Actual photo of me trapped in an elevator with a 2 year old with an injured hand. THAT is conflict.
One of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand is the antagonist. I have even gone through great lengths to teach about the antagonist and his/her many faces. We have what I call the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker), the catalyst for the story. No Sauron and the Ring of Power is just jewelry. No Emperor and Luke can continue moisture farming on Tatooine. No Darla the Fish-Killer and Nemo would be safe at home with his neurotic father Marlin (neat post about What Finding Nemo Can Teach Us About Story Action).
Go to this post for more on the BBT.
So then there is the Big Boss Troublemaker and the BBT always has minions, extensions of the BBT’s agenda. Who cares about the Emperor without Darth Vader? Dath makes it all so much more interesting. Yet, peel back the starships, the intergalactic wars, the CGI and what do we have?
A redemption story. A story between a father and his son (children).
Family is a great place to birth drama, which brings me to my point for this blog. Close, intimate ties are the best place to harvest authentic conflict. Anyone who’s spent the holidays with more than the TV and a Chinese take-out menu knows that family is an excellent source of friction. So many personalities and individual agendas and beliefs…all…in…one…space.
In fact, in the above picture? It was Thanksgiving and we were on our way to meet the family at the ranch. The Spawn’s hand got pulled into the door when it prematurely opened. The door then jammed, trapping Hubby and I with a screaming toddler (who was scared and bruised, but okay) for almost an hour until the fire department could get us free. Talk about tension!
Pay Attention to the Obvious
What I find fascinating is that the best source of conflict is often the one overlooked by the new writer. Oh, I did it, too. I might have one finger pointed at you, but I have three pointing back at me to remind me that I am still learning, too. When I was a neophyte, I had the bomb about to detonate, the car chases, the thinking and brooding and more thinking.
Beware of Extremes
First of all, thinking is therapy, not conflict. Lots of new fiction begins with nothing happening. The protagonist is in her head and thinking, thinking,
whining and more thinking. This is in the wrong spot. Any thinking should be part of what is known as a sequel. Problem is, sequels can only happen after a scene, and scenes are founded on action. Then after the action, the protagonist needs a moment to process what happened and make a course of action (sequel).
So some of you then might do what I did.
Oh, she can’t be thinking? Need action. Okay, how about a BOMB, with ninjas and a thermonuclear strike from SWITZERLAND.
No one ever suspects the Swiss.
Uh, yeah, no. We don’t need to be extreme to be interesting.
Bombs and car chases and super high-stakes on page one are what I like to call a Purple Tornado. Nothing wrong with any of these events, but they must be placed correctly in the narrative structure or it is just noise.
Since we are coming up on the Fourth of July, how many of you have ever been to a fireworks show that was paired with symphony music? Notice how it starts our small, subtle, but sparkly to get our attention. The show then builds, ebbs, builds some more, retreats but OH THEN even more fireworks, and the music rises until finally we get this grand crescendo and there are fireworks of all colors and WOW watch how they hold nothing back for the grand finale.
What if the fireworks show began with Flight of the Valkyries and every kind of firework they had? Pull out all the stops!
It would be too much too soon and anything after the first song would be…anticlimactic. To be blunt, it would ruin the show. No, instead the audience should be eased in gently, their attention piqued by soft music and something shiny.
Same in fiction.
Yes, there are genres that will allow for a short prologue. For instance, suspense novels will often begin in the murderer’s POV. Thrillers might begin with a ticking bomb placed in an unknown location. But note, these are not scenes that introduce the protagonist.
One of my favorite shows is Rizzoli & Isles (and I just love everything Tess Gerritson writes). But for those who follow the series, much of the conflict comes from close ties. Also, in almost every episode, when we first see the protagonist(s), they are engaged in some real-life activity which is then interrupted by the crime.
Bring it To the Reader’s Level
Often the conflict or tension that hooks us in as something we normal people can all relate to. Most of us cannot relate to examining a dead body at a crime scene, but we can relate to our mothers butting into our business or a sibling making poor choices that stress us out.
