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The Gearbox: Conflict II: Return to Conflict Mountain

by on May.20, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everyone! I know that I talked a lot about conflict in an earlier Gearbox, but I thought I would revisit it after a great visit with a writer friend yesterday.

Before I get down into the nuts and bolts of this week’s Gearbox, let’s talk for a moment about Phineas T. Barnum. For those of you who don’t know who he is, P.T. Barnum is the founder of Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, also called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The man was a brilliant amateur psychologist and a consummate showman, and he knew a thing or two about what audiences wanted to see. And from this glorious man, we receive two of the greatest quotes ever to grace the ears of mankind. The first is, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The second quote is the rule of writing romance:

“Always leave them wanting more.”

When people read a romance, what do they want to see? On the surface, they think that they want to see a relationship where everything goes well, and things are consummated with little to-do. However, what makes people turn a page is that feeling of tension. When it comes to writing a romance, if you really want to capture that feeling of first love, you can’t just have your characters meet, then jump into bed. That’s too easy. It vents the pressure on your story, and while temporarily satisfying, it really doesn’t help your narrative in the long run. Your characters have to long for each other, yet be oblivious to each others’ needs. There must be moments when characters are precariously close to a kiss, only to be interrupted awkwardly with something that cannot be ignored. Model your two characters like you would magnets- get them close together but never let them touch, and you will be rewarded with the energy you need to power your story.

However, this post is not about romance. Who knew?

The post is really about danger and mortal conflict. It’s about turning a scene on it’s head and scaring the bejeezus out of your reader. It’s about convincing your audience that there is no way that your main character can survive the situation that the main character is in, even though that character should be nigh-unkillable. It’s about convincing your reader that you are heartless, that no one is sacred and that anything in your story can be destroyed.

Now I appreciate Barnum’s old adage more than a lot of people. I believe that the guy was a genius, and that his paradigm had its applications, but to create a lasting memory of your great epic combat, we’re going to have to throw that idea out the window. Let me tell you a successful recipe for an addictive, action-packed, third-act denoument downhill slide that’ll knock a reader’s socks off:

STEP 1: Start with an organically-generated plot. If you’re not sure what I mean, you can check out my post on the matter. You’ll need a high degree of character-based predictability. You want your reader to feel like, based upon the character’s previous actions, they know exactly what the character will do next. The reader should feel like the character has a clear line of sight to his or her goal, and that things will probably work out just fine. So to recap- understandable character, predictable actions, predictable outcome.

STEP 2: Turn it on its head by making the situation go from slightly unpleasant to hellish. Give your characters little time to react. Have the airship armada arrive over the open field where the characters are sleeping. Maybe the power goes out on the anti-zombie protection grid. Maybe the character’s best friend is actually a traitor. Whatever. Just come up with the cruelest thing you can do and DO IT.

STEP 3: And this one is the kicker- Repeat steps 1 and 2. Let your characters get adjusted to their crappy new reality, then ram something even worse down their throats. Show them the meaning of suffering. Teach them fear that your audience could never have even imagined. Do these things, and your audience won’t be able to put the book down. Once you’re out of the second act, your characters should never be safe, never be comfortable.

So there you have it. If I could have a rule for love, it would be, “Always leave them wanting more,” but if I could have a rule for conflict, it would be, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!”

How about you? Have you seen this formula successfully employed?

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Rob

    I’d say Lost does a fine job keeping its characters uncomfortable. J. J. Abrams and company have taken their story places I never thought it would go and that’s probably why it’s still relevant five seasons later. Of course, having such a large cast to work with probably gives them a lot of flexibility, since they can pull up the right mix of characters to make a scene do what it’s supposed to do. And there’s enough fodder in the cast that you can have a few deaths each season and still have a coherent story.

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