Mar 8, 2010

Get a Little Conflict in Your Scene

Editing research has had a central theme of conflict this week.
How To Create Conflict - Step # 12: bathe a cat

The course How to Revise Your Novel had me identify (on my little index cards) the conflict from each scene (not just the chapter but every single scene). A couple of cards had 'no conflict' scrawled on them, and I wondered what would become of that scene, but I think we all know *imagines the axe falling*.

When I write I need to keep the flow. I excuse myself from checking that each scene 'works' and I just keep going. That's the only way I can finish. Holly Lisle explains this is because the writing we do for ourselves, but the editing? That's for the reader. Editing is the stage where we let go of our hold on the writing, we detach ourselves from becoming sentimental about phrases and characters and we tie it all together in a functional format. Come on, no tears, you're an editor now.

But surely having some scenes without conflict is practical, doesn't that make it more realistic? After all most of us don't have constant conflict in our lives (or maybe I do but I'm too lost in my stories to notice). Well, unless it's going to be one of those postmodern pieces with the whole book as the internal dialogue of a lady shopping for melons that I usually don't 'get', it's not meant to be real life, it's fiction. That means leave out the boring bits.

In Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell suggests asking the following questions about your characters in EVERY scene:
  • Are they understandable, human?
  • Are they on the way to being pressed to the limit?
  • How can you show, subtly or overtly, the pressure?
  • What will be the consequences of the explosion?
So if I really don't want to slash those non-conflict scenes, I'd better find a way to make them more interesting. 

For example: I have a scene in Dog Show Detective where my young protagonist, Kitty Walker, is grooming her dog for the upcoming show. There was conflict in the last scene with the identity of the missing dog and the next scene will propel towards more action, but this scene is definitely non-conflict. Here's what I'm thinking, I could have Kitty expect her mother to groom the dog (it's a tricky task), but her mother is too busy writing her book about grooming dogs (obvious irony?), so Kitty decides to do it herself. The end result is a dog with bald patches only a few days before the big show.

It doesn't matter that I'm writing a kids' mystery novel and not an adult thriller, if there's no conflict the reader will just lose interest. The stories my 12yr old are reading now are The Sea Monsters by Rick Riordan and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, both she tells me are filled with conflict and action.

So what do you do when there is a necessary step in the narrative that does not involve action or conflict? Bell tells us this is one of those rare times in your story where you should tell and not show

For example: You may have a teen novel with twin sisters fighting over a dress to wear out to a school dance, where they know the boy they both like will be. SHOW the fight and the jealousy, but when it comes to getting dressed, putting on shoes, make-up, checking you have cab-fare, brushing your teeth, etc, just summarise: Forty-five minutes later Jessica walked out the front door, purse in hand and the victory dress hanging off her like a seductive trophy. She'd won. Or at least she thought she had until she got out front and realised her sister had driven off without her. (Never make it easy on your characters!).

Making sure you have some conflict in each scene does not mean every scene has to be a new world war, it can be internal conflict, or just an obstacle that makes the character's intended action more difficult.

In a recent interview, Alan Baxter (writer of supernatural thrillers) said writers can make fight scenes more realistic by having some good old running-away, that this is a more natural reaction. So your conflict could be your character trying to avoid conflict.
No conflict to see here folks... unless you disturb my nap

My conflict this week was struggling with my ill-conceived resolution not to buy any more books until I've read at least half of the ones I have piled around the house. But...

My inbox included a $10 voucher from Fishpond this week, and I was tempted by discounts and free delivery offers. I'm now awaiting:
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman
Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle
Dialogue: Techniques for Crafting Effective Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
I've also started listening to Jack Wakes Up - a free podcast novel on iTunes
and got me the Kindle version of Saving Rachel by John Locke.

Then there was the pleasant surprise of another award! Yay, hooray! from Shannon at Book Dreaming (I'll post it later in the week, so this post doesn't get too long for you all). Plus, I have the exciting news of a shiny new counter installed on my blog! I love seeing which countries the visitors are coming from! (okay it's only been up a couple of days so it doesn't have a whole lot of visitors yet).

My next post will be about language, similes, metaphors and the like (which would be a simile?), and as I watch my follower numbers starting to grow, I might plan a fun competition for when it reaches 100 (right, I'll need sticky-tape, scissors, a tutu and whole lotta paper).


  1. Interesting post. I like the new counter, that's neat. And the photo of the sleeping baby, how cute.

  2. I love these four questions to ask: * Are they understandable, human?
    * Are they on the way to being pressed to the limit?
    * How can you show, subtly or overtly, the pressure?
    * What will be the consequences of the explosion?
    I will go through scene by scene in my next edit and ask those questions. Thanks for the post.


  3. What a fun blog! I left a comment on your other one, and clicked to look at this one!

    Visit My Kingdom Anytime

  4. Good post.
    I'm a reader, not a writer. But still I learnt something interesting here >:)

  5. Thanks guys, I've been fortunate to have editing books that are helpful and practical. If you have Kindle or Kindle for PC I recommend using the sample option, I've downloaded a few first chapters of editing and writing books that I don't think would be worth paying for.

    PS I must revisit my other blog soon! It's on education and teaching and I can't start with a class now until I get some paperwork back from the relevant department (any week now), so I've kind of neglected that blog (now I feel sad for my other blog).

  6. Ooh, I love me some similes and metaphors. :)

    And thanks for the heads up about Bell's book (Revision and Self-Editing); it sounds like one I need to check out!

  7. Oo, Noah Lukeman's The Plot Thickens is really good! My friend and I were glued to that in our first year of uni :D You'll like it, I think. I should get myself a copy, actually... :)

  8. I do like Bell's book so far, nice and clear and yes Inky am waiting waiting waiting for the Noah Lukeman's book, I also like the look of his other books, but I'll see how this one goes - between us, we could probably build a grand writer's library with all the texts we have ;-).