EGWG Writing Class # 4
Without conflict, you have no story arc, no character development.
Conflict is the primary problem or problems that appear on the main characters’ journey toward their goal.
Conflict isn’t always a fight scene, an exciting car chase, or someone blowing up the world. It isn’t always about inner suffering, depression, longing, or pain. But it is always necessary to the story.
Each story has one central or main plot: The protagonist or main character wants something, and he must work for it. If the antagonist or villain prevents the protagonist from reaching his goal, that creates conflict. It doesn’t have to be a person who opposes the main character. It could be an act of nature: a storm, an avalanche, a forest fire, anything natural that can impede his journey. It could also be internal conflict when he knows what to do, but resists doing it. Will he accept that his core values might not be right, quit a crappy relationship, leave everything he knows to gain his goal? Initially, he doesn’t want to do any of it, but the story hinges on him accepting the challenge.
Conflict is the driving force of the story and influences character growth and the events in the plot. “Conflict is like a roller coaster. It takes you up, not in a rush, but slow and steady. You reach the high point and your stomach tightens as you anticipate what’s coming. Then it’s all thrills, up, down, your emotions go haywire until the car (story) slows down and you come to a satisfying ending.” James Scott Bell, Conflict & Suspense.
Every story includes change. Change creates growth, and growth is painful. The character must face that conflict and evolve or grow to reach his or her goals.
Motivation of Conflict
Motivation of conflict has three basic psychological types, and external and internal conflict:
- Interpersonal: a disagreement between two or more people. This conflict throws people against one another, as in man vs. man and man vs society. The reasons are:
- Opposing values. Core value conflicts occur when backgrounds, religious view-points, or cultural norms are too different. There will be harmony until someone tries to force their values on someone else.
- Relationship issues. This includes miscommunication, misbehavior, an outside party’s interference, unrealistic expectations, past unresolved issues, or a crisis of some sort.
- Styles of leadership. A leader’s expectations or the way he leads may grate on a person until they must make the choice to give in or rebel against authority.
- Personality clashes. Strong-minded people may clash with others. The people may be so different they’ll never agree. How they perceive one another may be faulty, based on their own prejudices, background, or, once again, unresolved issues.
- Conflicting interests. The conflict may be based on competition, or a disagreement over needs or desires that are opposite of one another. The characters are usually thinking only of their own agenda.
- Personal style differences. The way a person faces life can differ and put him in conflict with others. For example, one person in laid back while another is impatient, one is an early riser while the other is a night owl, or one writer outlines everything while the other is a pantser. These differences create friction, especially when one person believes his way is the right way.
- Ethical differences. Moral values rule people’s behavior. One threat to those values is an unethical decision that must be made. These types of decisions will shake the character to his foundations.
- Unconscious: A mental conflict the character is unaware of. Deeply ingrained or repressed desires that are not socially accepted shift to the unconscious. They’re repressed, but they are still active and strengthen over time until they try to push their way into the conscious brain, resulting in dreams, a slip of the tongue, or in subtle behaviors.
- Intrapersonal: This mental conflict will create or stir complex thoughts or fight within the character psyche. The resolve to fight could result in avoidance, use of force, confrontation, devaluing the opposition, or compromise. Internal debates can be subtle and give depth and richness to a character. Don’t have them give in too consistently and be wary of sinking into angst. Remember, while the character is thinking, there is no action.
Motivations of the Characters
Motivation involves understanding human nature and the workings of the mind. Backstories make characters who they are, how they act, and what they believe is right and wrong. Motivation is beyond the second dimension of a rounded character. It comes from deep within his core.
So, what drives or motivates a person?
Resentment. When someone does you wrong, you may forgive them, but if the issue isn’t resolved, there will be resentment which can last for years. People resist what they resent. They will be unkind and surly, or entirely ignore the resented person. The resentment will fester in the mind and come out as subtle or snide remarks, or it may not manifest at all. Resentment comes in all shapes and colors. It might be mild, like the CEO of Goodwill making over $800,000 dollars a year, so you take your discards somewhere else. It might be the bitterness caused by a family member mistreating or abusing you. Resentment alters people’s normal behavior.