Some of the best conflict, the most authentic conflict, will come from your protagonist’s close circle of allies. Many times this is compounded by personality differences. Place a neat-freak with a clutter bug, a control-freak with a hippie, a go-getter with a playboy, an intellectual with a thrill-seeker and then watch the sparks fly.
This is why we should not only think about our BBT, but we should also put a lot of thought into the close allies. When I ran a critique group, we did detailed backgrounds on all main characters. When you construct your protagonist, a really great exercise is to think about what personality will drive your protagonist BONKERS. Usually what irritates the protagonist is where he or she needs to grow in order to be ready for the final battle, and we will talk about this more next week.
A great resource for you to explore is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines–16 Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LeFever, and Sue Viders. I also recommend NYTBSA Shirley Jump’s class, The Basics of Scene and Sequel. She is going to help you understand how to employ scene and sequel for max effect. Another class at WANA International that will also help is Getting to Know Your Characters by TV writer Donna Newton.
What are some characters you love? Who makes them crazy? How does it resonate? What are some resources you would recommend?
I love hearing from you!
I hope you will hop over to WANA International and sign up for a class. We offer training right in the comfort of your home or office from the best teachers in the industry.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
#1 by Natasha McNeely on June 18, 2012 - 10:20 am
Wonderful post! The antagonist is so vital to just about any story and yet so many people forget to develop the antagonist in a way that helps the story more. We’re meant to care about the protagonist and yet how are we supposed to care when the protagonist wins if there’s no real reason as to why we cared about the conflict between the good and bad guys, to begin with?
#2 by susielindau on June 18, 2012 - 10:22 am
You are right that it is sometimes so easy to miss the obvious!
Glad that your little one survived the elevator mishap with only a bruise. 🙂
#3 by Patrick Thunstrom on June 18, 2012 - 10:27 am
I’m always pleased when one of your craft articles affirms what I’m doing in my own work. I’ve been working on character profiles this week, and there’s a conflict ripe between the protagonist and her primary ally, and between the primary antagonist and the secondary antagonist. And it’s all going to work together quite nicely.
Now if I could only find why the second antagonist is a realistic individual and not a mustache twirling villain.
#4 by amyshojai on June 18, 2012 - 10:33 am
I’ve had great fun going from “real world” to knocking my heroine for a loop and making her leave the safety of the known–and yep, I’ve got a mom pestering her, and an ex-wife nagging the secondary lead as well. Hopefully makes the whole storyline more accessible to readers, and “real.” Even the dog vp character is forced to leave his everyday world and deal with scary/different world–and change. Fun stuff, creating a dog character arc!
#5 by Lanette Kauten on June 18, 2012 - 10:38 am
This is the kind of stuff I need to read about. It’s easy to discuss conflict and antagonists in high-stakes films and books, but what about upmarket or literary? You hit it right on the head with the cast of characters the protagonist is closely tied to.
#6 by Diane Krause on June 18, 2012 - 10:40 am
What a great post! I just returned from James Scott Bell’s Next Level Seminar in Austin, Texas, so your post adds some wonderful seasoning to my weekend feast of writing inspiration! I’m also currently working on an ebook on characters for Sterling & Stone, where I work as an editor. More good seasoning! I only discovered your blog a few months ago, and am excited to have done so. Thanks for all the good material. (And, it’s awesome that you’re a fellow Texan! I’m a native Texan, originally from north central area, now in Houston area.)
#7 by Scott on June 18, 2012 - 11:10 am
When I think of conflicting personalities, I look to the Simpson family for inspiration. I love the dynamic of Homer and Marge Simpson. She’s so tame and he has little to no boundaries. But they’ve been together for…forever! There have been so many episodes where they almost split, but they make it through. And then there’s Bart and Lisa. It’s just a great study in characters.
#8 by howmyspiritsings on June 18, 2012 - 11:21 am
Music is like that too and in many ways, writing is like writing a score of music. It has to build up to the crescendo in order for it to really work. You don’t want the audience bored to tears and you don’t want it clapping too soon.
