Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Building dramatic tension, Part II

Conflict creates dramatic tension. Generally, conflict is what prevents your characters from doing what they want to do at the start of the story.

For a romance writer, it's the reason those two crazy kids don't just get married and start a family.

You've got your two basic kinds: internal and external.

External's pretty easy to understand -- it's something that happens outside the character to cause problems. War, business takeovers, different socio-economic backgrounds. It's "I can't love you because I'm a Norman and you're a Saxon and our people are fighting each other." Or "I can't love you because I'm poor and from the wrong side of the tracks and you're rich and your folks are snobs."

Internal gets a little more complicated -- but for my money, this is where the fun really begins. This is where you create interesting, individual people. Why do they each think they shouldn't love the other? What happened to make them think that? How are they going to overcome those issues?

Okay, so far, I haven't really said anything you can't read/find in just about any writing book out there. But I heard something once (and I really, really wish I could remember where) that had a profound effect on me as a writer, and that is:

Every character in your novel should be in conflict with every other character at some time in the story.

It's not enough to have your hero and heroine at odds, fighting the villain. No, you can do. Much more.

To give an example, let's pick four standard main characters from a romance. You have your Hero, your Heroine, the Hero's Best Buddy (BB for short) and the Heroine's Sister, aka Sis. Hero and BB have been through a lot. They are fast friends. The Heroine is close to Sis. She's also a friend and a mentor.

So what kind of conflicts can we mine from these four character?

1. Hero vs. Heroine (no surprise)
2. Hero vs. Sis (she thinks he's going to break Heroine's heart)
3. Hero vs. BB (he thinks it's a mistake to get mixed up with that nutty family)
4. Heroine vs. BB (she thinks he's telling Hero lies about her family)
5. Heroine vs. Sis (she's beginning to think Sis is overprotective)

Is the BB telling lies? Is Sis being overprotective? Those conflicts can keep the tension going when the hero and heroine aren't together.

But I'm not done yet. What about some conflict between BB and Sis? Protective Sis meets guy who's been badmouthing the family. Oh, it ain't gonna be pretty! You could make this funny, to lessen the tension a little, because too much tension is literally exhausting for the reader. You could make it romantic -- a secondary romance plot, with conflict and desire all its own. Or you could make it serious. Indeed, these two characters can, unlike the hero and heroine in a romance, die. That ups the tension if they're in physical danger.

Throw in a villain, and what potential do you have?
1. Heroine vs. Villain
2. Hero vs. Villain
3. Hero and Heroine together vs. Villain
4. BB vs. Villain
5. Sis vs. Villain
6. BB and Sis vs. Villain (probably have to be rescued by Hero and Heroine, which leads to)
7. Hero, Heroine, BB and Sis vs. Villain

What if the Villain has a Henchman? Then you can have:

1. Hero vs. Henchman
2. Heroine vs. Henchman
3. BB vs. Henchman
4. Sis vs. Henchman (My sequel senses are tingling!)
5. Villain vs. Henchman

That's a whole lotta conflict goin' on -- but the more conflict, the more dramatic tension. The more dramatic tension, the more exciting your story, and the more the reader's going to wonder how it's all going to work out, so they won't want to put the book down.

That's exactly what a writer wants.


Christine d'Abo said...

Oh I love how you broke that down. It's easy for me to loose sight of all the different conflicts in my stories. I'm going to jot that down. :)

Leah Braemel said...

Margaret - what a good post! I just received Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict book and am working my way through it so it's timely too. I like all this conflict to drive the story - that's great advice, thanks. (Like Christine, I jotting it down.) The thing that makes me stumble is coming up with original 'internal' conflicts that aren't the standard cliches.

Margaret Moore said...

Basically, I think most internal conflicts could be summed up as a fear of rejection. So it's not the type of conflict that needs to be so original. The originality comes, I think, from the "why" and "what next?" What happened to that character to make them have that conflict? What was their family like? How do they react to the conflict?

For instance, your character's history/motives should be a little more complex than "my ex slept around so I'm bitter." Of course s/he is. Who wouldn't be? What's so special about that? The "special" comes from the reasons why the ex's action hit such a hot button with that character, and their specific reaction to it. Do they rant and rave, or silently go cut up all the ex's underwear? Has s/he been betrayed before? When? How? That sort of thing gives you lots of room to be creative and makes for more layered, interesting, unique characters, and so more interesting and unique conflicts between them.