Revenge. Revenge is often the result of resentment. It’s getting back at the source with a “so there” attitude. This human experience is seen in more than a few adult marriages. “You don’t like that I spent that money? Well, honey, watch me now,” said as the wife or husband leaves in a huff. Revenge is a reason for murder, arson, divorce, and so many other crimes against another person.
Resentment and revenge live in the third dimension of a human and a character’s mind. It can be externalized by action or internalized so it sits and smolders until the character has a heart attack, some other health crisis, or he lets it out and gets revenge.
If you’re using this duo, be sure to show who your character is before the event happens. The event is in the first dimension. The second dimension is him understanding why his emotions are in turmoil. His ultimate reaction is the third dimension of his character. (If confused by dimensions, go back, and reread the printout for the second class on Character.)
Believable character motivations drive the most famous characters in books. Here are six tips for creating character motivation.
- Each character will have his own credible motivation. People come from different backgrounds, and so will your character. You should know your character’s backstory. Motivations are grounded in cause and effect. An example would be a jilted or cheated on lover having a hard time trusting again.
- Show motives from rational and irrational minds. Most people are a mix of rational and irrational and have good and bad sides.
- Develop the character’s motivations as the plot develops. Keep your character interesting. When a major plot point comes, think about how that will change your character and his motivation.
- Don’t give characters what they want too easily. Complication and obstacles will intrigue the reader. The goal should be hard-won.
- Don’t explain what drives your character. Instead, show the origins of the character’s desires and behaviors throughout the story. Remember, he’s an onion, so peel those skins away slowly.
- Make motivations complex to increase the suspense. A single motive creates the potential for interesting scenes, but complex motivation can create heightened tension and uncertainty.
Along with psychological conflict, there is narrative conflict. Some of the following repeat the psychological aspects, putting them in a more personal form.
- Person vs Fate. (Or the gods.) Blaming fate for the bad things that happen can create conflict within. The hero is forced to do God’s will whether or not he wants to. Think of The The voyages and adventures the hero endured while searching for the golden fleece certainly created many conflicts.
- Person vs Self. Personal struggles with prejudices or doubts about their character, such as are they good enough, create this kind of conflict. Hamlet faced such a conflict. Desire can play into this in do I or don’t I type of questions.
- Person vs Person. Hero and villain push against each other. The hero has a goal and the villain’s aim is to stop the hero from fulfilling that goal.
- Person vs Society. The rebel who aims to change or overthrow his society’s rules is full of changes and conflict.
- Person vs Nature. Robinson Caruso and Moby Dick are two examples of this type of conflict. Nature can throw difficulties in the hero’s way, too. As mentioned before, avalanches, fierce storms, tornados, and hurricanes can create change that causes conflict for the hero as he tries to get where he needs to be.
- Person vs Supernatural. The Birds comes to mind, and Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is another example of the supernatural. The popular superhero comics and movies fit this conflict type as well. Fantasy is overflowing with supernatural beings as is science fiction. Conflict comes when the characters are fighting or dealing with extraordinary things or beings.
- Person vs Technology. Basic distrust of technology is fertile ground for conflict. In George Hahn’s book Tau Ceti: A Ship from Earth, one character had a sincere distrust of robots. The distrust grew into internal conflict until the man did something about it—creating conflict—and he was punished. Technology can be used to gain power; technology can take over or become a sinister influence on society.
When beginning a novel filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, you must have a solid foundation to keep the reader’s interest. There are four phases of a sound foundation. They form the acronym LOCK.
- Lead, or goal worth following (Keeping the reader’s interest).
- Objective (High stakes goal where failure results in death, a horrible event, or a great loss.)
- Confrontation (The antagonist, nature, or someone else tries to stop the protagonist).
- Knockout ending (Climax and resolution.)
Whether you outline or wing it, you still need a firm foundation.
Good conflict is about differing values. To value something is to think of it as a good thing. The protagonist and the antagonist have values, although they might not be the same. All that’s needed for conflict in a story is two positive values in opposition to each other.
What does your character value? Is what he values in direct competition with another character’s values or with the villain’s beliefs? How can you use that conflict in the story? Once again, we’ll use those two words, “What if?”
