Back to where I left off two weeks ago. This’ll probably be a short journal because I don’t have much to say about it… um… I’m not sure that last part is possible. I always have much to say. This week I’ll talk about keeping the reader emotionally involved in the story using conflict. As you’ll see, most of this requires that the reader have some kind of emotional attachment to your characters. Otherwise, there’s no reason to find out what happens next.
Let’s start with a definition. Literary conflict involves much more than how conflict alone is usually defined. Literary conflict is the prime reason for telling the story (as in there’s a problem and it needs to be solved). It also refers to any interaction by characters with other characters or objects that results in a situation that requires resolution or discovery. Phew. That’s a long one.
I’ll start with that last part because it’s often overlooked and under-emphasized. People have a tendency to just look at the human interaction side of conflict (and I’ll get that later, I promise), but conflict in a story can be something as simple as the reader not knowing something and reading on to discover it.
One the macro scale of writing, the whole book is a voyage of discovery. One of the things I feel like I could have done better in Wolf’s Pawn was to develop the overarching conflict sooner. The war with the elves is always a conflict in the background of all the books, but since it’s not resolved until the end of what is planned to be a very long series, it can’t be used to keep the reader involved in a single book. That book uses the conflict of the forward supply depot and what Sajani is going to do about it.
I’m happier with Faux Scent and the way the conflict is introduced and resolved. You know that Sestus is up to something and you know it has something to do with archeology, but what it is and what it’ll be used for is a mystery until the end. In order to find out what’s happening, the reader has to continue and hopefully, knowing Sestus and his strong will to win the war, the reader is worried enough for the characters that she’ll keep reading to find out what happens to them.
One of the things I dislike about modern mainstream fiction is the bar on this is set pretty low. High fantasy and mystery and suspense novels set the bar much higher. As a general rule, the more that’s at risk to the people the reader cares about, the more likely the reader is to be involved in the story. This doesn’t mean everything has to be Michael Bay or Peter Jackson over the top type stuff. If everything is a constant race to prevent the end of the world, it tugs a lot at suspension of disbelief: how has a world threatened this often managed to survive long enough for civilization to reach this point?
Now for something more on the micro scale. Small conflicts should be scattered throughout the story. These can be something as broad as a subplot or as small as a break before revealing what really happened. In Wolf’s Pawn, Benayle is up to something. He’s meeting with people in secret and arranging something that will supposedly help Sajani. Simon is involved in it, so that implies it’s not exactly public knowledge. Having it be secret was convenient, because it gave me a reason to not tell the reader what exactly was happening.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made frequent use of this technique, as do most mystery authors. I don’t have time to go into too much detail on the ups and downs on this, so I’ll start by suggesting that you read A Study in Scarlet and Agatha Christie’s novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Compare the light-handed technique of Christie with the heavy-handed technique of Doyle.
Avoid keeping secrets from the reader by not showing pertinent material to the reader. In many mystery novels, it’s assumed you’re not going to see the actual crime take place (Columbo is an obvious and fun exception), but the reader wants to be able to see all the clues the detective sees. As always, there’s a proper time and place for exceptions to this but overdoing it can become annoying.
Smaller conflicts are the things that lead the reader to keep going past the chapter breaks or in some cases, onto the next novel in a series. The more dramatic use of this technique is often called a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t have to be as emotionally charged as waiting to find out if the mountain climber managed to hang on or if she falls.
In Fugitive’s Trust, Gregor loses the backpack that contains his share of the food for himself and Sajani, basically making it impossible for them to have enough food to reach East Oasis. The conflict itself was never intended to be something that was drawn out through the story. In a few pages, the problem is solved. But while waiting for that resolution, the reader’s concern for the characters keeps her emotionally involved in the story.
Well, that’s pretty close to my word limit for this week. The publisher is wanting to know if anyone is interested in seeing my journals in book form. It’d have the ideas organized and fleshed out and (hopefully) still have my unique method of presenting things tongue in cheek. I have quite a few more topics I want to cover first, but this has gotten almost as much traction as my stories, so I asked him about it and he thought it might be possible. Let me know in the comments.
Thank you so much to my followers. I keep writing just for you. I’ll finish up the human conflict side of this next week, but feel free to make suggestions or if it’s more helpful, link a story to me. I can’t promise I’ll read the whole thing, it’s a busy week with nonwriter type stuff to make up for the busy weeks before deadline. I will see if it inspires a topic though. Have a great week everyone.
May you keep running and never look back.