This article first appeared in the February 2005 issue of Update, the newsletter of Washington Romance Writers.
Better one or better two? Anyone who has ever had vision correction will recognize the previous sentence. During an eye exam, small lenses of differing strengths are placed in your field of vision until the image on the far wall comes into focus. Through a process of elimination, the correct lens is chosen. The perfect lens results in a crisp, clear image.
The perfect lens results in a crisp, clear image. The more I thought about that profound statement, the more I realized that it was something that could apply to my writing.
Donald Mass, Debra Dixon, Alicia Rasley, and many more fiction writing experts agree that conflict is an essential element of crafting a quality story. Maximizing conflict maintains high reader interest in your story. I had read these words of wisdom in multiple places and thought I had a handle on conflict.
In my infinite wisdom, I treated conflict as another item on my check list. Setting? Yeah, I got that. Characters? Yeah. Got them. Conflict? Yeah. That’s in there.
It wasn’t until I started dissecting stories by published authors that I realized how restricted my conflict vision was. Just having conflict in my story wasn’t enough. Conflict is too big to be relegated to a checklist. It has to be integrated into the very seams of the story. Two dogs and one bone. That’s conflict. Make it matter. That’s conflict. Make it emotional. That’s conflict.
I crafted more elaborately detailed plots, invented characters with multiple flaws, and beefed up my settings. I cut pictures of my characters from catalogs and drew up story boards with multi-colored tiered charts and created electronic filing systems for quick recall. But my rejection letters still featured the same tag line: “I wasn’t captivated by the story.”
Argh. Nothing worse than an editor thinking your story isn’t captivating.
So, back to the drawing board. How to bring conflict into the crispest focus possible? For any given scene, what is the most compelling way of presenting the conflict. For this to happen, I had to be open to new possibilities, to new ways of story elements fitting together.
The best way to illustrate this new mindset is to use an example. Let’s assume we are writing a scene about a woman needing to get her driver’s license renewed. This is a conflict inherent process involving multiple long lines and a shortage of clerks. It can easily take three hours to navigate through the bureaucratic process. Now imagine that our character doesn’t have three hours to spare because she has to pick her handicapped child up at school. The process will, of course, take three hours. That feels like conflict.
But is it enough? Is it captivating? Probably not. Let’s sharpen the focus. If the clerk who finally waits on her is someone our heroine doesn’t want to deal with, that brings in a deeper emotional element to the conflict. If we show that the handicapped child needs a med change and that it’s critical the mother gets the child to the doctor’s appointment on time, then that adds tension to the conflict. If the woman’s son’s missing gerbil has been sleeping in her purse but jumps out when she goes to pay and the clerk is experiencing a rodent infestation at home, that’s using the setting to increase the conflict.Adding additional story layers to the conflict sharpens the focus and makes the reader care. Next time you create a scene, ask yourself if the conflict is as strong as you can make it. If not, why not try the “better one, better two” process? Add power and depth to your writing and you’ll ensure that your readers are captivated. Use the perfect lens and you’ll see the difference in your writing.