Ideas for conflicts can be visual and auditory. The idea for the first book I wrote came from a song on the radio. Musical lyrics usually tell a story. Listen to the lyrics, and think what if this or that happened. Dreams, otherwise known as nightmares, are a great source of conflict. Can you use yours? Some, perhaps many, writers see scenes as if a movie were playing behind their closed eyes. Close your eyes in a quiet place and consider your character and conflict. Put the character in a certain situation and ask what if? Then throw your ideas of what could happen and watch what comes. Don’t forget settings, as mentioned before, weather, accidents, and other people can create conflict.
If you use an issue, something that makes you mad, as conflict, remember you must be fair to both sides of that issue. Otherwise, you’ll sound preachy and melodramatic. No one has time for that.
James Scott Bell says in his book Conflict and Suspense: “Don’t be afraid to borrow, steal, update, or combine old plots and pack them with conflict.” Put a new spin on the basic plot you take for your own use. The pundits say there is only one story, it’s only different from all others by how the author tells it.
Conflict in fiction is a story within the story. Conflict can make dialogue dramatic in a scene where two people are arguing, and each is trying to get their own way. Conflict can help develop a character arc through personal growth, or through failure to grow.
Each scene needs some sort of conflict. Remember to look for opportunities in every scene to insert conflict. It doesn’t have to be an epic brawl, just something to nudge the story along. Perhaps the conflict is an internal argument.
Be aware that while your character is thinking, there is no action, so use internal thoughts with care.
There are two basic responses to conflict; the main character can approach a situation head-on or avoid it. Approach or avoid, sounds like adrenaline’s fight or flight. There is a third choice when adrenaline floods a character’s system. That alternative is to freeze.
Conflict in Dialogue
Dialogue is perfect for developing conflict and tension. Never waste it in idle chatter and small talk.
Make sure your characters have their own voice or way of speaking determined by the culture they were raised in, their religious views, politics, type of work, and economics.
There should be a subtext underlying what they’re doing or saying. They might say one thing, but are lying, or leading the other character astray. You’ll know why, but that’s for the reader to find out as the story goes on.
Always know what the characters want in each scene. They should have an agenda. Each scene and its dialogue should have tension and/or conflict. You might lead with a troubled character, and that trouble shows in the dialogue. Spend some time thinking about how two people came to be at odds with each other. Then weave that event(s) through the dialogue. Use emotions: sarcasm, snide remarks, innuendo, a touch of anger, hurt, and whatever emotions fit the scene and the characters.
Avoidance is another way to create conflict. If the character doesn’t answer a question, or sidesteps a direct response, sometimes even repeating the question, or changing the subject. An example from James Scott Bell is.
“Are you ready to go?” Bob asked.
“I saw you downtown today,” Sylvia said.
That’s a perfect example of sidestepping, and it creates tension, with conflict riding its coat-tails. Using silence is another ploy.
“Are you ready to go?” Bob asked.
Sylvia said nothing. (Or Sylvia gazed into the mirror.)
You can tell something is coming and it won’t be good.
Dialogue can be used as a weapon, as well. Perhaps character X has some knowledge of character Y and uses dialogue to force Y to do something he doesn’t want to do. X doesn’t come out and say Y must do whatever he says or else, but the threat is there.
Here are 10 ways to introduce conflict in dialogue:
- Threaten 7. Taunt
- Tease 8. Demand
- Argue 9. Interrupt
- Wheedle 10. Lie
Other ways to introduce conflict are to make a character:
The Inciting Incident
A hook: To capture interest.
Incite: To arouse to action: to stir up.
Incident: An occurrence: A happening: An action likely to lead to grave consequences.
The hook and inciting incident are sometimes the same, but not always.
The inciting incident acts as a catalyst that interrupts the status quo of the main character’s life. It changes his life so profoundly that he’ll never be the same. Put in other words, an inciting incident changes everything and prioritizes the protagonist’s fate in ways he’d never thought of. The event asks a definite question, and it’s explicit. There is no mistaking or misunderstanding, and the question gives the protagonist a goal. It’s up to the main character to decide whether he’s up for the job of answering the question or not. If he’s not up to it, then another character can push him into his adventure. Again, think of the Hobbit. He didn’t want to go anywhere, but a house full of dwarfs and Gandalf changed his mind.
