I don’t watch much television, but I’ve watched a couple of shows over the past few days (they will remain nameless to protect the guilty) whose incredibly lazy writing drove me nuts. All of its characters did stupid things to force them into conflicts. These weren’t stupid things that people might actually, on occasion do; these were idiot decisions like the vampire hunter in a B-rate horror movie who decides to hunt down Dracula alone as the sun is setting. It’s lazy writing, and I have a quickly-diminishing tolerance for it.
Conflict is critical to the modern, western story (it’s not always as central in some non-western fiction). Let me correct that: realistic conflict is central to the modern, western story. Conflict should come organically from the characters—it doesn’t matter if the character is a superhero or an everyday Joe—and it should not be something forced down onto them by a lazy writer who simply needs something to happen. If the conflict doesn’t result from the realistic actions, beliefs, or foibles of the character, then that conflict likely will not resonate with the reader, who will see right through its contrived nature. At best, such contrived conflict will elicit groans or annoyed shouts, but may well cause the reader to put down the story (or turn off the television, which may not be a bad thing).
A lot of times, realistic conflict isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I don’t know my characters well enough when I start a story to realize the conflict I want won’t work. I’ve had stories, such as “The Schrödinger War,” sit around for over a year because I couldn’t match the right conflict with the correct character. It used to take me a while to see this problem in a story. Now it’s one of the first things I look for when a story isn’t working. Then it’s of matter of changing the conflict to fit the character, or changing the character to fit the conflict. Simple, right? Maybe not, but it has to be easier than hunting vampires at dusk.
My biggest complaint as a reader is how many stories i come across that could end at any point without consequence. There is no shortage of modern novels featuring a character who went to prison for a crime she did not commit and is out to find the real killer, the conflict deriving entirely from the heroine putting herself in stupidly dangerous situations (like hunting a vampire at dusk instead of at 8 a.m.). She already went to prison and was released so, aside from appealing to our outrage over injustice, there’s really no reason for her to keep going. Similarly, the private detective who is convinced of a conspiracy no one else sees and, thus, puts himself in stupidly dangerous situations.
I’ve stopped reading many a novel 1/3 of the way in when I realize nothing is at stake. If the hero doesn’t stick his nose into trouble, it won’t matter. He can just say, “Eh, forget it. I’m watching the football game instead,” and nothing will change.
Glad its not just me that’s not figured out the right conflict for the right character. Most of my short stories start with a plot or a twist or a key event, then a character pops in. Then I often struggle to find a ‘situation’ to do either justice. I wrote my latest story at first from the perspective of the main character verbally sparring in a coffee shop with her ‘superior’. Then it turned into a torture scene. Then a tense sniping scene. Finally I relegated the main character to almost secondary status and built a love story around her where the main character was seeking her forgiveness for a wrong he’d committed. Went through a lot of different conflicts before I settled on the one that worked for me.
This is an interesting example. I’ve never had my story change this much. Usually it’s a “realignment” of weight in the story—many of the elements I have stay, the attention or number of words they get might change to reinforce the conflict. But I’m also a heavy planner, and don’t usually start writing something until I have most, if not all, the pieces. We all write differently…so true.
Do you plot your short stories heavily as well? I’m plotting out my novel word by word at the moment (using the snowflake method), but I’m using my short stories as a kind of release. A way of keeping that little voice at bay that’s sat on my shoulder whispering, ‘surely a good writer should just write!’ Might be why I’m getting frustrated when I do to see to be able to do the stories I think of justice. Any tips on plotting a shorter story?