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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: creating conflict

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Many emerging writers come to me when they find they are struggling with their WIP. I always begin with the same question, “What is your story about?” Often, I get this response, “Well, my story isn’t plot-driven. It is a character-driven story.”

Translation?

I have no plot…and please stop asking me because it makes me want to drink heavily.

There really is no such thing as a purely character-driven story. Character and plot are like two keyed cogs. One drives the other. The plot pushes the protagonist to grow and as the character grows, this in turn drives the plot.

For instance, in The Lord of the Rings the plot problem (Toss evil ring in a volcano before power-hungry necromancer takes over Middle Earth) is what forces the Hobbits to leave The Shire. Ah, but once they leave, how they respond to escalating threats determines plot.

For instance, they are barely out of The Shire when Merry and Pippin nearly get them all captured/killed by The Black Rider because they are running from an angry pitchfork-wielding farmer.

That is an ok place to begin, but what if they all remained the same reckless naive Hobbits they were in that scene? Their decisions would impact the story and they would fail.

To succeed, they must grow.

Granted, though we do have two cogs, depending on genre, this will impact the SIZE of each cog. In a Jack Reacher thriller? The plot cog is larger (but the character cog is still there). Similarly, in a literary fiction, this will reverse. In Cormac McCarty’s The Road there is still a plot objective (Make it to the ocean) but the character cog is larger because reaching the goal is far less important than HOW they reach the goal. If Man and Boy stop to snack on people? They fail. The torch of humanity is extinguished.

Thus, a literary work (character-driven story) might work like this…

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For genre fiction, it would reverse and, depending on the story and the style, the relative size of the cogs will change accordingly. Yet there will always be two cogs.

Regardless of genre, once we have an idea of what our story is about and have set the stage for the dramatic events that will unfold, we must remember that fiction is about PROBLEMS. Plain and simple. Furthermore, it is about PEOPLE who have problems. But not simply ANY problems. Very specific problems, which we will talk about in a sec 😉 .

I will say that plot is very important. Our characters are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people.

Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Maybe your character is a control-freak. Perhaps he avoids. Maybe she is battling an addiction or is a loner or is a people-pleaser. Maybe he is a user or a manipulator.

My question is WHY?

Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.

Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.

I used the meme of Dr. House and his motto, Everybody lies. Yet, part of why that character was so successful is that we know something happened somewhere in the past that gave House that core belief.

This belief is what made him a superlative doctor, but it also hobbled every single relationship he ever had. We wonder about the wound because in every episode?

We see that wound in action.

Wounds are the NOTCH That Engages the GEAR

Back to my gear metaphor, but let’s expand it a bit. Think of plot like gears on a bicycle. So long as the gears are engaged and moving forward we have story momentum. Character is like the chain winding around those gears.

Some of you might be old enough to remember riding a ten-speed with the old shifters. You had to practice shifting gears to get the chain to engage a larger or smaller gear and if you didn’t get it right? The pedals spun and the bike just made weird noises. That’s because the chain has to be able to meet with the teeth of the gear via a space or a hole…or it won’t work.

Character functions similarly. We can have the gears (plot) and the chain (character) but if there is no notch (wound) that allows them to ever mesh and create tension? The story has no momentum and just makes weird sounds while we fruitlessly spin literary pedals.

Wounds are the sweet spot, that hole, that allows plot and character to merge into dramatic momentum.

Some writers start with characters and others start with plot. It doesn’t matter so long as you let either be forged with “the wound” in mind. If you have a mental snippet of a rebellious renegade bad@$$ heroine and want to put her in a story, then think of a plot situation that will make her utterly miserable. She can’t grow if she’s comfortable.

Maybe instead of chasing bad guys, she is forced to become the caretaker for her three young nephews after her sister dies. This PLOT is going to force her to be vulnerable, maybe have a softer side, and lighten up. Now, character (chain) and plot (gears) are linked.

Same if we go the opposite direction.

Maybe you have a great idea for a story. You want to take down a mob boss. Who can you cast that will be the most uncomfortable and thus grow the most? A former hit man who’s given up killing because he promised his wife before she died? An agoraphobic ex-cop who can’t leave her house? A sweet, naive soccer mom who believes that Bedazzling makes everything way more AWESOME?

Genre will dictate some of the casting, but note if we cast someone who would reach our story goal with relative ease, we risk having a one-dimensional talking head. We also diminish tension because remember, readers LOVE seemingly unbeatable odds. So, if we cast a highly decorated detective to take down our mob boss, make sure there is something about him (a wound) that puts the odds against him.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.

Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— 😉 — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?

I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.

Am I "there" yet?
Am I “there” yet?

Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.

Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.

How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?

What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, 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. 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

November’s winner of my 20 page critique is Nancy Segovia. THANK YOU for being such an awesome supporter of this blog and its guests. Please send your 5000 word Word document (double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12 point) to kristen@wana intl dot com.

Check out the Upcoming Classes

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! Fantastic as Christmas gifts *wink, wink, bid, nod*

All you need is an internet connection!

NEW!!!! IDEAL FOR CHRISTMAS!!!!

Branding Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE social media classes, ONE low price. Only $99. It is literally getting one class for FREE!!!! 

Craft Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE craft classes, ONE low price. Only $89. One class is FREE!!!! Includes my new class The Art of Character.

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors December 9th, 2016

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS January 6th

 

Plotting for Dummies January 7th, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors January 13th, 2017

Social Media for Authors January 14th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character January 27th, 2017

 

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus
Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus

Last time we talked about how, if we want to sell more books, we need to give readers what they want—an excellent story. Very often writers believe they need to be clever and deep and super different and while all of that is excellent, it must all be built around delivering a terrific story…not simply being clever for the sake of being clever.