The action happens at the beginning, and it should be exciting. External forces act against the main character in a scene. It must be something outside the hero’s normal life, and it should involve or include some circumstance against him. If you can, use dialogue to enrich the scene. Two people with different values or agendas arguing will give you an automatic scene with possible confrontation.
While the event should be written toward the early part of the book, it could happen later. If it is later, the writer must develop a hook that gives the reader clues and uses foreshadowing to keep them interested. Remember, the clues and foreshadowing are for the reader’s benefit and not the characters, meaning it’s more “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” than if the character says “Ahh, I see what’s coming.”
The goal must be important, meaningful, and have serious consequences if not completed. An important part of the goal is its emotional impact upon the hero, and that impact is why he accepts the challenge and perseveres.
The structure of a play, a movie, or a book falls along the lines of a 3-act play. The first act is the protagonist living his life until the inciting incident happens. Then the protagonist dithers; should he do this, or not? When he accepts the challenge and the goal, his life is changed.
That’s the end of act-1 and should be about 25% of the book.
Act-2 is a series of scenes while the hero tries to overcome obstacles in reaching the goal. That act goes on until the climax occurs. Act 2 encompasses 50% of the book.
Act 3 is resolving the problems and tying up loose threads until there is resolution—and the end. And that is the remaining 25%.
Act one should be 25% of the book.
Act two is 50% of the story.
Act three is the other 25% of the novel.
As James Scott Bell said in his book, “Act first—explain later.
Delay lengthy exposition or narration until after the inciting incident. Don’t insert backstory or info dumps in the first chapter, and when you do, insert either of them later. Do it in tiny pieces.
The first plot point or the change in direction in the character’s life—the inciting incident—is most important. It usually occurs in Act 1, chapter 1. Without such an incident, there is no story, only a list of uninteresting scenes concerning events that don’t matter.
Questions about the inciting incident to keep in mind:
Whose story is it? = Character
What’s happening? = Inciting incident. (Personal change.)
Is there conflict? = Inciting incident. (Plot points.)
What’s at stake? = The goal. (life or death.)
Is everything as it seems? = Conflict is the difference in values or between people, so probably not.
Is there enough to lure the readers in and keep them reading?
To Summarize so far:
- The main character leaves his life for an uncomfortable, out of the ordinary, possibly dangerous adventure.
- Plot Points are where the major decisions must be made and are usually accompanied by an inciting incident that changes the character’s story and makes him grow.
- The incident must happen TO the main character—externally and not internally. It could occur to someone close to him, as if a murder of a brother means he must find the killer before the rest of his family is killed.
- The event should happen sooner rather than later. It is the beginning of the plot. If the story calls for it later, use clues to keep the readers interested. The reader must have a reason to keep reading.
- Inciting incidents are not the hooks, although a hook can be combined with the incident.
- The event introduces the conflict between the plot and the character’s goal. It sets up the readers’ expectations.
- Do not use a sad inciting incident. That won’t draw your readers in.
Fight scenes in movies are exciting and breathtaking. Fight scenes in books, however, are sometimes not as good. Books focus on character growth, so when a fight scene comes up, you need to make it epic and dynamic.
How can you do that? You’ll need a plan.
An exciting fight scene creates action/conflict in the story. For a fight scene, you’ll need three things:
- The fighters. Be clear on the motives of the fighters engaging in combat.
- A closed environment. Have a clear picture of the environment where the fight takes place. Map it out and chart the moves. Where are the obstacles, the walls, or other things that will create problems for the fighters?
- An emotional element. Give the reader a glimpse of the POV’s emotions. What does he feel as the fight is happening? Keep it real, but be wary of slowing down the action with too much description.
If you have written or want to write a fight scene, here are a few tips from a man who writes about MMA, Mixed Martial Arts and UFC, Ultimate Fighting Championship, in journals and magazines.
- Have competent opponents. A tough opponent makes for a better fight. If the opposing fighter is weak, there’s really no conflict.
- Make it real. Fighters don’t stop and make speeches or have dialogues. Fighting creates adrenaline and the fighters won’t have the spare energy to think about words, much less say them. No witty lines, but there will be expletives and serious swearing. When someone gets hit in the head, jaw, or solar plexus, they don’t shake it off. When your hero gets hit, explain what he feels, make it short and snappy, and make sure the reader feels it, too.
