Dont Duck Trouble

In fiction, the best times for the writer- and reader- are when the story's main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up - along with your reader's interest.

The moral: Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do just the opposite as writers of fiction. We must seek out ways to add trouble to our characters' lives, putting just as much pressure on them as we can. For it's from plot trouble that reader interest comes.

There are many kinds of fiction trouble, but the most effective kind is conflict.

You know what conflict is. It's active give-and-take, a struggle between story people with opposing goals.

It is not, please note, bad luck or adversity. It isn't fate. It's a fight of some kind between people with opposing goals.

Fate, bad luck or whatever you choose to call it may play a part in your fiction too. Adversity- that snowstorm that keeps your character from having an easy drive to the mountain cabin, for example, or the suspicious nature of the townspeople that complicates your detective's investigation-is nice, too. But these problems are blind; they ate forces of some kind that operate willy-nilly, without much reason - and so are things that your character can't confront and grapple with.

In other words, it's all well and good to have your character leave his house in the morning and slip and fall on a banana peel, thus making him feel bad all day. But such an event comes out of nowhere for no good reason; like real-life events, it makes no sense. It is caused by nothing much and leads to nothing special.

Adversity in all its forms may create some sympathy for your character. But your character can't reasonably try to understand it, plot against it, or even confront it in a dramatic way.

Conflict, on the other hand, is a fight with another person. It's dramatic, onstage now, with the kind of seesaw give-and-take that makes most sporting events - many courtroom trials - exciting stuff. When in conflict, your character knows who the opponent is and has a chance to struggle against him. In conflict, your character has a chance to change the course of events. In taking the challenge and entering the fray, your character proves himself to be worthy as a story hero: he's trying to take charge of his life... determine the outcome... win.

Thus, if you're a wise writer of fiction, you spend a good deal of your plotting hours devising ways to set up more fights. In real life you might walk around the block to avoid meeting Maryanne, the neighbor who always wants to start an argument with you. In your fiction, you may walk your hero a mile just to get him into position so he can have a fight with the person who most irritates him.

The calmer and more peaceful your real life, the better, in all likelihood. Your story person's life is just the opposite. You the author must never duck trouble -conflict-in the story. You seek it out, because that's where the excitement and involvement - as well as reader sympathy for your character-lie.

Please note that conflict does not necessarily mean an actual physical fight, although sometimes it certainly may be exactly that. Conflict may be any of the following examples:

• Two men argue in a board meeting, each intent on convincing the members of the board that he should be named president of the firm.

• A young woman pleads with her father to accept into the family the man she loves.

• Two cars race along a highway, the driver of one intent on forcing the other off the road.

• A detective persistently questions an uncooperative witness, trying to dig out information that would help solve a murder.

• A man maneuvers in a dark alley, trying to slip away from an armed pursuer whose occasional small sounds give away his position.

• A man and woman discuss whether to buy a new car. He wants if, she doesn't.

• A woman reporter tries to get information for a story from a derelict on skid row, but he keeps slipping away from the subject, into reminis cences.

• Daniel Boone fights a bear.

Of course you will think of many more examples, once you have it clear in your mind that conflict always means a fight, at some level.

How do you make sure you have a fight and not some form of blind bad luck?

You make sure two characters are involved.

You give them opposing goals.

You put them onstage now.

You make sure both are motivated to struggle now.

Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It's the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving. And - please note - "fiction friction" of this kind is another example of how fiction is better than life.

In life, you might walk out of your house in the morning and get struck by lightning. Blind luck, meaningless, against which you are powerless. Life is like that. Dumb! But in fiction the character has the power: he can control his own destiny, or at least thinks he can. He will struggle, if he's worth writing about, and will encounter endless fights. The outcome will depend on him - not on blind luck.

A lot better than life sometimes is, right?

Of course.

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