Last time, I think we all agreed — we did, didn’t we? — that even the best Big Conflict ideas that provide nice, sturdy skeletons to grow stories around don’t necessarily downscale in effect. That is, they don’t automatically grab you, the reader, by the ear and drag you from page to page like an out-of-control water skier.
In other words, you can take a seemingly surefire Big Conflict and still let its heat fizzle by failing to instill its scenes and sequences with their own propulsive sense of urgency.
It’s not just flying bullets, ticking bombs, and trying to steer the ship away from the iceberg. Rather, it’s that tough-to-define something that can lodge even in a seemingly sedate conversation and make it absolutely riveting, altogether compelling.
There are innumerable ways to inject this, and one of the most viable is our new Golden Rule. Cue the big bright red:
Never populate a scene with characters who do nothing but agree with each other.
This is actually one facet of a more expansive quality that agent Donald Maass calls micro-tension, which he defines in his book The Fire In Fiction as “the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds.”
It can arise from not only character interaction, but anything from setting details to narrative tone to word choice … anything, really, as long as it triggers conflicting emotions.
Small Conflict: The Connective Tissue Of Scene
Writing … it’s not enough to know your way around nouns, verbs, and where the apostrophes go. You also have to minor in psychology. Shakespeare will always make the rest of us feel all buttery thumbs there, but understanding and then mercilessly exploiting a few basic principles of human nature can still take you a long way:
- Most people have a deep-seated need to be right.
- A great many people live in terror of being proved wrong.
- Some people can only feel right by making everyone else wrong.
- Even the most seemingly straightforward and uncomplicated of us is, under the skin, a cauldron of seething inconsistencies.
- With most people, at least one aspect of their behavior is radically at odds with their stated values.
Five principles. One for each finger. Mix into everyday or extraordinary situations, and stir.
If fiction is to have any hope of reflecting the unpredictable, messy, head-butting nature of the real world, it has to be fueled by the fact that we all have our own agendas. We all have opinions. Values. Prejudices. Things we’ll compromise on and things we won’t.
Often these overlap, like a Venn diagram with areas of commonality, but they almost never overlay each other perfectly. Even people who are on the same side, and want the same end result or goal or destination, can have divergent notions of how to get there.
Road travel? Some prefer the scene route, others the quicker but featureless highway.
Parenting? Some believe in letting kids find their own way, others in micro-managing.
Killing? Some believe in making it quick and clean, others … not so much.
Know Thy Characters
What people clash on is a picture window into those agendas and values and prejudices.
Do they argue about sex? In-laws? Differing memories of an event that occurred last week, last decade? Whether they’re in something, legal or illegal, for the money or the thrill?
And when they disagree, how do they go about it? How people fight tells just as much about them as what they fight about.
Are they diplomats, or do the clubs come out? Or are they more the type to slip the needles in one jab at a time? Does one always have a tendency to cave to the other? Or do they even confront each other at all, and simply pursue their incompatible agendas with the stubborn insistence that they’re right, and never mind the eventual consequences?
A Quick Case Study: One Modern Master At Work
Historical novelist Bernard Cornwell is superb at this. I’m a gargantuan fan of his Saxon Tales series, and recently finished the fifth, The Burning Land. So far, the series is set during the reign of Alfred the Great, as England, an island of separate kingdoms, and a frequent target of Viking raids, is slowly and often painfully pulled into its first semblances of national unity.
Alfred, however, is rarely more than a secondary character. Instead, history is related through the pen of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a warlord in Alfred’s uneasy service, and whom Cornwell seems to have genetically engineered to exploit every conceivable source of conflict.
For starters, Uhtred has dual allegiances. English by birth, from late boyhood on, he was raised among Viking Danes before returning to English society. He’s a staunch pagan in not just a Christianized culture, but in the service of the most pious Christian king ever to wear the crown. Alfred’s coterie of priests and clerics revile him. Yet Alfred is a pragmatist, and realizes he needs him, warts and all: Uhtred is such a fierce warrior and a brilliant strategist, he’s essential to Alfred’s defense of his kingdom and his dream of being king of all the English.
Through it all, Uhtred clashes with bishops and monks. He has to swallow his resentment when incompetent nobles are, for political reasons, given credit for his victories. He’s drawn to women he can’t have. He finds himself at odds with Danes he loves like brothers in order to enforce the will of a king he can’t stand.
And that still leaves everyone who comes at him with armies.
Uhtred can’t even agree with himself at times. He wants nothing more than to raise an army so he can take back his father’s land and fortress — currently occupied by his treacherous uncle, who has no intentions to leave — yet he’s bound by oaths of service that he’s sworn.
Interestingly, it’s these oaths, and Uhtred’s strained adherence to them, that are probably the most useful source of conflict of all. In his time and place, an oath was not some weak promise that could be conveniently forgotten for expediency’s sake. It meant everything to a person’s repute … and to break it meant violating not just your conscience and honor, but tearing at one of the most crucial threads holding together the fabric of society.
And as both a character trait and a cultural expectation, it’s not a source of conflict that Uhtred can ever outrun. He carries inside him wherever he goes.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
One final caveat before we wrap it up:
All things in moderation; all things in variation. Like a four-year-old telling the same joke over and over because it got a laugh the first time, you can wear this approach out fast by going at it in a ham-handed or repetitive manner. So…
Beware of populating every scene with characters who do nothing but argue with each other.
Even though everyone has their own agendas and values, your allied characters have to remember what it is that binds them together. Thanks to David Lee Ingersoll for bringing this up in the comments of Part 1. His rationale was cogent enough that he deserves the last word:
It’s one thing if the characters are thrown together by circumstances but often those characters are supposed to be friends or lovers. And they do nothing but bicker. Really tiresome.
No arguments here.
[Photo by the sea the sea]