- Write carefully and be aware of the effect your words will have. Write in short staccato sentences with no unneeded detail. Longer sentences slow the action and tempo. Alternate the sentence length to control the tempo and make the fight exactly how you want it to be.
- Develop a style of your own. There are many ways to write fight scenes. If you’re doing more than one fight scene, you need to come up with more than one way to describe them. You have a style of writing that is your own. Consider that style and the plot when writing fights. The scene can be realistic, over the top fantasy, one on one, one on many, on an epic scale, or war. One on one is simple, but when you have more than one fighter, or a battle scene, you’ll need to make a plan on how, where, and why people, horses, tanks, or whatever move and what effect that movement will happen.
- Show the effect of the fight once it’s over. Is your hero injured? Is he bleeding? What about the other combatant? Is he injured? If your hero walks away after the fight, he’s either a robot or something else happened and he wasn’t in a fight at all. Have you ever seen a prize fighter doing an interview after a fight? He has cuts on his face, one of his eyes may be closing and swelling, or he might favor his ribs. He’s had his bell rung, so show your character suffering those injuries and be realistic. Yes, he has an adrenaline high, but that won’t last long. If he needs a few days to function, write off the days he needs into your story.
You don’t have to be an MMA fighter, but you do have to know what you’re writing. Check out YouTube. Watch a few hand-to-hand combat scenes in the fighting style your character is supposed to be good at and make a list of terminology. What’s a jab versus a punch? What happens when someone is hit in the solar plexus? If YouTube doesn’t have what you need, the internet will.
Keep it simple. People tend to like small scenes of intense excitement. Focus on what the opponent is doing instead of what’s around them. If you have a battle scene, avoid describing the entire battle at once. Focus on one section and then give your protagonist a time out before moving to the next.
What are the stakes? What will the protagonist gain from winning the fight? What will he lose if he doesn’t win? It could be a simple thing like his dignity, or something larger that takes him one step closer to his goal. Make sure the fight is worth it, and the stakes should be personal to the protagonist. The higher the stakes, the more tension in the fight.
As in all things, use moderation, and keep it real.
What are they? Does my story need one? What’s the secret of writing one?
A subplot is a side story that gives a plot depth. It can involve the main character but usually is about a secondary character.
Subplots enrich a story if done well. If you are or are planning to write a story, consider adding a subplot or three. A novel with one plot may come across as shallow or one-dimensional.
Sure, there are books out there with only one plot, and they might not need one. An example is a thriller. Readers read thrillers for the thrill and nothing else.
Though some books may not need one, a subplot could help the theme of the story. A subplot or two could enhance a theme such as loyalty, integrity, risking life and the safety of others, or exposing evil.
There is no secret in writing a great subplot. You can find ideas in the theme of your story. I don’t have a theme, you say. Yes, you do. Think of the goal and what the character must do to reach it. Is there room for a side story about someone who is helping him reach his goal? Perhaps the antagonist has an associate who wants to join the protagonist. There might be a side story there. A romantic interest? Oh yes, that’s a side story. In my book Murphy’s Enigma, a body is found, and all information pointed to the man using an alias. His daughter hires my main characters to find out who her father was before he changed his identity, and who she is. The side story is Annie Ireland, the female protagonist, who has no knowledge of her life before she was found on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona at the age of eight. She picked out a name and is also searching for who she really is. The side story complements the main theme.
Any subplot you create about the main character should add to the main plot in a meaningful way and help develop your character. Don’t let the side story be a distraction or something so mundane it’s boring. A subplot about the main character should be a complication in reaching his goal. Make it impactful, or it could be a part of a plot point or inciting event.
With subplots about a secondary character, you can:
- Advance your story in interesting ways.
- Force your main character to grow, or to become corrupt, in a gain or loss manner.
- Reveal more of your main character.
- Supply a twist in the story.
- Speed up or slow down the pacing.
- Create a mood: Menacing, comedy, pathos, tragedy.
- Patch holes or solve other problems within the main plot.
- Insert or challenge a moral issue or lesson.
