Friday, June 24, 2016

Where's the Engine?

A popular post from June 2011

by Annette Lyon

It's an interesting conundrum: great writing in a delightful manuscript, laugh out loud scenes, great showing, awesome characters . . .

but no conflict.

Clean writing on a small scale can get you only so far. I learned this the hard way when a professor read a short story of mine and proclaimed the writing to be excellent but the story to need a lot of work.

To a great extent, the things that needed fixing were big picture issues, like motivation and, yes, conflict.

Conflict is the engine that drives a story. Without conflict, all we have is a series of events. As delightful as those events may be, eventually the reader will get bored and set the book aside if the characters are driving blissfully along without speed bumps and road blocks.

This goes back, on some level, to the two sides of the writer.

First is the storyteller. This is the more common side to have it seems. Someone has a great story but doesn't know how to get it out. As an editor, that's relatively easy to fix and teach.

The second side is the wordsmith, and in some ways, it's the harder side to be on if you lack the other: you can create great writing, but you can't tell a story effectively. In other words, the writing itself is great, but the structure is weak. Wordsmithing is harder to teach (and impossible to edit).

Is your story lacking an engine? Here are a few clues that your story may be struggling with structure and conflict:
  • Most of the time, stuff happens to your character that they react to, instead of your character being proactive.
  • The story is pleasant, but there's no urgent problem, at least in a significant stretch of pages.
  • The stakes aren't high enough. The reader isn't worried for the characters right now.
  • The conflict, such as it is, could be resolved with a 2-minute conversation.
  • The original conflict is resolved, but we're still here, and any new conflicts we run into are short-lived and/or easily overcome.
Even if you're a "panster" (a writer who goes in blind, without pre-planning), your story needs structure. That could mean going back to add lots of conflict, structure, and plot points in future revisions.

Open your document to any page. Read that page and the one or two that come after. Then ask: Do we care? Is the heat hot enough for my character? Are the stakes high enough (does my character have enough to lose)? Why should your reader keep turning pages?

If you can't answer those questions, beef up that conflict. Study story structure. Revise.

It's work, but it'll be worth it in the end, because you'll be giving a reader a great experience they'll not soon forget . . . rather than a simple, pleasant tale they can set aside and forget to pick back up.


Jordan McCollum said...

Another thing I like to do is (to get all Scene & Structure on you) is to identify the character's goal in a scene (and usually state that near the beginning of the scene), and figure out how the scene will keep them from attaining that goal. What would be the worst possible outcome for someone with that goal?

Another thing I like to do, similar to upping the stakes, is to go through the book a scene at a time and ask myself "Where is the tension/conflict in this scene? How can I make it bigger?"

I have to say I've loved my results from those two exercises!

Annette Lyon said...

LOVE Scene & Structure! I've referred to it many times here. It blew my mind when I first read it. It's gold.

S.B.Niccum said...

I plot through all the different outcomes and hardships while I mop my floors! I run the scene through, and if it's lame, I change it, and my house is clean to boot!
S.B. Niccum
Author Website