Month: February 2010

**[Author’s note: If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home. In other words, I am off the grid. As soon as I am able, I’ll make the full go ’round and respond to comments and check out any new followers. As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I’ll see you all in a few days.]**

A quick reminder:  Don’t forget to sign up for the “Drunk At First Sight” Blogfest–a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy’s Day!  Get all the details here.

When I was a kid, my mom used to say to me–like millions of other moms said to their kids: “Be good or Santa won’t bring you any presents.”  Sounds simple enough right?  What could be easier.

The trouble was, at least for me, that there was no playbook or DIY guide on how to be “good.”  It was as if everyone knew what “good” looked like, and how to “do” it, but me.

I certainly was a terrible troublemaker as a kid–I want to avoid painting myself in an overly rosy light–and did plenty of things that I knew were bad, but there were also many occasions where I was doing something I thought was fine when I got some variation of the “good or no presents” threat.

As writers I think we often find ourselves in a similar dilemma.  There are plenty of great rules out there to help us improve our craft–“write what you know” or “show don’t tell” are two–but we often spend more time talking about the rule than we do understanding how the rule works.

So let’s take a closer look at one of these rules: Conflict equals fiction.  It is often said that without conflict, you don’t have a story.  I can agree with that.  But what is conflict?  How do we make sure we have conflict in our stories?  How do we play with it, modulate it, make sure that all elements are in place to really make that conflict pop? 

I contend that when we say a writer must understand their characters, what we really mean is that a writer must understand the conflict in his or her story.  Conflict affects every element of your piece, whether it is a scene, short story, or full length novel.  It may influence how the story begins, and most importantly, the primary conflict in your story decides how the story should end.

In general, story conflicts can be divided into three categories (doubtless you’ve heard this before, but bear with me):  Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. NatureSome folks have concluded there are as many as seven conflict types, but I think they can all be boiled down to the three I mention here.

Here’s a question: which of these three categories fits the conflict in your current WIP?  You may say “Oh, that’s easy, it’s clearly Man vs. Man.”  But have you considered what affect that choice has had on the telling of your story, and on that ending you’ve been struggling to get right?

Let’s consider a scene.  Two boxers are in the ring, slugging it out.  I mean, they are really going at it.  Is this a story?  Does the fact that the two of them are trying to beat each other’s brains out make it a story?  It looks like there’s conflict, right?  And you’ll probably call it Man vs. Man, right?  But let’s look a little closer.

Sure you need conflict for a good story, but having conflict doesn’t guarantee it’s a story.  Another important story element is meaning.  No meaning, no story.  What is important about the events–the conflict–portrayed in the narrative?  Based on the scant information so far, the boxer scene is simply an event.  If the reader–and especially we the writer–don’t understand the meaning behind why the boxers fight, then the words on the page are like a news report, and do not rise to the level of fiction.  Depending on the meaning we assign, the scene of the two boxers could in fact fall into any of the three conflict categories.  Let me illustrate:

Man vs. Himself: Man vs. Himself conflicts derive from the MC wanting two contradictory things at once.  Basically he can’t decide what he wants to do, and it is that tension and conflict which keeps the story moving forward.  That means the plot of your story is basically internally driven from the MC’s motivations.  In fact, this kind of story is virtually impossible to do without showing the MC’s thoughts and feelings.  Events occur, circumstances change, but the only reason why any of these events are important (or should be shown for that matter) is because of their impact on that central question: What should the MC do?

Let’s say the scene is a boxing match between our MC and another boxer.  The MC is trying to decide to keep fighting and beat his opponent, or take a fall and collect the hush money the crooked promoter has promised him–money he needs to pay for his kid’s operation.  You can see that this sounds like an external struggle because there is a lot of external pressure on the MC, but at the end of the day the story really focuses on a decision the boxer must make: should he be dishonest or not? 

Notice that the main conflict in the story is about the MC’s honesty, not on who wins the fight.  You could conceivable have a very satisfying ending to that story where the results of the fight are never disclosed, because the action of the fight and the MC’s internal conflict do not coincide.