Seven ways to add great subplots:
- The Isolated Chunk: Forget the main story and start a new section or chapter. Tell the side story and return to the main plot. A reversed chunk is in The Wizard of Oz. The story begins in Kansas, goes to Oz with all the adventures, and at the end it goes back to Kansas.
- The Parallel Line: Two characters are working their separate roles with chapter and POV switches. Each character is living their own story. The plots meet usually at the climax. Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsythe is a classic example of Parallel Lines.
- The Swallow Tail: Two characters are in parallel lines, but their stories weave together at one certain point. They may stay together or break away.
An example of a parallel plot line:
|Children on the first day of kindergarten.||An angry man stops in a bar.|
|Kids are in the park, playing at recess.||Man downs 5 whiskeys, fast.|
|Teacher keeps the kids together.||Man gets in his truck and decides on a shortcut.|
|Kid chases ball toward the park road.||Man enters park road.|
Both plots come together in tragedy for someone. Will it be the teacher, the kid with the ball, or the drunk truck driver? That’s up to the writer, but several people will bond together as survivors or victims.
- The In and Out: The main character will connect with different people and their particular stories. An example is The Hobbit where Gandalf appears in a scene and then goes off on his own, only to appear again in a later scene when needed.
- The Bookend: The subplot is introduced early and then left alone until near the end. It’s inserting two chunks separated by most of the story. A bit of foreshadowing in the middle would be a nice touch. The example Elizabeth Sims gave in her Writers Digest guest article was of a Queen who beats her maid and the maid runs away. The story leaves the maid out and goes on about the Queen building a makeup empire. At the end of the story, the maid, her two aunts, and a lawyer pay the Queen a visit. They are there to take over the Queen’s empire. It’s Karma.
- The Bridge Character: Invent a character as different from your main character as you can make them. Perhaps he’s from a different social strata or culture. A doctor, lawyer, counselors, or clergy would work because people talk to them. Let’s say it’s a mystery. What if a doctor had a gambling habit and was in debt to a bookie, and as partial payment, the doctor had to obtain drugs for the bookies addicted son? Meanwhile, the protagonist is trying to get information on the bookie and comes across the doctor. What the doctor tells the officer is a bridge and brings the worlds together.
- The Clue: This one is good for mystery, thrillers, and suspense. Have a secondary character makes an offhand comment that doesn’t seem important at the time. Later, that bit of conversation is vitally important.
Backstory is the entire life events of the character before the story begins. It covers motive, history, and the roots of the character’s personality. It’s the reasons and excuses for what happens to and by the character during the story. As the writer, you need to know the character’s entire backstory, but the reader doesn’t.
You do not want to info dump backstory. It slows the current story and might deaden the impact of what’s happening in the now, and it leaches emotion from the story’s present. Backstory is part of the setup for the plot and characters. It’s not a substitute for letting the story unfold.
Backstory can and should be revealed in a variety of ways. Slip bits of it in with the action that calls for it and keep it incidental to what is going on. An example of this is when a man, Larry sits beside another man in a bar. The man beside him is no one Larry wants to talk to or sit next to, but there’s nowhere else to sit and Larry’s not ready to leave. The last paragraph of the scene goes: “Larry itched to punch the smugness off his face. He wasn’t the punching bag anymore, and whenever he got the chance to remind himself of that, he grabbed it with a vengeance.” The bolded phrase is backstory, and it tells the reader the other man probably reminds Larry of someone who bullied him, and he wasn’t the punching bag anymore hints at how that earlier event(s) went down.
Just as you learn the character of someone you just meet bit by bit, let the reader learn about the character’s life and his experiences slowly. Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know it all, just enough to explain the character’s action or reactions.
Direct explanation (info dumping) can throw a reader out of the fictional world and make them think they are learning a lesson instead of enjoying a story. Never start a chapter with backstory, instead open with what’s going on in the story. Then, when it’s needed, reveal background in succinct pieces.