#9 by annerallen on June 18, 2012 - 11:26 am
You have some of the best advice for new writers on conflict and the antagonist. It’s a tougher concept than most of us realize. I’m in a critique group with several writers who have prose to die for, but no concept of an antagonist. I keep telling them to read your posts. I’ll send them the link to this one. Thanks for making it so clear!.
#10 by annerallen on June 18, 2012 - 11:28 am
Oh, and you sure look cool and collected for somebody trapped in an elevator with a sad (but adorable) two year old. 🙂
#11 by Eden on June 18, 2012 - 11:57 am
I’m with Patrick here. It’s great when I see writing posts that match the instinctive flow of my writing. Too often when plotting I feel the need to add in those ticking bombs and races down the busy street to save catch the baby that was teetering on the ledge only seconds ago because I wonder how anyone could find the real story interesting enough.
But though it’s only one subplot of the whole , when I actually read it, I rather like it. My protagonist’s sister has been secretly planning to elope with the son of an opposing clan. Worse yet, this boy has been put into an arranged marriage and this act by the two young people could create a war between families that might destroy them. My protagonist has been directed by their mother to stop his sister through any means necessary. And yet, he cares for the two who are in love, and knows exactly how they feel….
Hmm… The only question, who exactly would I call “the” antagonist here.
#12 by Marvin Mayer on June 18, 2012 - 12:21 pm
Bulls eye! I am in the process of having a sci-fi story published (it’s going through level upon level of editing) and I enjoy comparing my manuscript to the points you made in today’s blog. Looking forward to the next blog.
#13 by darcyflynn on June 18, 2012 - 12:32 pm
I love your fireworks analogy! I immediately thought of my current wip and how it did or didn’t measure up.
#14 by KM Huber on June 18, 2012 - 12:59 pm
This blog post is yet another home run, Kristin. It is no exaggeration to say that this blog post– along with the others that you cite–have clarified my understanding of conflict but particularly, the antagonist. Previously, I successfully put readers to sleep with one abstract though after another or slapped them with one over-the-top incident after another. I remain indebted to those critique groups who persevered.
What is working for me is your suggestion of writing the background of my characters BEFORE I start writing story. I began with the antagonist, which for me makes the protagonist more obvious. Finally, I am able to write the story that I have always wanted to write. You gave me the tools Kristin, and I am grateful.
Am on my way to register for the Scene and Sequel class at WANA International. Thanks for the link!
#15 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 18, 2012 - 1:22 pm
Shirley is an amazing author and teacher and we are super blessed to have her. I will be taking her class, too. Can always learn, LOL. Will see you in there :D.
#16 by KM Huber on June 18, 2012 - 8:17 pm
That’s terrific, Kristen; completed my class registration today. Sorry about misspelling your name–I do know better–have a good friend with the same name but hers is spelled with two i’s, and, of course, I misspelled her name today as well. I know, right?
#17 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 18, 2012 - 8:41 pm
I’m not picky, LOL Close enough for government work. It isn’t like I have a name that has only one spelling,:D.
#18 by MarthaJRamirez on June 18, 2012 - 1:18 pm
What an awesome post! Great tips! Love the firework reminder.
#19 by K.B. Owen on June 18, 2012 - 1:38 pm
So sorry about the Spawn’s poor little hand! Wow, Kristen, you can smile through anything, LOL. You are so right about the obvious. The obvious and I have an uneasy relationship. Sometimes, it’s hard to get away from thinking that obvious=boring/unimaginative. But avoiding the obvious is like overlooking the elephant in the room. It needs to be addressed.
#20 by shawn on June 18, 2012 - 2:21 pm
Well the elevator incident was an eye opener. I remember seeing his fingers getting sucked into the crack in the door as it was opening between floors. I grabbed the door with all my might pretty much as I saw it. Kristen grabbed his wrist and started tugging on it. We both were saying this is NOT good. We both thought he was goin to loose a hand. But then after what seemed like an eternity, Kristen got his hand free just as i lost all my strength. Talk about timing..
