Conflict, or Tales of the Unexpected
Yesterday, my day went something like this: I got up, showered, had breakfast. Went to the gym. Had lunch with my husband. Got my word count for the day done without too much fuss. Called my friend for a chat. Cooked a lovely dinner, ate it. Watched DVDs, went to bed.
Nice, huh? I achieved everything I wanted. Nothing went wrong. Everything happened exactly as I’d planned.
The kind of day our characters never have. Right?
If everything always went to plan for our characters, they’d be dead boring to read about. Our heroine may begin in a familiar, safe little world-bubble where her expectations are never thwarted. But no matter how engaging or amusing or fun to be with she is, if she stays in that safe world for more than a few chapters, our readers will toss the book across the room and exclaim ‘Nothing’s happening!’
The more like real life, the more boring the book. Real life doesn’t make good fiction, because in real life, things happen as we think they will most of the time.
So how to spice up our heroine’s life? Surprise her. Throw some rocks at her. Make her think, adapt, overcome. Force her to work for what she wants. Yank her out of her comfort zone.
And that doesn’t mean the building has to be struck by an earthquake or the town invaded by aliens. Conflict can happen on the smallest of scales. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee calls it the gap between expectation and reality. A character does or says something, expecting a certain reaction from other characters or their environment or society — and gets a completely different, unexpected reaction.
Say yesterday I go for lunch as planned, but my husband doesn’t turn up. I call him. It rings out. Huh? Where is he? Just delayed? Had a car accident? Murdered? Abducted by aliens? Having an affair? What should I do now: Wait for him? Eat alone? Go home? Call all the hospitals? Hire a PI to spy on him?
From such a small unexpected thing, so many possibilities arise. What if I’d called my friend, expecting to have a nice friendly chat about what we did on the weekend — but instead, my friend screamed, ‘I never want to speak to you again!’ and slammed the phone down? Or, what if a sinister stranger picked up and growled, ‘Your friend can’t come to the phone right now…’?
All these little unexpected events have one special thing in common: they force the character to act. To think outside the box, to ask ‘what should I do now?’. To find untapped resources. To work harder, and in new ways, to get what she wants. It’s the character’s reaction, not the event itself, that’s important. And the wider the gap between her expectations and the reality, the deeper she’ll have to dig inside herself to achieve her goals.
And this is what we really mean by conflict, right? It doesn’t have to be fighting or arguing or killing bad guys. It’s never letting your heroine have one of those nice, dull days where everything goes to plan. It’s surprising her with the unexpected, and watching her shine.
So tell me about your WIP — how is your heroine (or hero) forced to face the unexpected? And how do they cope??
Erica Hayes’s debut novel, Shadowfae, will be released by St. Martin’s Press on October 13th. Read to this, and tell me you’re not intrigued.
Steal souls. Live in hell. Never die.
In a city infested with psychotic fairies and run by sadistic vampire mafiosi, life as a soul-sucking succubus rarely involves lacy lingerie, hot guys or great sex.
Enslaved by a demon lord, Jade must spend her nights seducing vampire gangsters and shapeshifting thugs. After two hundred years as a succubus, she burns for freedom and longs to escape her brutal life as a trophy girl for hell’s minions.
Then, she meets Rajah, an incubus who touches her heart and intoxicates her senses. Rajah shares the same bleak fate as she, and yearns just as desperately for freedom. But the only way for Jade to break her bonds is to betray Rajah—and doom the only man she’s ever loved to a lifetime in hell.