Saturday, May 10, 2008

This Thing Called Conflict

It's the weekend, and I'm off writing. Here's a post from June 25, 2006:

Among the blogs this site links to is Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants here.

Kristin is a literary agent working out of Denver, Colorado. She has a straightforward style that I appreciate enormously.

Kristin's posting on Friday here was entitled "Conflict Is Not a Lifetime Movie."

After I picked myself off the floor and stopped laughing, I read the rest of her blog. The essence of her post can be summarized in the following quote:

"I have a lot of recent queries lately...where the writer has confused conflict with dramatic plot elements. I just want to clarify here that these two things are not the same. Conflict is what motivates and drives your character (and can be internal and well as external). Dramatic plot elements are simply events that occur in the story."

I absolutely agree with Kristin that conflict is not the same as dramatic plot elements. But I want to discuss the issue in greater detail.

My introduction to "conflict" as an element of writing came via Debra Dixon and her book Goal, Motivation and Conflict. On October 14, 2005, I posted a blog entitled "My Reference Shelf." I explained at that time that Dixon's book is one of my essential reference books.

Dixon maintains that you must know the goal, motivation and conflict (GMC) for every character you write. GMC covers those questions that are the building blocks of any story: "Who? What? Why? And Why Not?"

"Who" is your character. "What" is your character's goal. "Why" is the character's motivation. "Why not" are the conflicts the character faces.

As Kristin says, conflict does include both internal and external issues. So do goal and motivation.

To explain internal and external issues, Dixon uses the example of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy's external goal is to return home to Kansas. Her internal goal is to find her heart's desire. Her external motivation (why she wants to go home) is that Auntie Em is sick. Her internal motivation is that she is desperately unhappy. Her external conflict (preventing her return to Kansas) is the witch. Her internal conflict (preventing her from finding her heart's desire) is that she doesn't know what she wants. By the end of the story, she has accomplished both goals--returned home and realized what she really wants in life.

Obviously all of these elements have sub-elements. Before Dorothy can get home, she must first get to Emerald City and see the Wizard. Then she has to obtain the ruby slippers. Finally she must confront the witch.

I found Dixon's formula so useful that I initially began each manuscript by drawing up a chart with boxes for internal and external goals, motivations and conflicts for all my main characers. I no longer have to draw the chart; I can now work out the GMC in my head.

Invariably, when I am having a problem with a story, it's because either I have not established a valid GMC for the character, or my manuscript does not reflect the GMC I established.

When you look at your manuscript this way, you can easily see that the dramatic plot elements Kristin talks about are simply events occurring in the story that either work toward the character's goals or against the character's goals. You can also see that the dramatic elements do not have to be enormous in order to create tension. They simply have to provide conflict, preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goals.

One last note: I tried to purchase a used copy of Dixon's book for several months online. I had three different used book services alert me whenever a copy came available. Unfortunately someone always beat me to the book. I finally broke down and bought a new copy through Gryphon Books for Writers here.

Happy writing!

In re-reading this post, I wanted to add one more thing. In far too many romances and romantic suspense novels today, silly bickering between the hero and heroine substitutes for true conflict.

I was reminded of this issue as I drove home from the university this afternoon. During the drive, I spoke with my critique partner, Linda, who lives in South Carolina. Linda had just finished reading a romantic suspense novel, and she said, "I just wanted to say to the two protagonists 'Oh, grow up'."

It's short-sighted (and a little lazy) to substitute silly arguments, intended to do no more than keep the hero and heroine apart for three hundred pages, for "real" conflict.

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