#21 by Tamara LeBlanc on June 18, 2012 - 2:06 pm
I can’t imagine being trapped in an elevator for an hour…with or without an injured and scared little boy. Tight spaces, with me, that’s conflict.
I loved how you compared the introduction of conflict to the sublte rise in tempo of music during a fireworks show. Brilliant!
You had mentioned Rizzoli and Isles. I’ve never seen the show, but on occassion I watch Law and Order. I like how episodes always start with someone just doing what they do, a street vendor selling hot dogs, a couple walking home after dinner, a group of kids riding their bikes through the park…these people are in their element, minding their own business (the soft, melodic, musical beginning at the onset of the firework display) when BAM they trip over a dead body (the music rises in a grand crescendo as the explosion of lights hit their peak)
I see what you mean. What a perfect analogy.
Wonderful post, Kristen!!
Have a fantastic evening,
#22 by stephscottil on June 18, 2012 - 4:39 pm
The comment about thinking what behaviour would make your protag go bonkers has me thinking up all sorts of things. Thanks for another great post!
#23 by Andi-Roo (@theworld4realz) on June 18, 2012 - 5:35 pm
Well this validates what I was recently told regarding my WIP — I opened with the wrong bit, but the next part is really good & carries strong dialog. Wasn’t sure the advice was sound, but now that I’ve heard it doubled here, & so succinctly, I know it’s true. Sit down, Ego. Mama has to go do a re-write! 🙂
#24 by Char on June 18, 2012 - 6:07 pm
Have you been reading my family drama novel? 😉 My rough draft had a prologue that I ripped out when I started revisions. I found other places in the novel to insert the images and backstory – not all of them, but the important pieces.
Thanks for the links to the writing resources. Priceless!
#25 by hdbailey on June 18, 2012 - 7:05 pm
Ally conflict is something that seems to be hard to do well. They have to annoy your hero(ine) without driving the two apart – otherwise they wouldn’t be allies. They also can’t annoy the reader – well, too much, anyhow. Making the reader dislike the ally a little can make the story realistic. Too much and it will drive the reader away!
A great example here is Robert Jordan’ “Wheel of Time”. There are so many characters with distinct personalities. They drive each other nuts, sometimes, but they remain allies. And it amazes me how other readers respond. They all have different characters that bother them!
#26 by Andrew on June 18, 2012 - 7:28 pm
Great post! I kind of wish there was another word other than “conflict” we could use to describe it though. Normally when people think of conflict in our culture the word “armed” comes before it, hence all the extremes you were talking about. Plus it’s just easier to write conflict when the people are diametrically opposed to one another, haha.
I’m working on a story myself that has, your post made me realize, a great deal of ally conflict. In this case, it seems that the conflict comes because the characters are in many ways alike. Sometimes the people who are most like us are the ones who irritate us the most, haha
#27 by dugger50 on June 19, 2012 - 11:25 am
Thanks for the great insight! Here are some really good lessons to learn. All stories are built with a formula as you say, It’s not magic, but when it is done right, it seems like it!
#28 by Writerlious on June 20, 2012 - 12:56 pm
Such a helpful post!! It’s no wonder you’re a famous blogger in the writing community. You somehow manage to distill an important lesson on writing into a short, sweet post that’s both funny and accessible.
Kudos, Kristen! 🙂
#29 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 20, 2012 - 2:33 pm
Awwwww *hugs* Thanks :D.
#30 by Yvette Carol on June 21, 2012 - 7:08 pm
Vogler’s book ‘The Writer’s Journey’ breaks characters down into 7 archetypes. I often refer to this list when I’m coming up with characters.
3. Threshold Guardian
#31 by Dani Denatti on July 2, 2012 - 8:48 am
I just stumbled upon this fun, informative blog and am loving it! Thanks so much for recommending ‘The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines.’ I have been searching for a good guide on character archetypes, and this one sounds amazing.