This said, we must always remember the beating heart of every story. Conflict. No heart? The story flatlines.

Conflict is not simply a bad situation.

I often get pages where it is almost like, “And this bad thing happens then the next bad thing oh and another bad thing.” It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad action movie.

Oh there’s a fight scene, then a car chase, then another car chase and then another fight and OH! An explosion.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you have ever been to any family event, you have all you need for writing great fiction. Lots of personalities, baggage, history, and agendas all piled into one spot and BOOM!

Conflict.

Conflict is what hooks readers and keeps them turning pages. Every single scene needs conflict. Every page should have conflict. One of my personal mottos, is:

Bookmarks=DEATH

We should strive to never ever leave a logical spot to slip in a bookmark. No, we want to torture our readers and keep them up all night and sleep-deprived. We do this with conflict.

Humans don’t like unresolved problems. It is in our nature to want everything sorted out before we can relax. How do we keep readers up all night? Never let everything get completely sorted out.

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Conflict obviously will happen internally and externally. The internal conflict gets center stage in the sequel and external conflict steps up during scenes.

Scenes are defined by action (an outside tangible goal).

The protagonist wants X but then…

Sequels are the spaces between scenes where there is a bit of a breather and the character is internalizing what happened and making a plan of what to do next.

By eventually spacing out the sequels and then removing them altogether is how we as writers can control the pace and ratchet the tension as we careen into the third act. For more on scenes and sequels refer to Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part One.

But whether it is a scene or a sequel it must have conflict.

Situation

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Obviously the outside situation might generate conflict (and frankly should).

Example:

Fifi simply must get the deposit into the bank before end of day, but then she ends up trapped in a traffic snarl and gets there right as the motor bank closes.

Question: Are you making it too easy for your character to get from point A to point B? Can you dangle what she wants just beyond reach? Can you insert more misdirection/setbacks?

Personality

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Sure the situation can generate conflict, but our protagonist does not exist in a vacuum. His or her decisions will happen around other people and thus be influenced by them.

Example:

Fifi is a very plain, no-nonsense gal who is Type A and if she isn’t fifteen minutes early, in her mind she is already fifteen minutes late. Unfortunately she opened her cupcake bakery with her little sister who always looks like she fell out of a fashion magazine, who would never dream of going out not looking like a model and who, as a consequence is pathologically late.

Fifi loathes being late.

So not only did Fifi have to get to the bank, she was forced to take her sister because she needed something to be notarized with sister’s signature for the business. Sister was just going to “take a minute to freshen up.” Of course had Fifi’s sister just gotten in the damn car, they would have missed the fender bender that caused the traffic snarl and would have made it to the bank on time.

Question: Who have you cast with your protagonist? Are they too similar? Do they get on too well? Opposites often attract, so who could you cast against your protagonist to make life all that much messier?

Baggage/History

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Clearly you all have baggage (and I don’t mean carry-on only) or you wouldn’t be writers. Great characters have loads and loads of baggage and often that baggage appears during conflict.

Remember that sane and well adjusted people make for lousy fiction unless we cast one of those types and that becomes the source of conflict. But if both people disagree in healthy ways? Snoozefest.

Example:

Fifi: When you choose to do your makeup and hair when you are aware we need to be somewhere, it frustrates me. Your chronic tardiness makes me feel as if you don’t value me or my feelings.

Sister: Well I feel that when you insist on looking like a hopeless frump all the time that you don’t value me. Lord, I have to be seen with you and we could be seeing potential customers for God’s sakes. And for the record, I feel like throat-punching you when you use your therapy speak on me. Is this garbage what you pay all that money for?

Pretty clearly we see there is a lot of baggage here.

Question: In your scenes can you ramp up the tension with barbed mentions of any chronic behaviors? Unhealed psychic wounds? Most people don’t completely operate in the present, the past likes to bum a ride. Are your characters both dealing with disagreements like healthy well-adjusted people? If they are? Stop it!

Worldview

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Remember that there are all kinds of sources for conflict all around us that are natural and organic and don’t seem forced. Age can be a factor. A parent won’t see the world the same way as a child and won’t have the same priorities.

When I am trying to get out the door, my main priority is not whether or not I have packed enough Hot Wheels. For Spawn? That is critical and trust me it creates conflict.

I am a Type A control freak and I loathe being late with the power of a thousand suns. Yet my husband, when we are going somewhere? He has three speeds. Slow, slower, and DEAR FREAKING GOD ARE YOU EVEN ALIVE?

Granted he is good for me. He makes me slow down, pay attention to detail, maybe even *shudders* enjoy the ride…but in the meantime, he’s maddening.

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Yet there is some unspoken law that writers must marry engineers. Seriously, it is freaky.

Opposites attract and yet they also drive each other bonkers.

Question: Can you look at your cast then, using their worldview (age, personality, occupation) use that to create tension?

If you want a REALLY GOOD LAUGH???? Check out this quick video that perfectly illustrates differing world views.

I hope all of this has helped. Remember that yes, we must have a core antagonist who generates the singular story problem in need of resolution, but along the way we will need all kinds of micro-tensions and micro-aggressions to add depth to our story and keep readers riveted.

What are your thoughts? Are you a writer married to an engineer personality? Do you see all kinds of tensions flying about that you now can add to spice up your story? Are you leaving a lot of tension on the table?

If you want to become a master at plotting and tension, check out my Bullies & Baddies class below.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, 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. 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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter! 

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

NEW CLASS!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

Sign up early for $10 OFF!!!

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

Blogging for Authors

September 16th

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook