I’ve been getting some great reviews of Advanced Plotting. Carmen Oliver, who hosted me on her blog, said, “This really is helping me a lot. It's written beautifully and to-the-point. The essays really help you zero in on your own problems in your manuscript. The Plot Outline Exercise is a great tool! And I love the questions you ask about each fictional story element.”
And Don posted this review on Amazon: “This book will help any intermediate or advanced writer who already has a short story, novel etc. in progress, so that they can immediately apply the author's principles of plotting to their story. If you're like me, this book will end up highlighted in your favorite colors, dog-eared and full of 3M post-it notes.”
I’m so pleased, I’m sharing another excerpt, from the essay Characters in Conflict.
Characters in Conflict
by Chris Eboch
A strong story needs conflict. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character — what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily.
Let’s start with a premise for a short story for children: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Not really. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.
- Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.
- Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).
For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.
Our football lover could have lots of challenges — he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus, he’d rather play football anyway.
We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!
Fears and Desires
As this exercise shows, conflict doesn’t just come from the plot. It comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.
The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a young temple dancer whose one goal is to win an upcoming contest. When her friend disappears, she has to decide if winning the contest is really more important than helping a friend.
Rattled (written as Kris Bock), Erin likes her adventures safely in books. But when she finds a clue to a century-old lost treasure, she’s thrust into a wilderness expedition full of dangers from wild animals, nasty humans, and nature itself. If you have a character who craves safety, put her in danger. But if she craves danger, keep her out of it.
The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest who is trying to take over the city, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)
JesseOwens: Young Record Breaker (written as M. M. Eboch), I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome — not just racism, but also childhood health problems, poverty, and a poor education. I showed his successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.
Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.