He refuses to make eye contact and focuses on the meal. Then $10,000 is stacked next to him and on and on until he finally breaks…proving the aristocrat’s point that anyone can be bought.

The participants are all given an opportunity to leave. Last chance. Ah, but these are people with big things at stake. They stay…and probably wished they hadn’t. The doors are locked and anyone who tries to leave will be shot.

The game is afoot.

Would You Rather?

Take ten lashes with an rattan (a cane that slices flesh) or choose for someone else to take the beating in your stead? Will you endure ten seconds of electric shock? Or give it to someone else? Early on we start seeing the true character of the players revealed. Why? Because everything is exteriorized and has a consequence.

It is one thing to say or believe I am a good person, but will we stick to that when put to the test? When demons are externalized, we see who people really are. Talk is cheap. What will that character do when the heat turns up? Will they sell their soul (the inner man) to solve their problems (outer man)? In case you hadn’t guessed, the game doesn’t reward those with sound moral fiber.

Understanding Your Character’s Weakness Will Help Plotting

Your story problem should be your trial by fire that forces the inside angst to the surface. The plot should change the protagonist leaving a better version at the end (unless it’s horror or a French film and then everyone can die at the end).

An Exercise to Help You Externalize (and, yes, I’m being indulgent and using my novel to give you examples):

What is your character’s greatest strength? Now look to the shadow side and that is likely his/her greatest weakness.

In the novel I just finished, my protagonist is kind and loyal. The shadow side is that she is naive. Predators can smell this. They use her proclivity to believe the best in people against her.

What is his/her greatest fear?

She grew up as white trash in a trailer park. She sacrificed everything to go to college to escape. Her family despises her because of her education, yet she finds herself equally disdained by the rich. They feel she’s nothing but gold-digging trailer trash who doesn’t have the sense to “know her place.”

Her biggest fear is she will always be viewed as trailer trash no matter what she achieves and she will never “belong” anywhere.

What problem can make this character struggle the most?

The story antagonist used my protagonist to build his corporation then, in an scheme of ENRON-like proportions, took off with over a half a billion dollars. He was her fiancé (to add insult to injury). He has left her penniless, broken-hearted, and blackballed. She’s unable to find a job anywhere. Additionally, she owes money to the IRS (also stolen) and she’s the FBI’s favorite suspect.

What problem will force tough moral choices?

Being without options, she must return to the trailer park and rely on the family she abandoned in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder and find the missing money and regain her reputation.

What problem has the highest stakes? The most to win or lose?

If she fails, she could die, but that’s not the thing she REALLY fears. She is terrified she’ll be stuck back in the trailer park, working as a maid and taking care of her abusive, angry father and kleptomaniac grandmother.

Will she have to sacrifice the best part of her (her view of humanity) in order to conquer the problem? Will “winning” cost her good heart?

What are your thoughts? What books or movies really made you squirm? Why?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Will announce April’s winner later this week. Scrambling to catch up :D.


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  1. FABULOUS post! I’m keeping this one, as a great reminder of how to amp up the conflict. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, either. I’m fumbling over a chapter in my wip and I KNOW it’s because it’s lacking conflict. Thank you for this.

  2. You make the difficult so sensible. I have always tried to visualize my stories as they would appear in a movie, I could never really explain why this helped me, but you did!

  3. “(unless it’s horror or a French film and then everyone can die at the end).”

    Not EVERYONE has to die at the end of a French film – you just need one gratuitous suicide…

    Great post.

  4. Reblogged this on Terri Herman-Ponce and commented:
    FABULOUS post, and a keeper. If you’re a writer, you absolutely have to read Kristen’s thoughts on conflict. It’s the heart and soul of any novel, and one of the most difficult things to pull off.

  5. Great read. Thanks for posting.

  6. I like the externalization point. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before. Action scenes are pretty easy in that regard. Dialogue has been my nemesis but it is getting better.

  7. Black Swan and The Mist – both left me wanting to wash my brain as I couldn’t get the plight of the characters out of my head for days after. I won’t be able to watch either of them again even though I thought they were so well done. Okay, Black Swan was ‘deeper’ than The Mist, but for both leads, to have been pushed to such drastic ends…I shiver and hope to write such moving (disturbing) stories as I get better at the craft.

  8. Great post, Kristen. And now I have to wrap things up online, and get busy with my homework before you send the flying moneys!

  9. Back I go to my manuscript chanting ‘raise the stakes’, ‘raise the stakes’!

  10. well your character certainly has some obstacles to overcome!

    1. That’s just the tip of it, LOL. But yes, remember that a hero is only as big as the obstacles he/she can overcome. The badder the problem the bigger the win.