Show backstory through:
- Character’s thoughts or reflection
- Character motivation
- To slow the pace
- To set up later scenes
- Give meaning for events, actions, and reactions of the character
- Add meaning to what the character stands for and their personality
- To provide distractions, murky motives, and red herrings
Back Stories in Memoirs
A Memoir is telling your history, so backstory is what’s presented. The same precautions should be applied in not info dumping. Don’t be in a hurry. Rather, mix your history in with scenes of what happened when that history was made. Tell a story using the facts you want to give. You might describe the house you once lived in as being on a double lot, with a garden and some fruit trees. Then add something personal. For example: “When summer vacations came, I’d spend hours sitting in the huge apple tree, reading. The branches fit my butt and snacks were handy. I have fond memories of that tree.” (That’s from my memoir.) You could even mention if you’ve gone back to see that house and were sad to see a duplex where the garden and trees used to be. (That’s also true.)
Flashbacks are similar to backstory and interrupt the forward movement of the plot, so they’d better hold something of extreme importance and have enough conflict to keep the reader’s interest.
Flashbacks can show a character’s motivation. They shouldn’t be longer than a sentence or two.
Consider if the flashback is necessary. Are you using a flashback just because you have it and want to use it? Your reason for using a flashback might include information essential to understanding the life of the character, the plot development, or a setting.
Don’t use flashbacks because you’ve written beautiful prose and you want to show off.
If, after careful thought, you decide to use it, you might give the character a momentary thought reflecting on some event in their life that has to do with whatever action they’re going through. Parallel it with how they feel, going through the same action now.
She started running down the street and remembered how she used to run just for the pleasure of running. Now, she felt the strain in her middle-aged legs, and the killers were gaining on her.
Don’t go into long, overblown detail and stay with a single experience. If you need longer or more detail, set it up as an actual scene with conflict as if the character is reliving the memory, and then go back to the present time in the story. This will resemble a type of isolated chunk subplot, but shorter.
They can be done in italicized inserts as thoughts. You can use them as a bookend subplot, but be careful because if not done well, you’ll irritate your readers who want to get back to the main plot.
The basic guidelines for backstory and flashbacks:
- Integrate small bits of info early enough to be useful but after the character is introduced. That gives the reader a chance to become interested in the character and the forward moving story.
- Trigger memories with what is happening in the story with the character’s senses and emotions. An example would be a certain smell reminding the character of something in his past. It should be clear that the character has slipped into a memory.
- Change tense from past tense to past perfect for a sentence or two before reverting to the past tense again. (Past perfect tense denotes the action of the verb was completed at some definite point in time. An example: Before I worked there, I had never seen a computer).
- Transition out of the flashback with another triggering phrase. In the example: She started running down the street and remembered how she used to run just for the pleasure of running. Now, she felt the strain in her middle-aged legs, and the killers were gaining on her. The italics are the flashback, and the underlined section is the transitioning phrase to put the reader back in the story.
The definition of suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot, a solution to an uncertainty, or a mystery.
Suspense is the element the keeps a reader turning pages. Every novel should have suspense.
It’s more than the spooky BOO factor. It’s asking a question at the first of the book and withholding the answer until the end. The question can be subliminal. That question moves the story from an idea to a novel. Examples of that would be: Will the girl get the guy? Will the murder be solved? Will the goal be reached? While the main question isn’t answered until the climax or resolution, there are other questions along the way that are answered. The aim is to keep the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.
The setting of each scene can create suspense. What if the character is in a perilous situation, or in a traffic jam when he is on his way to save someone? Dialogue can take place in suspicious places like dark alleys, in a park with unknown noises, or in a place with too many people who might be listening.
What is the difference between mystery and suspense? They are different, but they’re family, like brothers and sisters with a lot of crossover and a bit of thriller added in. It’s helpful to know the differences.
- Mystery is who did it and goes from clue to clue. Mystery is finding the answer. It’s a puzzle and Mystery asks, what will the lead character find next?
- Suspense is: will it happen again? It’s like something closing in. Suspense is about keeping safe and living a nightmare. It asks, what will happen next to the lead character?
Nine Tricks to Writing Suspense.
- Give the reader the viewpoints of the protagonist and antagonist. The reader should know what’s going on in the story’s development. He’ll get to see trouble brewing before the lead character does. This puts emotional weight on the reader and tension will build.
- Use time constraints. The protagonist should be working against the clock, and the clock should be in the antagonist’s favor. Every minute the protagonist loses rachets up the tension and suspense.
- Keep the stakes high. Not reaching his goal must mean something devastating will happen to the protagonist. The crisis must be important enough to create empathy in the reader.
