Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Any narrative you write always has two stories it’s telling: the story of your protagonist(s), and the story of your antagonist as well.

A good antagonist thinks they are the hero of your story. Their motivations should make sense to them (and eventually the reader) and their actions, in their minds at least, should be the right thing to do. This still gives you depth to make them as evil or depraved as you need, but they should never do anything just because it’s evil or because it furthers your plot.

A well developed antagonist like this gives you as author tremendous opportunity to amp up tension – by throwing your antagonist some difficulty. Remember, most events in your plot are going to go the antagonist’s way. But that doesn’t mean they can’t suffer some setbacks of their own.

You can use these conflicts (a rebellious employee, or a past jilted lover) to give opportunity to your protagonists. Or you can also use them to build some sympathy for your antagonist, which adds depth to your narrative. Think Cersei from Game of Thrones. In every way she’s an antagonist, but when she’s captured and ridiculed, we feel for her. Not enough to forgive her of her past actions, and perhaps mostly satisfaction that she got what was coming to her, but at some level we have sympathy. Now our feelings toward her are more complex.

Every story has a flipside. Don’t forget that side when you’re looking to amp up your story’s conflict.

Amp Up Your Conflict Two: Make Everything Worse

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Amp Up Your Conflict Two:Make Everything Worse

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 In every scene you write, always think about how you can make the situation worse. Making your moments of crisis as dire and emotionally charged as possible will keep the tension ratcheted up and your narrative moving.

It’s important that nothing ever goes your protagonists’ way. They should succeed through their choices and actions, not luck. Readers will spot luck and deus ex machina the moment it appears, and they won’t buy it. However, those same readers won’t question if something bad happens. That gives you as the writer the freedom to make the situation as awful as possible.

Start with your base conflict. Your protagonist wants to flip gender stereotypes and propose to her boyfriend. She plans a dinner at his favorite restaurant and secures the best seat in the place. But the restaurant loses her reservation. They have to wait for an hour to get a seat, which is in the back of the restaurant near the kitchen. Their waiter never remembers to check in on them, and a leak starts dripping onto the center of the table.

You have the scene set up with plenty of conflict. The night is a disaster, and not the right mood at all to propose. But now think of just one additional crisis to make the scene even worse:

Just as the leak stops and dinner is finally served, giving your protagonist hope she can salvage the night, her boyfriend’s ex walks into the restaurant with her date. Maybe they get the table your protagonist originally wanted. And it upsets her boyfriend so much she can tell he still harbors feelings for her.

Not only did you tease the readers with a satisfactory resolution and then rip it away, you also opened up new plot possibilities. Does the ex share in the lingering feelings? Does your protagonist know and like or dislike her? Is her new date the jealous type? With one additional crisis, you’ve introduced a Pandora’s box of potential conflict. You can follow all, some or none of these new possibilities, but regardless of your decision, you’ve just heightened the tension in your story.

Whenever you write a scene, always think about how it can get worse for your protagonists. Never let anything come easy for them. You’ll keep your reader turning pages, and when your protagonists do succeed, their victory will be all the sweeter.

 

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: It Feels New

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During my time as a developmental editor, I longed to fall in love with a manuscript. I wanted to read stories that spoke to me, that haunted me when I went to bed and I woke thinking about. Almost every submission had something I could fall for. But far too often I rejected the submissions I read and critiqued.

The attributes that spark a love affair with a manuscript are not the reasons you might think. Sure, I recoil at the twelfth adverb in a paragraph, pervasive passive voice, misspellings and its/it’s mistakes. I grumble at stories that start in the wrong place or have superfluous exposition. But these are lover’s spats. An editor cleans up language, recommends moving scenes and cutting unneeded characters or chapters. I can love a manuscript despite these faults. But the reasons I fall for them are much more fundamental.

No matter your genre, editors want to love your manuscript. Make sure your submission delivers on the following things, and I guarantee they’ll love yours.

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 1: Your Story Feels New

I guarantee your story has been written before.

Think of your favorite book. Game of Thrones? Try Lord of the Rings, George MacDonald or Arabian Nights. Twilight? Anne Rice, Romeo and Juliet, Dracula and Camilla. Eragon? Star Wars, which was in turn influenced by every hero’s journey myth ever. Every plot and story has been told before, and by a master. The manuscripts I love feel refreshing and new, despite having been told before.

How do you accomplish this? First, by reading. A lot. Not only will this inspire you and teach you the craft, it will expose you to tales already written so you can avoid being the carbon copy.

Second, bring something new to the story, like a new setting or theme. Weave two existing stories together in unexpected ways. George R. R. Martin made his fantasy world unique by getting rid of fantasy races, making magic rare and adding realism and nuance to a world more gray than black and white.

Never rest on one or two unique elements. Add as much as you can at every turn and breathe freshness into your tale.

Refine Your Prose: Building your story scene by scene

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Welcome to my second writing advice blog. I thought I’d open with an inspirational message from the Avengers:

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Unless you’re currently the Hulk. In which case your Great American Novel would be written with somebody’s bloody leg stump on a chunk of concrete and would just say “Smash.”