    • Kris Lynn on May 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm
    • Reply

    Great examples from your novel, Kristen.
    I’m not sure the word exteriorize does much for me – is it even a word? But the point about “thinking and feeling” is well-made. As a reader I want to know what is going on with a character internally (interiorly…?) but am more engaged and learn more about that person when those thought are played out externally – or, exteriorly – with action.
    Yeah, I don’t think I’ll use that word…;-)

    1. I used it because it was Corbett’s term. Externalize works. There is a difference between scenes and sequels. The scene is where the exterior choices are made and consequences ensue. The SEQUEL is the brief span of connective tissue where a character internally processes what’s happening. The sequels will get shorter or go away when we want to amp the pace. They get longer and more frequent when we seek to give the reader a breather.

  11. Reblogged this on Time Will Tell.

  12. Wow, Kristen, this just builds one layer on top of another. Paraphrasing here:”Don’t stay in your character’s head; make him externalize and ramp up the conflict.” “Movies are a purely external medium, talk is cheap but actions speak volumes.” And you’ve certainly put your character in a mess, haven’t you?! 😉 Adore this post! I have mentioned you on my blog before (and your book and sense of humor;), but this one I’m putting in the evergreen pages. This is what fires a writer up! Thanks. Oh, and The Ring is the one for me. I rented it back in the days of DVD rental stores. I stayed up all night talking to my boyfriend in NY and then finally put the DVD back in its bag in my trunk. I didn’t even want it near me!!! Yikes!

  13. All I can say is that I want to read this novel now. Very intrigued :))

    1. I’m letting it sit until I get back from Denver, and then can do revisions. Goal is to have it out by end of summer. Will keep you posted :D. Thanks!

  14. Terrific post. I will be keeping a copy of this and posting a link on my blog. Thanks.

  15. Reblogged this on Vagrance and commented:
    Useful insight for all writers.

  16. Really interesting. I should really see that movie.

    The protagonist of your book sounds very well-rounded. The many layers of fears that she has really gives her depth.

  17. I want to read it, too. I will watch for it. I’m putting your link on SARA and SAWG.

  18. Great tips – I love the simplicity of the Would You Rather game as a tip for adding action and conflict. Wish I could have gone to David’s class! I heard him speak with Michael Capuzzo in the journalism one and he is incredibly gifted with words. I thought again and again how eloquent he was. Great conference! Thanks for sharing what you learned in David’s class!

    • kayloveswords on May 13, 2013 at 7:03 pm
    • Reply

    That class was great, wasn’t it? Already looking forward to next year 😉

    I re-blogged this with comments at http://wp.me/p2miYM-51 and your synopsis is intriguing (to put it mildly). Keep us posted on its publication date!

  19. I get really frustrated with books where the only thing “happening” is the character talking to herself! That’s not movement.

    Inception was the last movie to really get me talking. My son and I have watched it at least 5 times and we still find something interesting.

  20. I like the sound of your story…it sounds like (same as me) you enjoy putting your main character through hell 🙂

    Joss Whedon’s Buffy is the epitome of “what are the stakes” for me. What makes her such an incredible hero is how her responsibilities constantly cost her on the deepest personal levels, but she never gives up.

  21. Excellent post, and for me, well timed. I’ve been stumbling in this direction with my heroine, but you helped lift the fog that makes the path more clear. Thank you.

  22. The What If of: if I would donate my blood or organs to save the president had been asked. I guess; it was to determine the character of the individual. The question taker was not very smart since he was telling people already that I have a family history of diabetes and high blood pressure and I have had every childhood sickness known to man back on 1960. You would think that he would want the president to get better blood from someone, which he knew was healthy.

    The answer is no, if I was super healthy. I would watch the president die or someone else offered to save the life of a president, even the Pope and he is considered a white man.

    You know more of my character. I knew his, by him asking.

    I know an Edgar, who has a college degree in food preparations. He can make vegetarian chicharon (pork rinds) with his own make-shift oven (no electricity). The plant cassava might be used instead of pork. Some use potatoes instead of the cassava root crop, which can be made into Bio-ethanol, the cassava. It easy to grow at mountain tops.

    Your novel sounds like that it would make a good movie. I am trying to picture a movie it resembles. Nothing comes to mind. The story reminds me of what independent filmmakers at Northern Arkansas try to portray, but if the novel sells, Hollywood might call.

  23. I found this useful, thinking about it from a slightly different angle. I’m more comfortable writing characters’ actions than their internal reflections, which can be a block to showing meaningful personal struggles. This has made me think about linking their external conflicts better to the things they really fear and care about, giving the action more depth and meaning.

    For me, the classic example of this externalisation is Casablanca. Rick’s internal struggle between self-serving love and noble duty is externalised through the decision of how to treat Victor, and particularly who gets on the plane with Ilsa at the end. Will it be Rick (love) or Victor (duty)? Will Rick let the Nazis take Victor (self-serving) or help him escape (nobility)? It’s all there in black and white.