Man vs. Man:  This is the more traditional mano-a-mano kind of story.  Man vs. Man applies to a story where two different characters want the same thing, or want two different things that put them into direct conflict.  In this case, it really is about the MC going at it with another guy, and the central question of the story really is: who will win the fight? 

Our boxing match could very easily be Man vs. Man.  You could conceivably tell the entire story, the setup, middle and who wins at the end without a shred of internal monologue (the opposite of Man vs. Himself).  Of course some internal glimpses now and then add to the excitement, but even without it, the reader would understand what is important to these two characters, and the ramifications of the story’s setup and ending.

This is not to say that the internal ideas of the MC and everyone else aren’t important.  Those actions will still drive the story forward, but the climax and denouement must be based on the original external question.  For Man vs. Man to work, a satisfying ending results only from the resolution of external actions and events, not internal decisions or struggles.

So back to our boxing scene.  If the writer sets the story as a true Man vs. Man conflict, fully painting both a protagonist and an antagonist, and showed how they are both after winning that boxing championship, would it make any sense at all for the MC to then up and quit in the middle of the fight?  The MC wimps out because he remembered his girlfriend didn’t want him to box anymore and walks, leaving your antagonist standing around going “What the heck?”  The boxer’s decision to quit has nothing to do with the antagonist.  Since the ending isn’t externally driven, it doesn’t make sense with the rest of the piece, and the reader will pick up on it. 

This is why it is common for beginning writers to start a story as a Man vs. Man and then, as they realize the end doesn’t work, go back and add in a ton of internal dialogue for the MC, which pushes it into Man vs. Himself territory.

Observe also the impact the choice of conflict has on the main events in the story and how the writer chooses to reveal those events.  Man vs. Man is more external (description, more dialogue, characters other than MC are more well-rounded), and lends itself to third person.  Man vs. Himself is more internal (internal monologue, thoughts, feelings, more backstory needed) and lends itself to first person.  These tendencies are certainly not rules that must always be followed, but a skillful writer will understand how they work and consider them as they structure their piece.

Man vs. Nature:  Finally, we have Man vs. Nature.  This category basically has two subsets: 1) The story pits the MC against something truly external, like bad weather, or an avalanche, or 2) The story pits the MC against society or societal norms.

The first variety of Man vs. Nature story is much rarer than it used to be.  Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” is a good example of this kind of story.  There were some Man vs. Nature elements in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”  The hallmark of this kind of story is physical conflict and interaction with natural elements.

The second variety of Man vs. Nature conflict is more common.  In these stories, a character or group of characters who oppose the MC conducts themselves in accordance with the ideals and morals of larger society, and is understood to represent that larger group.  If the MC is beaten, then it is assumed that society has won.  This kind of story is really like a war between ideas or ideals, and is thus a conflict between the internal feelings and ideas of the MC and the external morals and pressures of society–and tends to not based as much in purely physical conflict.  George Orwell’s “1984” is a great example, where the MC’s nemesis, O’Brien, is understood to represent the repressive regime under which Winston Smith lives.

Going back to our two boxers, if they were simply having a fistfight over which one of them gets the girl, while nearby the volcano is about to erupt and level the town where they live, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the first variety.  Note then that the boxing is not part of the main action, but a node in the subplot at the scene level.

On the other hand, if this fight were staged on TV for a world-wide audience, and the boxer the MC was facing was being sponsored by the corporation who wrongly imprisoned the MC’s father and has taken over the U.S. Government, and the winner of the fight will be the next head gladiator, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the second variety, since it’s understood that if the MC beats his opponent, he’s beating the corporation.  As you can imagine, the set up for this type of story would be very different from the others.

Note that Man vs. Nature requires the writer to work both sides of the fence, using all the tools to describe the MC’s internal motivations and ideals (inner monologue, thoughts, feelings, backstory) while also utilizing the usual tricks to show a detailed and well-developed external world (description, heavy reliance on dialogue, well rounded characters).  For this reason, it’s my feeling that Man vs. Nature stories are the most difficult to pull off, because if the writer does not excel in all these areas, then the narrative feels odd and one-sided.