2. Think in scenes

What’s a story? If you say a story is character, situation and plot, this is true. A story needs those three basic elements, but it is much more complex than that. That’s like saying a cake is butter, eggs and flour. Those materials go together in a certain way to create an effective cake, whose ultimate purpose is to be delicious. Character, situation and plot have to go together well to create a story, and a story gives your protagonists conflict that ultimately changes them. The act of change makes the story a story.

(We will leave discussions on whether people can truly change for a later blog. Debates on this have made me curse Twitter’s character limit well into the night.)

You need building blocks to create conflict and change in your story, and scenes are those blocks. At its most basic level, a scene is a unit of drama that happens in one location. But like a story, a scene is much more than this definition. Every good scene does at least one of two things.

A scene puts a character in a different emotional place than he was at the start. Say your protagonist, a devoted husband and father, sees an ex-girlfriend at his local coffee shop. He realizes he still has feelings for her. With one chance encounter, his current life doesn’t fulfill him like it used to. He hasn’t done anything, but the scene puts him in a different state emotionally.

A scene also gives characters a choice that they can’t undo. Later in the story, the protagonist sleeps with his ex. Now he has acted on his emotions, and he can’t ignore it or take it back. He must deal with the consequences of his decision whatever they may be.

If each scene in your story accomplishes one – or better, both – of the above goals, then each scene strengthens the impact of your narrative with added conflict and character depth. Building your story through scene after scene, driving your characters forward through the situations they’re in, will make sure your readers are still with your story when it reaches its destination.

Refine Your Prose: All writers are sadists

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Having worked as a freelance and content editor as well as an author, I have both made and seen many common storytelling missteps. I’ll post a blog each week about these issues and ways we authors can avoid them. The first piece of advice:

1. Be a sadist

Your characters are not your friends.

This is a difficult truth to accept. You care for your characters. You put hours into crafting their backstories and creating the world in which they live. You live, eat and breathe with them. When you put your tablet or computer away for the night, you feel like you’re neglecting your characters until you open your story to write again.

And your job is to make sure those characters hate your guts.

Think about some of the great characters in literary history and what they faced in their lives. Sherlock Holmes. Anna Karenina. Hamlet. Edmond Dantes. Jay Gatsby. All of them end their literary stories with wildly different levels of success, but the one thing they have in common is that their journeys are full of plenty of suck. If nothing bad ever happened to them, we wouldn’t care about them. I’m sure Holmes would have preferred he not be a drug addicted asshole, or Anna a social exile driven to suicide. But without the misery and tragedy in their lives, we wouldn’t care about them like we do.

You write to deliver your readers a great story, and that comes from tearing down the compelling characters you’ve created. Readers thrive on conflict, on their emotional ties to your characters. That requires a lot of collateral damage.  You need to make life suck for your characters at every turn. Otherwise, you’re letting your readers down.

Remember this golden rule: Whenever possible, make things worse for your characters. Much worse. Whether or not you build them back up again at the climax is up to you.

Ideas: Give a guy a break here

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Ideas beget ideas.

That’s probably the best reason to write all the time. When your mind is engaged and in writing mode, it doesn’t stop with what you’re working on. But this idea churn can be annoying, especially for writers like me.

I’m working on my novel, which is slow-going anyway being a stay-at-home dad with three kids. But when my muse (a mix of caffeine and insomnia) speaks up, she doesn’t contend herself with one topic. In fact, sometime the bitch needs Ritalin. During my time writing my novel, I have also written short pieces about demonic pirates, time dilation, colonization and jealousy via time travel.

A more disciplined writer would stick to her novel and file the new ideas under future projects. Unfortunately, I do not. Whether I’m right or not (usually not), I am convinced the new idea is amazing and world-changing and I must work on it immediately.

Take my latest story idea, which has nothing to do with the demonic urban fantasy I’m currently writing. I read the books Guns, Germs and Steel and 1491, which point out (in terms much more detailed than my description here) that a more worldly or advanced society tends to kill off one less so upon first encounter due to disease. Because of this, I’ve always held that War of the Worlds had it backward. I also believe that if time travel does exist, it can’t change history because history is already written and incorporates the results of the trip. (Sorry, that does mean every attempt on Hitler’s life has failed.) I combined these two ideas and realized that future time travelers could have sparked every extinction and pandemic in world history.

That idea at this point isn’t close to being a story. For starters, it lacks characters, situation or plot, which any idea needs before it can become a story. But I thought the idea was great. So great that, well, now I’m outlining it to get all the things that make an idea into a story. And temporarily derailing my work on my novel once again.

In the end, however, I think this subconscious idea factory is a good thing. It allows me to get a breath of fresh air from a longer work, which at least in my case is a good thing. I can experiment with different characters and different voices. Also, it keeps your creative muscles engaged. Either you’re working on multiple projects or you have a writing hopper to dig into when you finish your current project.

I wish I were a writer that could consign new ideas to the future. Meanwhile, muse, stay off the pharmaceuticals. Brew up another cup of joe. I’d rather have too many ideas, even crappy ones, than too few.