    1. In novels you need some internalization because it isn’t film. But the amount is up to you and also dictated by genre. Internalization often occurs in the sequel, which is the connective tissue between scenes.

      1. Thanks Kristen. After years of reading writing advice, I still find this scene/sequel thing a little hard to wrap my head around – what makes a sequel not a scene in itself? Think I’m going to have to go read about this some more.

  24. Very relevant to link this post to the scene + sequel tip you wrote about some time ago, Kristen. My first writing efforts had no dialogue (can you imagine?) and not much action – it was all people sitting in taxis travelling up roads, thinking about the past (backstory + info dump)! Stories need action (externalization – was that the word?) and to be honest, I’ve found ‘movie scene’ writing much easier than the stream of consciousness stuff. Keep up the great work – excellent blog. 🙂

  25. Thanks for putting it into easy to understand terms. I haven’t watched a horror flick in a long time but I still think of the film adaptation of King’s Needful Things when I think about the price people will pay to get what they want. He is a master at the human condition. I think any movie that pits people against each other for survival makes me squirm because it forces me to think about what I would really do in that situation. Great tips for novel writing, as always!

  26. Thrilled I hopped over here today. When I use my handy color-coded EDIT system, I often have too much yellow on the page (internalizations). I have no trouble blathering aimlessly, and publicly demonstrating ill-advised decisions. My characters deserve that same punishment consideration, sans the aimlessly.

    No wonder blue (dialog) and purple (tension) are my favorite colors. In clothes, on my pages, in WANA wigs.

    LOVE the way you developed your character’s GMC. I’m betting you played a game of “and, then (!)” when you let that character loose in your noggin.

    Timely post for me. I’m playing that game now with my protagonist. Unlike me, she is not yet twisted and flawed enough for prime-time character arcs.

    To show my appreciation for this ponder-power post, I will let you pick me for your free edits this month. ;-).

  27. Wow! Really instructive post, Kristen! Hits me where I “live” in creating conflict, right now, too

  28. Wow Kristen, that sounds like a powerful book and I can’t wait to read it. it sounds like there is enough going on to keep you hooked but not too much to confuse the plot.

  29. Sounds like a lot of us gained insight into this reminder about the realities of show-don’t-tell. And we didn’t even have to travel to DFW! Although I do love me some good BBQ ribs…Anyway, thanks, Kristen!

  30. Love this. I will definitely put this to use. Thanks again, Kristen!

  31. Great information! This is something I am going through with my characters right now. Life is just too easy for them even though conflict is happening around them. I am going to try your exercise you mentioned and see if I can get some conflict going!

  32. Reblogged this on Mort and commented:
    Some great points in here. I’m going to remember this post and re-read it as I work on my own writing.

  33. Definitely true, but like in all things- balance. What can be missed is the internal motivations for the external actions- one without the other is hollow. You clearly conveyed that balance with the example from you book. Thank you.

    1. Many writers (new writers) don’t understand there is a scene (action) then sequel (assessment/mental). I didn’t. Took reading LOADS of craft books and fiction to realize this. Thanks for the compliment. I hope the book is as good as I think it is, LOL.

  34. Another bit of solid advice, Kristen. I hope you’ll forgive me, though, if my main takeaway is that “Would You Rather” is out and rocked! I’ve been wanting to see that one.

  35. I’ve been rereading (and taking notes on) “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein who also does an excellent job of explaining how to “show, don’t tell,” by using plays and movies as examples of how to write visually.

    • DJ on May 17, 2013 at 6:05 am
    • Reply

    I’d rather not squirm 🙂

  36. Thank you for giving me a new technique to chew on!

    • Jamie Burton on May 19, 2013 at 6:00 pm
    • Reply

    I Am Legend. What choices he had to make. The movie actually made me jump.

  37. Great post, just shared it on Facebook–not sure how many chances that gives me, but glad my name will be in your proverbial hat!

  38. I’m going to try and repost it on my blog, Fiendish Serendipity. Do I just copy the like to this post, or is there something special that needs to be done?

  39. I think Walking Dead is a show that picks at our tender parts. The writing is well done and the character experiences make us think – what would we do? Yes, I know the walkers will kill you. As the character Glen said, they are dangerous, and it’s easy to forget that sometimes. But when a walker is attacked by the group or used as sport before finally being killed, it’s easy to feel sorry for them. After all, they were a thinking, feeling person at one time. Then you have a member of the group making a decision – sacrfice someone in order to save yourself. We say we’d never make that choice. Yet we don’t know for sure how we’d react in the face of such danger to ourselves or our families. Or would we run and leave the others behind? It’s a show that makes me think and yet scares me to death.

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