On Conflict and Writing (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite newsletters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

 When first I started writing this letter, it was about a different topic (travel to be exact).  But as I tunneled further into it, I realized that what I really wanted to write about his week was conflict.

Ah, conflict.  It is the most important element of any piece of writing.  Conflict creates the underlying rhythm of all fiction, and non-fiction as well.  It is the thrumming baseline, the constant hum, the clothesline on which we hang all our writerly clothing.

Many of us are told, repeatedly, to add more conflict in our work. And yet we run from it, screaming, in life, right? Right? I know I do. I shrink from arguments, hate confrontation, abhor conflict in all its forms. I meditate and knit and weave and go to church to find inner peace, because I absolutely, positively, for real, hate conflict.

But there is one conflict that is basic to my life: every single moment of every single day the constant drumbeat in the back of my head is, I should be writing.  (Years ago I had a writing friend who set her screensaver to say, why aren’t you writing? I did that until I took to screaming what I thought were perfectly logical reasons I wasn’t writing at the computer.)  When I’m watching TV at night, I think that. When I’m performing the afore-mentioned relaxing crafts I’m thinking it. When I’m reading emails I’m thinking it.

I suspect that many of you feel the same way. Our time to write can be precious and fleeting in the press of other life demands and so we obsess about it when we can’t do it.  I suspect other creatives share this trait with us, that painters worry about painting, musicians about playing music, and son. In fact, I think it is this constant conflict, this constant pull, that separates creative people from non-creative types. Okay, truthfully, I think everyone is creative, some just don’t choose to express it.  But for the sake of brevity, we’ll just call them non-creative.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be one of them.  To not have this constant thing nipping at my heels, calling me to attention.   Peaceful and easy, I imagine. I wouldn’t have to work so hard at all that inner peace, right? And yet I’d be bored as all snot, too.  I can’t imagine what life would be like without the call to creativity and I really don’t want to find out.

I had this crazy idea as I’ve been writing this letter.  And it’s this: that writing pulls us out of our everyday lives, that it’s the impetus to pull us onto a creative path, the hero’s journey if you will.  I just pulled out one of my favorite writing books, The Writer’s Journey (1st ed.) by Christopher Vogler, vaguely recalling that he said something about this very topic. And indeed he does: “The Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey are one and the same. Anyone setting out to write a story soon encounters all the tests, trials, ordeals, joys, and rewards of the Hero’s Journey…. Writing is an often perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one’s soul and bring back the Elixir of experience—a good story.”

So take heart, because all that conflict you’re experiencing about your writing makes you heroic, my friend.  And remember, all you really need to do is put the conflict on the page—instead of getting embroiled in it in life.

Leave a comment and tell me how you deal with the constant conflict of writing vs. not writing.  I’m in France, but I’ll do my best to respond!

And–if you would like to receive these weekly letter directly into your inbox, just click the sign-up form to the right!

Characters at Cross Purposes

Light_lights_cross_220357_lBefore I started the actual rewriting of my novel, I did a lot of prep work.  One of the things I did was make a chart listing the goals, motivations (what the character wants), interior and exterior conflicts of each character.  These are the kinds of things that you generally at least have a vague sense of as you write the first draft, but need to be nailed down more specifically as you embark on the second time around.

And, as I discovered for the umpteenth time, these are also the things that are sometimes really, really hard to get specific about.  I mean, I know what my main character, named Madeleine, wants in a sort of wafty, overall sense, but defining it in a definite, precise, manner is difficult.  It drives you down into the heart of the story–which is why it is a worthy exercise.

I also did this for each of the important characters in the book.  And then I took a look at my charts. And realized–pa-dum–that some of them had similar motivations.  One could even say they had the same motivations. Which doesn’t work.  Why?  Because if all your characters want the same thing, they can all work together, united as one, singing Kumbaya.

This aggression cannot stand.

Because what is the most important element of all fiction?  That’s right, conflict. And if characters are all united as one, there won’t be any.  All good fiction is about characters in action, and characters at cross purposes with each other create conflict in action.  And so you need to put your people at cross purposes with each other, which is as simple and complicated as giving them conflicting desires.  Here are some simple suggestions as to how to get yourself thinking that way.

Finish Your First Draft First

Don’t argue with me.  You just have to.  You will know more–way more–about your characters when you get to the end of the draft then you do at the beginning.  Write it fast (which more and more I’m coming to believe is the ticket), or write it slow, but write it.

Look at yourself.  

Ask yourself what you want.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely get a list of garden-variety desires like lose weight, make lots of money, travel the world, have successful relationships with friends and family.  And guess what?  It is fairly likely that your main character wants those same, garden-variety things as well.  Now think of times you’ve struggled to get what you want.  Did your mother-in-law bake you a chocolate cake for your birthday, despite the fact you’ve been on a strict Paleo diet?  It’s not that she wants you to stay fat–she just wants you to enjoy her cake she baked for you. It is still in conflict with your goal.

Tweak a bit

Let’s continue on with the above situation, your MIL baking you a cake for your birthday. Maybe she has a deeper motivation.  Maybe she wants to make you gain weight so that her darling son will leave you.  That is an excellent cross purpose.  The simplest of actions can have devious motivation attached.  And in this case, all it took was a little tweak.

Brainstorm and free write

I realized my character Madeleine has a nicey-nicey relationship with her sister.  Bor-ing.  The two of them don’t need to be at war with each other, but don’t all siblings have some tension embedded in their relationship?  I did some free writing and realized that Madeleine was very close with her late mother.  Her sister?  Not so much.  This is the cause of some friendly “Mom liked you best” rivalry that ends up going deeper than expected.  And I got to it the way I get to all things–by writing about it.

Think up the absolute worst conflict

What is the worst thing that could happen between your two characters in the fictional situation you’ve set up for them?  You don’t have to use this eventuality, but pondering it can help you get some strong-ass conflict into your novel.

How do you create characters with strong conflicts?

Just for fun:

Photo by reuben4eva.