- Apply pressure. Give the protagonist unbearable odds of reaching his goal. All his skills should be stretched. The hero should bend but not break. The reader should wonder if the goal will be reached.
- Create dilemmas. The antagonists should throw obstacles at the protagonist that will test his or her strength. It may be a choice the hero must make, perhaps saving one person over another who will die, picking up a gun when he’s sworn to never do that again, or taking a drink after years of sobriety. The antagonist can cross a line where the protagonist can’t let innocent people die or give up what he’s sworn or vowed to do.
- Complicate matters. Pile on the problems. Give him more than he can handle. Perhaps a child needs insulin, and the antagonist creates a traffic jam on his way to deliver it.
- Be unpredictable. Nothing in life runs perfectly and neither should the protagonist’s life be free from the out-of-the-norm occurrences. The antagonist should be waiting to stick a crowbar in the protagonist’s plans. Outside forces will add uncertainty in both their lives.
- Create a great villain. In building a character, we discussed the need for the villain to be a three- dimensional character, the same as the hero. Explore the villain’s motivations and character, give the reader enough information so he’ll know why he acts like he does.
- Create a great hero. The suspense hero must be someone the reader believes in and cares about. Again, he is three-dimensional peel away his layers and let the reader empathize or identify with him.
Summary of Suspense
Each scene should have its own question to be answered. Suspense can be used to build a character’s fears and worries. Every scene’s question has an answer that moves the plot forward. The suspense is: Will the character meet the goal of the scene? If he’s a detective and needs the answer to a question or a fresh clue, will he get it and be one step closer to his goal?
Suspense is used to intrigue the reader. The author sets up a question that must be answered. It should be the answer to what, where, when, who, why, or how.
The stakes must be high, a matter of life or death or something terrible happening. What is your character’s goal? Make the reader care if he reaches his goal.
Use plot twists and surprises. Keep the reader guessing. Use red herrings, send the protagonist the wrong way, or have people lie and manipulate others. Give the reader a sense of possibility or probability and then surprise him with the story’s reality.
Don’t reveal the answer to the most important question too fast. Keep it for a satisfying later scene of the climax or resolution. Each following scene’s question and answer should lead the reader to the final big answer: The boy got the girl, the detective discovered who-dun-it, and the protagonist reached his goal. Give the reader clues, but slowly. Then surprise him.
Note for Memoirs
Memoirs should have conflict, flashbacks, suspense, and backstory in them, too. Most of us have had all those elements in our lives. If you haven’t, why are you bothering to write such a boring story? Make your story personal with emotions, motivations, and everything else a story should have. After all, a memoir is simply another, more personal story.
More Writer’s Mistakes
- Never have one character tell another character what they should both know.
- Backstory should never be in the first chapter. Backstory slows the pace.
- Don’t info dump. Keep it succinct, in small doses, and only where needed for clarity.
- Don’t put dramatic backstory in a boring or mundane scene. Drop a bit of backstory in a scene filled with action and suspense. It lets the reader take a breath.
- Don’t narrate backstory or have long memory sequences. Show through actions, short memory flashes, and/or short dialogue between characters.
How Not to Use Conflict in Dialogue:
- Don’t let an argument wander aimlessly. Keep it on track.
- Don’t leave dialogue hanging without context. Show reactions which might be different from words.
- Don’t resolve conflict too quickly. Going from you’re awful to I love you in a flat minute isn’t going to work. Arguments have a rhythm. They start, rise, and fall. You’ll disappoint the reader if you resolve the anger too soon.
- Don’t let characters fight out of context to their personality. If they’re a fair person, they’ll fight fair. If they’re a bully, let them be a bully by not fighting fair. If the characters act out of character, there’d better be a good reason.
Mistakes in Suspense
- The story unfolds too linearly. All the tension is deflated.
- The setting is boring.
- There are no obstacles put in the lead character’s way.
- The character’s stakes aren’t high enough. Easily obtained goals are boring.
- The dialogue doesn’t work. It might tell the answer to the question, or not further the plot.
- Characters are too dense and unrealistic. Artificial suspense or tension bores the reader.
- The first question is revealed too soon.
As usual, if you have questions, contact me at [email protected] If I don’t know, I’ll do my best to find an answer for you.