One last thing to mention:  Taken at face value, you may conclude that any story must fit cleanly into one of these categories.  In fact, there may be more than one of these operating in the same story.  By way of example, in “A Separate Peace” (review Wednesday!!), there were actually two primary conflicts which worked side by side.  There was a Man vs. Man conflict between Gene and Finny (the two main characters) and there was a Man vs. Himself conflict operating for Gene, who was constantly motivated by thoughts on whether he was doing the right thing by Finny.  In this particular story, these two conflicts worked quite effectively to keep the reader engaged and keep the story moving forward.  So you can have more than one flavor of conflict in a story, but the writer–and the readers–should understand how those conflicts work together in a seamless way.  A writer should avoid at all costs starting a story with one kind of conflict and ending with another as this practically guarantees that the ending will not satisfy the reader.

In closing, I hope this post has gone a little way toward helping you understand the conflict in your WIP, to consider the way your story should begin, how best to reveal your characters, how to structure your scenes, and how the story ends.  That old saying “Conflict equals fiction” is true.  A writer’s clear understanding of conflict is the key to writing fiction that makes your MC pop off the page, and keeps readers engaged.

What are your thoughts?  When it comes to conflict, what do you struggle with the most as a writer?  What is your favorite kind of conflict to write about?

I haven’t had a beer in six months.  The picture on the right is really making my mouth water.

If you’re Irish, you know that St. Patrick’s Day is next month–and in my book, that’s just around the corner (you may know about St. Paddy’s if you’re not Irish too :D).

A few of us got to talking and we asked ourselves this question:  “What could be better than sitting around on St. Paddy’s Day evening drinking a (possibly green) beer?”  The answer is simple.  Sitting around drinking a (possibly green) beer and reading some great fiction, that’s what!

So, following in the footsteps of the Fight Scene Blogfest, and “Love At First Sight” Blogfest, we are announcing the first annual “Drunk At First Sight” Blogfest! 

Here’s how it will work:

1)  Sign up below.

2)  Write a new scene or short story, or dust off an old one, about a love/relationship situation that also includes one or more of the following elements:

     —St. Paddy’s Day as important event or setting
     —Use of Ireland or anything Irish as a setting or prop
     —An alcohol related event (party, hangover, cocktails, AA meeting, etc.)

3)  Just prior to March 17th (St. Pat’s Day), post said story to your blog.

4)  On St. Paddy’s Day, cruise around the interwebs, drink in hand, and check out everybody’s amazing fiction.

That’s all there is to it!  Sounds like great fun–and in keeping with the St. Paddy’s Day spirit.  These other great bloggers are helping out with the Blogfest as well:

The DAFS Blogfest promises to be fun for the whole family.  No really.  The first (virtual) round is on us.  Sign up below, and spread the word.  The more, the merrier.  Let’s raise our glasses on high and make this Blogfest a great one! 

[WARNING: Incoming off-topic ramble!]

Not too long ago, one of my co-workers in the office (hi Erika!) decided it would be fun to get some Sea Monkeys.

I know what you’re going to say, and yes, Sea Monkeys are allowed in a Combat Zone under the Geneva Convention as long as you treat them humanely.  Which brings me to my next point.

They’re dead.  Every single one of those little suckers.  The office is a bit of a mess now, everyone handling the loss in their own ways.

You see, Erika went on R and R and nobody fed them while she was gone.  And their Sea Monkey Souls went up to that too-small barely functional Aquarium (with built in viewing lense) in the Sky.

But we were discussing what we should do with the Bodies.  It felt weird somehow to just throw them out.  That feeling you get about properly disposing of pets.  What is the right thing to do?

Wow.  This post has taken a very weird macabre turn I wasn’t expecting.

