I was invited by Mary Pletsch (with whom I have the honour of sharing a table of contents with in Kneeling in the Silver Light and Wrestling With Gods) to write a guest post at The Fictorians, on the subject of writing conflict in fiction.
Here’s a little bit of what I had to say:
Don’t say what you mean: writing conflict through dialogue
There are a lot of ways to express conflict through dialogue in a scene, but it can be very effective – and a lot of fun – if it isn’t done openly.
People (and characters) hate conflict. They usually do everything they can to avoid it, unless they’re devoid of empathy. But readers… they love conflict. It makes for great dialogue, exciting scenes, and a plot that keeps moving.
I think, as a writer, it can be easy to fall into placating one or the other of those camps. You want to protect your characters from too much pain, so they work out compromises too often and no one gets hurt. Or, you throw them into the exciting drama of constant conflict, and they will die on that hill before they give in.
The happy middle ground – for characters, your story, and readers – is somewhere in between; and when I’m writing scenes, I follow some basic guidelines that govern how it plays out. These aren’t the only ways to do it, of course, but they’re options to consider.
(Also: one assumption underlying any scene I write is that the characters in it need something from each other. If they didn’t, one or more of them would just leave.)
1. Characters want different things, but they don’t necessarily say so.
Conflict is more than this:
Character 1: I want the thing!
Character 2: I don’t want you to have the thing!
It’s more often like this:
Character 1: Say, why don’t we go outside and enjoy the warm weather? (The thing I want is hidden in the garage, and I want to get it)
Character 2: No, let’s stay in the living room and play chess! (I’ve already stolen the thing from the garage and I don’t want you to find out)
Give your characters subtext! They don’t have to say what they really want from each other. In fact, I think it’s better if they avoid doing so until they have no other choice.
For the rest of the post, click through to The Fictorians website. Thanks again to Mary for inviting me to write for them, and be sure to spend some time exploring The Fictorians — plenty of great writing advice to be found there.