I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference last weekend. I learned a lot, and met many fantastic people. It was definitely worth the price to go.
My favorite panel emerged clear and brilliant on Saturday morning. Robert Dugoni, author of Murder One, Bodily Harm, Wrongful Death, and a number of other crime novels, taught a session on creating conflict in your novel. Everyone needs conflict. That’s why we read a book. Every time I go to my critique group, telling them I’m bored with a certain part I’m writing, they tell me to add more conflict. Usually in the way of “You’re bored? Well have someone stabbed or kidnapped.”
I took the most notes in this session than any others of the weekend.
He emphasized a few obvious points, like the first thing writers need to do is to create empathy for the character. Even before you bring conflict into the story, no one is going to bother reading it. There is so much out there to read, you have to be taken with the writing or the characters in order to continue almost immediately. You definitely need to have an identifiable character in order for the reader to make it through to the end.
He laid out the steps to creating conflict in order: Create empathy, concern, impending danger, then escalating tension.
The concern comes naturally if you’ve created empathy. It’s the natural response of readers when the first stirrings of trouble reach the character. What’s going to happen to them? Oh, I hope they’re alright. Now let’s see some pain.
This is when things start getting hot. Rather than a vague stirring of troubles, the Forces of Evil are directly challenging the character or someone he/she cares about. There is no veering off the path now. They may get rebellious and try to refuse to be the hero, but something is coming and they cannot run far enough to get away from it.
This is the capstone. This is the apex. This is the moment all readers read for. Things get so thick with tension and danger that, although it’s two in the morning, you’re still hiding under your blanket with a flashlight reading frantically. Climax is what you build towards the entire book. It’s present in every novel. It’s what readers read for. Torment the characters. Make them suffer. Make them look like they will almost fail. Make the readers continue turning the page. “Five more minutes!” is futile here. You’re trapped.
The key to tension is setting your character up to fail from the beginning. With most novels (except those twists that come out of left field), the reader can probably guess the ending. What they’re reading for is how you get from point A to point B. The more helpless you make the situation, the more you can add tension in.
PLEASE NOTE: MELODRAMA SHALL NOT BE ACCEPTED IN FICTION WRITERS WHO CLAIM TO HAVE BRAINS.
Flirting vs. Teasing
The thing I loved the most with this session was his explanation of flirting versus teasing. You want to flirt with the reader. You never want to tease them. Teasing leads to frustration. Frustration allows the reader to put the book down. Do not let your reader put the book down.
Now what is the difference between these two? Let’s go to the bar for an example. There’s a beautiful woman sitting there. A man asks her if he can buy her a drink. She agrees. “So, what’s your name?” “Why do you want to know?” All the woman wanted was the drink. She sits there, teasing the men, only to infuriate them. SHE WILL NEVER DELIVER. That is teasing.
Flirting is fun. Flirting takes intelligence and carefully crafted plans and entrapments that keep them coming back, keeps them chugging forward. But at the end of the day, the flirt is held up. The flirt will deliver on what they’ve been hinting at all night. If you flirt away with the information readers want to know, but deliver it, you’re flirting. If you keep it going on and never give the readers the information they want, then you are teasing.
Flirting is about five pages. You lead the reader up to a conflict. Then you either cut in time, or cut to a different character. You leave them wondering what will happen to that conflict as you show them something else (of course, it must always be important and serve a purpose). After about five pages, you go back to that original conflict. You give them some answers. More than that, you raise more questions. Questions are the reasons readers turn pages.
Here’s a list of key ways to create conflicts. Feel free to steal/borrow/blatantly plagiarize/make it work in your own novel.
Torment your characters (obviously. I’m of the opinion that all good writers are sadists. You have to have fun driving your characters to a mental breakdown. Otherwise, it’s not fun to read.)
Put them in a place they’re not familiar with (or in a place that works differently than what they’re used to. How funny is it to see college students in Mexico on spring break demand their constitutional rights?)
Introduce a new character
New circumstances come up (The man we all thought was guilty actually isn’t because the DNA evidence just came in?!)
Love at first sight
A moral lapse
A murder/death by some other means
A breech of a solemn oath
Nature gone wild (deadly storms are always good)
Someone standing up to corruption
Heart-crushing event (A son swears revenge; the father wanted him to be a judge, and uphold the law)
So to summarize, conflict makes everything yummier. Conflict is the home-made chocolate chip cookie that readers go to books for. To make a happy, sugar-stuffed reader, always flirt but never tease. If you’re going to withhold information to keep them reading (and you should), you better deliver eventually. End a chapter with a cliffhanger. At the beginning of the next, go to a sub-plot. Then when the sub-plot gets to a cliffhanger, go back to the original event. Keep your readers turning the page. Don’t let them put the book down. And go get some sugary delights to reward yourself for a conflict well done.