Anyway, we started wondering what a Sea Monkey Graveyard would look like.  I decided “Sea Monkey Graveyard” would be a cool name for a band.  But you know and I know that I’m way too busy to be in a band, even in one with such a cool name as Sea Monkey Graveyard (first hit number would be “Dying on the Vine in a Too Small Aquarium” BTW).

[Off topic ramble concluded.  You may return to your normal programming.]

I’m much too busy because cool writers like Christi over at “A Torch in the Tempest” are giving me awards.  Wow!  Thanks Christi!  I am totally blown away.  I mean that.  Totally.  Blown.  Away.

Christi gave me the Creative Writer Award.  Thank you so very much, Christi.  I’m honored.

I’m not sure what it is I’m doing to deserve such praise, but I’ll try to keep doing it.  Now I’m supposed to talk about ten things that brighten my day and pass it along to a few worthy folks.  So without further adieu:

1.  Sea Monkeys.  Living, breathing Sea Monkeys.
2.  Comments.  The big fat juicy ones are my favorite.
3.  Any day without an IED or IDF (InDirect Fire–mortars, rockets, etc.) is pretty bright in my book.
4.  My daughter Muffin’s laugh.
5.  A nap.
6.  A beer so ice-cold that it burns my hand to hold it.
7.  The way my wife Furnace Girl pretends not to trust me but trusts me implicitly.
8.  Good coffee.
9.  Reading all your (and when I say “your” I mean YOU) awesome and amazing and incredible blogs.
10. Licorice. 

So passing it on is always difficult.  There are so many great folks doing great work–some I’ve gotten to know relatively well considering the short time this blog has been around.  I think for this award, I’m going to choose a few fresh faces (at least fresh to me) that have caught my eye recently.  Here goes:

Thank you guys for all being great contributors to the writing community, and I humbly pass along this Creative Writer Award to you!  The fact that I have listed them here means you, dear reader, must now go visit them.  That’s the rule, and around here, rules are rules.

Thanks again, Christi, for the award, and everyone don’t forget to pay her a visit at her cool place too!  As always, stay groovy, and thanks for reading.

We come to a rolling stop on yet another fun filled week here at WSMG.  I am stoked. It won’t be too much longer before I start my journey home, so the heart’s all a pitter-patter these days.

We have some very nice Link-ee Link-ee lined up, but you know what comes first, don’t you.  Say it.  SAY IT!

That’s right.  One joke.  Coming right up.

Joke du Jour:

A novelist wanting to write a novel about life at the warfront gets a once in a lifetime break.  The military decides to let him come in and interview some soldiers just before a big battle, where many of them are expected to lose their lives.  He doesn’t have much time, so he boils his interviews down to one question: “Did you come here to die?”

The General’s aide brings the writer into a makeshift barracks where they have a number of soldiers from different countries there who will be participating in the battle.  First up is the Brit:

Writer: Did you come here to die?

Brit: No, sah!  I figyah I got a pretty good chance of pullin’ throo this mess, inf’n our sergeant major don’t run us up the pike.  Ya know what I mean?
The writer thanks the Brit and goes to the American:
Writer:  Did you come here to die?
American:  Die?  Are you kidding me?  I’m not gonna die.  It’s those guys on the other side!  They’re the one’s that are gonna die, get me?
The Writer thanks the American.  Next up, the Australian.

Writer:  Did you come here to die?

Australian:  No sir!  I got here yesterday.


*drumroll please*  And now for a big slice of Friday Link Love:

  • On her blog Secret October, Damien put up a nice post and questions whether writer’s block really exists.  Thoughts?
  • Professional writer Roz Morris had this great post on her blog Nail Your Novel discussing whether your novel idea has already been done before. 
  • My friend Greg Romero is one of the most inspiring, hard-working writers I know.  He’s a playwright currently working in Philly, and he truly has the truth hidden under his coat–in an elevator.  About every two months or so, I wander back to this amazing post of 73 passions he put up a few years back.  If you read this, I promise you, you’ll be inspired in a new way. 

Enjoy, and write one of your writing passions in the comments.  I’ll throw mine into the mix too.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

~~George Orwell