Thursday, September 2, 2010

Notes on Creating Conflict in a Novel

Michael Salsbury
While attending Gen Con 2010 this year, I attended the "Creating Conflict" panel in the writer's track. The panelists included Anton Strout, Chris Pierson, Brad Beaulieu, and John Helfers. The seminar description was:
Make war, not peace! Ruffle the feathers of your characters. Stir the pot of emotions. Add a fistfight or two. Craft a clever and entertaining argument among your heroes. Not all conflict has to be bloody or increase the body count, but it does have to keep the reader turning the pages. Our panelists discuss the art of adding a dash of conflict to your pages.

Below are my notes from the seminar:

  • Conflict drives everything in a book.

  • Conflict happens whenever two or more characters (or forces, or philosophies) are in opposition.

  • Conflict should build over the course of the story, starting small and growing larger.

  • It's important that you, and your reader, understand "the bad guy" and why that person does what they do. You don't have to AGREE with the villain, just understand what makes them do what they do. Few, if any, human beings are intentionally "evil".

  • The term "psychometry" refers to knowing the history of an object at first touch. (One of the authors used that in a story. Sounded interesting to me so I made a note of it.)

  • Having characters make the wrong choice because of their personalities can help build conflict.

  • In achieving a goal, the character should try an easy or obvious solution, but fail. Then try a harder solution, and fail... and so on until the goal is achieved.

  • Consequences of characters' choices and actions should be explored. They might achieve their goal, but at what cost?

  • Characters (and by extension, the reader) may not know the "right choice" for solving a problem.

  • The two important points to consider in a conflict: What are the stakes? Why should we care?

  • Conflict should be meaningful and advance the plot.

  • Conflict should start as early as possible in the story.

  • During action scenes (like fights), you want a level of descriptive detail that is appropriate to what a character in that situation might actually notice. For example, during a frantic martial arts battle, we shouldn't see something like this:

The blow connected with Fred's chin, knocking his head back. As his face turned toward the ceiling, Fred noticed the wallpaper border around it. The pattern looked familiar somehow. Of course! It was the same border his mother had put around the walls in their home on the Cape. He wondered if he would ever get back to that house. The summers there were so relaxing...

(A sequence like the above would stop the action DEAD in the story, and it's unlikely anyone in the middle of a fight is going to reminisce about wallpaper and summer homes from their childhood. They might think back to a similar hit from a previous battle and how they reacted, but even that recollection is likely to be short and to the point.)

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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