Conflict

There is nothing more important in fiction than conflict. After reading the Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing Great Fiction: Plot and Structure, conflict is paramount. Whether you write genre fiction or literary, you have to conflict.

If it seems that, by reading this post, a light bulb (a compact fluorescent one) went off – it did. I look back at the first novel I wrote and immediately see where the conflict gaps are. According to the books above, there should be conflict on every page. Sounds hard but it’s not tough when you think about it. The main character of your story needs to endure something (save the world, marriage, self, etc) and that requires conflict. Without conflict, one is left reading about the ho-hum stuff of life. That doesn’t make for good fiction. I should know because a big chunk of my first novel has the main character getting out of bed, eating a sandwich, etc. It eventually leads to something but not always conflict.

Conflict supposedly drives the reader for more. It keeps them engage well past the first few pages and hopefully a hell of a lot more.

I’m done summarizing what I’ve learned from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. The book is worth the investment, and lately I’ve been trying to transfer it to my writing. So far so good. The feel of my second novel already seems different. I’m concentrating on conflict, throwing whatever I can at my main character. At the same time, I’m not trying to exhaust the reader but trying to make it difficult for a them to put down my novel. I should know how this all shakes out in a few months when I have a first draft.

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Plot

This is where I think I got my money’s worth out of Writing the Breakout Novel. When Donald Maass did a deep dive into plot, I felt like I finally started to understand how a novel works; what really moves it forward.

Plot equals organization. That was my first take away and it makes complete sense. Most people enjoy linear storytelling (I do) and this is where plot is most effective. By providing structure to a story it allows the reader to play along at home (so-to-speak). Readers have a map of where they started and where they’re going. Now, the literary fiction crowd might find plot too simplistic but the average reader craves organization. I know, it’s a blanket statement but anyone who’s not sure should look at the books on their shelf to decide if it’s an accurate statement.

Maass goes into the elements of plot which are the sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution. I’m not going to dig into these elements but would like to focus on the sympathetic character element. My last post on characters hit on this. Sympathy goes a long way when it comes to a reader connecting with a character. As I’m developing my next project, sympathy is in the back of mind. How can I create a main character that readers can relate to and feel for? This connection will allow readers to root for the character and invest themselves to a whole book. Without this vital element it’s tough to read on.

One of the other takeaways on plot is that high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflict result in breakout fiction. This is what separates the wannabes from the professionals. Constantly raising the stakes in a story with characters that aren’t vanilla in multi layer conflicts breaks open an engaging story. I finished The 39 Steps by John Buchan recently and this book was written all the back in 1915 and was able to hit those breakout marks. Buchan put his main character thru the ringer and constantly tries to kill him. Each chapter, page the stakes get higher, the conflict intensifies, and the characters are anything but skin deep. What I liked about the 39 Steps is what Maass preaches in his book.

Characters

All stories are character driven. That’s the first thing Donald Maass calls out in this chapter of Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s a no brainer but worth emphasizing.

When I wrote my first novel, I really tried to have my main character be the focal point which was part of the problem. The character wasn’t driving the novel but just had a big spot light on him. My character wasn’t engaging enough; meaning he was too ordinary. Folks are not reading novels for boring characters – they want complex characters that are larger than life. My approach was a try not a do. I missed the mark here; my character was interesting but not breakout interesting.

Another key point on characters Maass makes, goes back to the larger than life concept. These characters do whatever they want  and say whatever they want. We, as people living in reality, can not. Or we can but not get very far in life. Characters are supposed to be conflict driven at all times – if they’re not who’s going to read about them? The conflict the character is involved in is supposed to keep us  engaged and turning the pages.

And to keep the pages turning, Maass recommends that characters be deep and many-sided. Have supporting characters that create contrast in order to achieve balance but also to create more conflict. These factors can create rich, complex characters that should produce a great novel.

One other note on characters; I’m fan of the anti-hero. He’s not a bad or a good guy but does his own thing. While I like these types of characters, they can’t be indifferent all the time. They have to have redeeming qualities in order to gain sympathy from a reader. Maass discusses this in his book and I’m glad he did. It completely makes sense. The anti-hero can be viewed as a selfish jerk sometimes but during a novel or movie has a few moments that allow you to sympathize for him. It’s this way for a reason. If the character was a complete bastard all the time, the novel (or movie) really wouldn’t have to many redeeming qualities hence not that interesting or engaging. Something to keep in mind if you’re like me and attracted to unique character types.

Time and Place

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been summarizing chapters from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. As far as books about writing, this is a must have. It gives good insight on writing and what it takes to “breakout”. 

For time and place, Maass stresses the importance of putting these assets to work in a novel. Both need to bring depth and substance to a scene. It’s not enough to describe a setting in order to put things in perspective for the character, but it’s supposed to give the reader some information on the world they’ve entered. Same goes for time; it’s an opportunity to comment on social and political themes and not be heavy-handed.

A couple of interesting tips I picked about time and place. In order to make place matter, have the main character have a psychological or emotional tie. Does a place bring back good/ bad memories for a character? How does it make them feel when they hear the word of the place? Answer those questions and place suddenly takes on a different meaning. Just line listing attributes to a place is boring. I should know, I did it in my first novel. I was hell-bent on describing the weather, the furniture, the architecture, etc. What did it mean to the character? I have no clue. I do know that the setting was taking up space and not working for my novel.

Maass’ insight on time is also valuable. He encourages writers to convey the sense of the times. Avoid the pitfall of just describing that it’s 1942 and the US is at war. It’s important but what does it add to a story? I would guess if the character worked at ammunition factory to help support the war while her husband served in the Europe: That paints a picture and readers will have sense of the times not just an arbitrary date.

The points I’ve summarized might be obvious for established writers, but to me, it confirms what I’ve thought but never to ventured to write. Tying both time and place to the character moves the story forward with out slowing down the pace of the novel.

Raising the Stakes

Something I didn’t do a very good job in my last novel was raising the stakes. I didn’t layer the stakes or really challenge my protagonist. I was actually pretty nice to him now that I think about it. He only had one public stake one: stop an evil corporation. How is that important? For one it’s not very interesting. If stopping an evil corporation was the only thing my main character had to do, then what is he doing for the other 200 plus pages? Looking back at my novel, a lot of “stuff” happened with little at stake. See my point? His personal stakes were minor, and not enough to matter to a reader.

Public stakes matter to everyone. Can the protag stop the war, stop the bomb from going off, save the town, etc. What the protag does or doesn’t do affects people globally. The flip side of that are the personal stakes. The protag saving his wife from getting eaten by zombies, a lawyer defending someone wrongly accused, a mother trying to keep her family together after a tragedy. Both typres of stakes are important to a novel but need to be used correctly. A bunch of public stakes and you don’t care about the characters all that much. Too many personal stakes and the characters are not relevant to the reader. But the right combination equals a solid page turning novel.

This issue was covered in great detail in Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel. The book has been a valuable source of information, but I also did a Google search for personal and public stakes in writing and came across this blog post from  L. Jagi Lamplighter’s blog on writing.

So to keep the tension up in a novel, raise the stakes. Make the character work hard and challenge them to beyond their limits.