THE CONFLICT CONNUNDRUM
Today I finished a long scene between my main character and his partner, which is designed to drive them apart so that my character will make a stupid decision that’s foundational to kicking the novel’s second act into action. It’s a scene with two other characters present, who are also in conflict with my main character on some level. I’ve been lining up the troops against him, so that he won’t be thinking straight when he makes his decision, which will seem small at the time, but is actually momentuous in his life.
It’s a scene of intense conflict, but if you look at the entirety of a book, almost every scene will contain conflict of some sort, because conflict creates the drama that keeps a reader engaged.
If everything is going fine for the protagonist, the reader will be happy for a while, but quickly will get bored. The protagonist needs an antagonist who is stopping him or her from achieving or keeping that happiness.
Conflict can be major and the stakes can be high – the protagonist is fighting against someone who is trying to kill her. Or it can be minor – the protagonist is fighting against his own inner self which seeks to stop him achieving happiness. Conflict can be about what’s happening in a scene, e.g. a character wants to get to the supermarket, but a woman she knows and dislikes has waylaid her and won’t stop talking. Or it can be about the main thread of the book – e.g. a man fearing for his life is trying to get away from a killer that relentlessly pursues him.
Writing conflict in a scene is essential, but it’s hard. You have to pace it, make it build realistically, and the scene has to end with resolution of some sort, but the potential for more conflict, so the reader will be satisfied but want to know what happens next.
My golden rule for conflict, is get in late and exit early. So I try to start not at the very beginning of the scene, but a few beats into it, and I exit the scene with the conflict still hanging. That’s not to say I don’t let the conflict build. Lots of writers find it hard to build conflict, to really let it go somewhere. They’re always wanting to leave things unsaid, or under the surface of what’s going on. Yes, it’s fine to have a conflict that’s seemingly about one thing, but is really about something much deeper going on, but you still have to let the conflict escalate and play out. Readers are never satisfied with conflict that doesn’t have any meat to it.
I’ll be building my scene between my characters for a while yet. Making it seem real, and keeping the pace, is a lot of work.
THE FIRST PERSON DILEMMA
The poet and novelist Mary Dorcey was chatting to me today about writing in the first person, as opposed to the third person. She said, ‘Writing in the third person, you get width. Writing in the first person, you sacrifice width for intensity.”
It’s true. My first novels, the published and unpublished ones, were all in the third person. They were all ensemble novels, with groups of characters, so it made sense to tell their stories from the outside looking in (third person), rather than from the inside looking out (first person).
I wanted to do something different with my new book, to challenge myself and tell story in a new (for me) way, so I’ve chosen a first person narrative. This comes with a set of problems, not least of which is that I can’t reveal the inner workings or points of view of the other characters in the book. They all have to be filtered through my narrator.
Part of me is scared that by writing in the first person, I might not have enough story to stretch over 100,000 compelling words. But then I think of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, which is a first person narrative stretched over 771 mostly compelling pages (dare I break with the critical cabal and say that it got annoyingly repetitive in the endless middle section?), and I think I can maybe stretch to 400. I certainly have a strong concept with plenty of conflict to keep it rolling along.
What I’m loving about writing in the first person is how I’m getting to know my narrator, Michael Ryan, so quickly. With the other books, it wasn’t really until I was writing the final chapters that I fell in love with my gangs of third-person characters. I’d done all the character work (more of which later, I promise!), I knew their likes, dislikes, contradictions, paradoxes and what they had in their fridges, but it took a long time of writing them from the outside looking in to make me really get under their skins.
Writing in the first person, you are under you character’s skin from the outset. In a way that character is you, and you are him, or her. Michael Ryan is nothing like me, but he is me, and I am him. I’m liking the process of revealing him, to myself, and the world.
If you haven’t read Mary Dorcey, you should. She’s up there with Colm Toíbín and Emma Donoghue as one of Ireland’s foremost LGBT writers.