Conflict. Has a bad rep. because fighting, struggle and harsh words can be nasty in our real lives. But they are the lifeblood of fiction.


However, the definition is broader than used in every day conversation. Conflict occurs when your protagonist is stymied by people who don’t share his goals or by events/things which throw him off course. Doesn’t have to be ugly although it certainly can be if your plot calls for it.

Your main character might be thwarted by others who are sympathetic to his goals but, for their own objectives, need to prevent his from being achieved. A father wants to protect his daughter from getting involved in the murder, so he lies to the detective about her whereabouts.

Or a catastrophic, unforeseen, but nevertheless credible bolt out of the blue derails his plans. No Deus ex Machina, please, but sometimes Things Happen. A blizzard prevents the hero from seeing the cliff edge; the critical key falls down a sewer grate; a traffic accident throws off the precise timing of a heist.

How to write conflict into your stories

If your plot is working, then you probably have incorporated conflict into it. But just as a double check, review these points. Sometimes, it’s worth expanding on one or more of these points in your novel to strengthen it.

Response to a threat

Again, doesn’t have to be big. A student fears failing an exam which will prevent him from getting into a good university. What does he do in response? The threat usually occurs fairly early on in the story. Leaving it too late leaves the reader wondering what the novel is about.

Fight for the goal

Good fiction characters are fighters. They know what they want. When they run into trouble or are foiled, they take action.

So, this precludes writing passive characters. That is, a main character who mainly stands on the sidelines and wrings his hands about the antics or misdeeds of those around him. A narrator telling the story (see Stories in a Frame) qualifies as passive but is not usually the main character. The protagonist is usually found within the framed story. And if he is a good one, he’s in there swinging.

Conflict, not bad luck or adversity.

Bad luck, like falling out of a tree, or adversity, like being born poor, do not, in and of themselves constitute conflict. We’re looking for a fight between opposing goals. Bad luck or adversity can be complicating factors on the hero’s way to her goal but need to play a supporting role rather than been the star and center of the plot.

As I say, if your plot is working, this is probably more of a chance to see if any parts of your story need beefing up. But if you are just starting out, these are good things to keep in mind.

How Do You Know When You’re Finished?


How Do You Know When You’re Finished?

Might seem like a dumb question. You’re finished when you write the last scene. But no, then there’s the editing, rewriting, even reimagining. Okay, so then you’re finished, right?  Well…

Are you really finished?

The problem is, there’s always more to do. One more copy edit would undoubtedly cut out more words which, as I have discussed before, George Orwell thought well of. And maybe I should add more suspense before the climax. Have I really portrayed the hero as fully as is needed?

It can be exhausting and frustrating. To the point that you just want to get it over with.

I get it. Winston Churchill put it well:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a joy and an amusement and then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a tyrant and that last phase is, that just as  you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster.

It’s not uncommon to vacillate between urges to kill the monster and pursuing perfection like an actress addicted to plastic surgery.

Limits of technique and imagination

I’m not sure that this answer fits everyone but it is a rule of thumb that I have found works for me.

I decide I have finished when I reach the limit of my technique and imagination. Which sometimes feel like the same thing.

Let me give you an example.

I was writing a story of a mother (okay, mine) and a daughter (yes) and their fractious relationship. I was trying to present both characters as striving at cross purposes in order to create a situation of fictional conflict rather than just a series of running battles of the no-you-can’t-yes-I-can variety. To do that, I wanted to make both characters, if not sympathetic, then as nuanced as I could.

I tried and tried with the mother and every once in a while, I thought I had her captured. Then she would slip away. To the point that I didn’t actually know if I had achieved my objective. And moreover, I couldn’t think of any more ways to tackle the problem. Perhaps because I hadn’t mastered the craft enough to make it happen. Perhaps because my imagination had been exhausted.

At that point, I decided I had to let it go because I had reached the limit of what I was capable at that time. Even if I wasn’t satisfied and didn’t know if I had achieved what I had hoped for.

Do I have to go to these lengths?

No, of course you don’t have to. It’s your writing after all. But I have found that if I know I have gone to the limit of my abilities in everything I finish, then I can look back on this work from the Olympian heights of The Future and give myself a pass for the clumsy word, the plot hole, or the feeble technique revealed on a later pass. If I haven’t, the rereading is more likely to prompt regret or even embarrassment.  I knew I could have done better and I didn’t.

You may have your own way to know if you’ve finished, but this is how I recognize when to kill the monster.

Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare


Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare

Okay, so it may not be breaking news that Shakespeare was a genius. But I was reminded  of what a fabulous study his character Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is by watching Shakespeare Uncovered, a PBS TV series with F. Murray Abrahams discussing the role of Shylock.

I know I don’t need to but it’ll make me feel better if I remind you of the plot. Bassanio wants to marry the rich Portia but needs the money to woo her. He asks his friend Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) for it and although Antonio is willing, his money is tied up in some ships soon to dock. Antonio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, even though they despise each other. Shylock agrees but if Antonio defaults, he demands to be allowed to recoup his losses by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. And things go downhill from there.

How did Shakespeare feel about Shylock?

There is a hot debate among scholars whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.

I think there is plenty to suggest he might have been. For one thing, Jews were forbidden to live in the England of Shakespeare’s time so he would have little direct experience but only the prevailing view across Europe which was profoundly anti-Semitic. Where the play is set, Venice, Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and were not allowed to practice most professions.

But the strongest evidence, to my mind, is that The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy and Shylock seems to be set up as the comic villain. We first see him as funny but defensive and full of hate. The pound of flesh idea is introduced early on, to add to our perception of Shylock as vindictive scoundrel. Antonio’s friends ridicule him (“my daughter, my ducats”). Worthy of contempt.

This is where the genius bit comes in

Shakespeare gives us the comic villain needed in a comedy but he also—and this is the genius bit—makes Shylock is a complete person. So much so that the five hundred years later, when attitudes have changed, he has morphed from a figure of ridicule for Elizabethans to a tragic one to a modern audience. For example, in Shylock’s most famous speech—If you prick us, do we not bleed—Elizabethans would probably have heard it as a justification for the violence Shylock hopes to wreak on Antonio. But modern audiences interpret the same passage as a plea for tolerance.

It’s not the words that have changed; we have. And Shylock is still a compelling character.

What can we learn from this?

Even if we can’t all be Shakespeares, we can try to emulate him in his ability to make fully human every character in our writing. The heroes are not all light but have dark shadows they must contend with to remain a worthwhile figure. The villains are nuanced—both evil and good, worthy of contempt and empathy.  Human, in fact.

The closer we can get to this ideal, the more memorable our work will be. Although five hundred years may be a stretch.

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing


Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?



From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach


From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.