Every good story has conflict. The trick is how you utilize it. Conflict can help your character grow, can give her something to overcome, can peak the reader’s interest in the plot. If your character always gets everything she wants without having to fight for it, that can make for a really short, or a really boring story.

Conflict adds intrigue, creating tension in the narrative. It comes in many shapes and forms, both internal and external.
(wo)man vs. (wo)man – Harry vs. Voldemort; Ulysses vs. Medusa; Hector vs. Achilles… in each of these instances the villain is (eventually) corporeal, someone that must be defeated to ensure the hero’s survival. The odds are stacked against the hero and he will have to use all his wits to gain the skills necessary to overcome his foe.

(wo)man vs. nature – Katniss vs. the Hunger Games arena… technically this is woman vs. a machine taking the form of nature, but you get the point. Fire and rain, lack of water and food, tracker-jackers, mockingjays, and muttations, all these “natural” forces test Katniss’s skills and ability to survive, and teach her about herself (and the reader about her).

(wo)man vs. self – Ista vs. herself (Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold… love her, btw)… In this lovely novel Ista has to learn to move past the trauma she has experienced and allow herself to be open to using her gifts for the good of other characters in the story. The external conflicts here are secondary to the internal conflict, and her character grows and changes in beautiful ways by “The End.”

Knowing your character’s back story can help you discern when conflict will come up (ex: Hermione’s muggle-born status fuels her desire to excel; Sirius and Snape’s past animosity causes clashes when they are forced to work on the same side; Snape’s love for Lily Potter motivates him to agree to protect her son, but his hatred for James Potter makes him antagonize Harry at every opportunity). The best conflict has a reason, even if it never has a resolution. Snape never forgave Harry for being James’ son and it’s hard to tell if Harry ever forgave Snape for killing Dumbledore… but the poignancy of the emotions that the conflict between those two characters creates is one of the most memorable aspects of that series.

So what conflicts arise in the lives of your characters (major OR minor)?

(Cross posted from Fairbetty’s World)

Back story is a tricky topic. You can’t live with it and your MC can’t live without it! The term “Back story” encompasses all those things that may have happened to your main character (or to the townspeople he’s trying to help) before we meet him in the first pages of your book.

Take the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone**. J.K. Rowling sets the stage and the characters for her epic YA series in the first chapter and reveals a surprising amount of back story to her readers succinctly and with masterful characterization and style. By the end of chapter one we know all we need to know about the Dursley family and have tantalizing bits about Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid to carry us further into the story… as well as some crucial details about Harry Potter himself. Chapter two begins ten years later! We don’t get any detail about what those ten years entailed, and we don’t really need them because the characterization of Harry and the Dursleys in the subsequent scenes tells us everything, and I mean everything, we need to know just what happened during those ten years. But you can bet that J.K. Rowling knows what every minute of every day of Harry’s childhood was like.

Each piece of back story that you know for your character can help create a more richly rounded picture of him (i.e., how and why he reacts to given situations, why he knows or thinks what he does about certain topics). You may think that it’s just as important for your reader to know all this back story as it is for you. Honestly, though, it’s not important… at least not yet.

SOME of this back story information is pertinent to the novel. MOST of it is not. Certain bits of back story, when they are revealed, dramatically enhance the action and push forward your plot. Knowing which bits are which can be difficult. Having someone read your manuscript with a critical eye and point out bits that don’t pertain directly to the plot can help a lot!

Don’t throw out or summarily delete all those delectable details, though! Someday you will have fans who will devour those bits. Save them for the special edition you release to your adoring fans after you’ve hit the bestseller list! Which bestseller list am I talking about? That is up to you.

**Editorial confession… I love Harry Potter deeply and dearly. I will likely use examples from that series a considerable amount during this series. If you love Harry Potter, too, I think we’re meant to be BFFs for life. If you DON’T like Harry Potter… I’m sorry but it’s just not going to work out between us…

(cross-posted from Fairbetty’s World)

A stands for Action

Action is the main vehicle for getting your characters from “Once Upon a Time,” to “The End.” Without action, your MC would never learn that he is a wizard, find that golden ticket, stand up against the oppressive regime that forces children to fight children to the death, or fall in love with his best friend. Your MC wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed in the morning!

One of the main pitfalls of the beginning writer is the tendency to want to describe everything, to tell the reader about the details of setting and characters, even down to the brand of jeans or what cars are driving by on the street. We spend hours crafting the perfect sentence that will describe exactly what everything in our head (or in front of our eyes) looks like. While nothing is more important that setting the scene, when it comes to details (or the overuse of them), less is more! They call this concept “Show, don’t Tell.” If the detail is important, somehow it will fit into the action.

This is not to say that a manuscript should be all action, but action moves the plot forward while description puts the plot in neutral… it’s not moving backward, but it’s not really going anywhere. Finding the balance that fits your plot is the key. If we’re having a thrilling car chase or a heated argument, the rest of the details will naturally fall in the background (into that less is more category). If the MC is pondering the meaning of life while sitting on the edge of Santa Monica Pier, it’s possible that the details will be more relevant to what you’re trying to convey.

While some readers are philosophers, and some texts need accurate description to be understood, most readers are just looking for the action and they’ll skim right over that detailed description of what the ceremonial knife set looked like. Even if they read it word for word, there’s no guarantee that what they see is what you see. There are some things that have to be let go.

I know it’s hard, but take a look at your WIP (work in progress). Locate those chunks of descriptive prose. Yes, you were poetic, an artist unparalleled. Now decide if that description really adds to the theme/symbolism/plot/character in a way that the reader will connect with. Can’t decide? Ask an honest friend or a crit partner. If the answer is no, consider cutting it out of the action and squirrel it away for the supplemental materials they’ll want to print after your book has made you famous.