A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
My Civil War mystery, Time Exposure, was recently reviewed by Susan Weintrob, who hosts a site called Expand the Table: https://www.expandthetable.net/foodie-lit. In it she blogs about “Foodie Lit,” a genre of novels and memoirs filled with stories and food. Each month she shares the magic of a good foodie lit read and one of its recipes to pair with it.
Cooking and recipes in books takes us into the mind of the characters and brings us into the book’s kitchen to see, smell, and share the lives within.
I wanted to share an excerpt of her Foodie Lit review of Time Exposure.
The Gibbs Museum in Charleston, South Carolina mounted an exhibit of Civil War photographs, which I went to see a few years ago. The black and white photographs were clear and surprisingly modern. There was the heroic; there were also the photographs that were brutal, unnerving and full of war’s agony. There was the view of Robert E. Lee’s home, with Union soldiers on the porch, his property made into the now national cemetery at Arlington.
Lynne Kennedy’s Civil War historical novel, Time Exposure, is seen through the lens of photographers, the first time that civilians are on the war fields to photograph warfare.
Lynne, once a museum director, had attended a workshop on Civil War Photography at her museum. And she told me that she became hooked on the subject. “After much research about Civil War photography, I chose a real CW photographer, Alexander Gardner, who worked under Mathew Brady before he set up his own shop. I also fictionalized a photographer for story purposes: Joseph Thornhill. His descendant, Maggie would, 140 years later, become involved with his mysterious death.”
We see the scenes of war literally through Joseph and his lens. As modern readers, we know more about war details than those in the Civil War era. Yet the descriptions still send chills to us, as we contemplate this deeply divisive war, some divides that last until today.
Joseph to his fiancé, “Fences are down, rails blackened and burnt, orphaned children wander hungry and homeless, begging for food from strangers.”
Photographs were exhibited during the war. Joseph watches the crowds that come to his gallery. “They gaped at the images so powerfully depicting the brutal nature of war. Ladies, dressed in their finest, with parasols folded at their sides gasped at the scenes, covered their eyes from one horror only to come to face with another death scene.”
Lynne said to me, “Photography hugely impacted the way society viewed the war. Through the photographs, the public got up close and personal to the horrid battleground landscapes…that they may otherwise have only imagined.”
Louisa May Alcott enters the novel as a friend of Thornhill’s fiancé. In real life, the beloved author of Little Women volunteered as a nurse in Washington and wrote a series of sketches about her experience.
The author includes scenes of Gettysburg, the most brutal Civil War battle. Thornhill tells his companion photographer, Alex Gardner, “You know Alex? Men get to know each other pretty well in this sort of experience, being confined so closely together. Living together, working together, freezing together for more than a year. Some form bonds that will last a lifetime.”
The author writes eloquently of the mundane and the philosophical. Kennedy has much experience writing in this genre. She draws us into the very fabric of life in another era, allowing us to view events in the Civil War era that so dramatically influenced our country, even to this day.
During the Civil War, a favorite sweet side or dessert was Fried Apples. In the field, it was typically made in a cast iron pan over a fire and worked well with tart apples or ripe, if available. A variety of sweeteners could be used from honey or brown sugar, more available than white at the time.
At the end of each Foodie Lit review the reader is tempted by a recipe that complements the story. For Time Exposure: Buttery Fried Nutmeg Apples. https://www.expandthetable.net/fried-apples
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past. The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692:
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time. For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
One of the major characters in my book, TIME EXPOSURE, is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.
As a writer, being observant of your surroundings is paramount in creating an authentic environment. I wanted to share one of my travel experiences with you to illustrate what I mean.
Several years ago, I spent two weeks traveling in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in Canada and ending in the U.S., I found myself anxious to start scribbling ideas for a future book. The settings were amazing, from large, modern cities, to small, more manageable ones. From dense rain forests to rocky coastlines. From museums, to sky towers, to suspension bridges and ziplines, the backdrops are there for a new book.
But just as important as settings, were the people. We’re all familiar with the concept, true or not, that often people resemble their dogs (or vice versa.) Well, I can testify to the fact that people “resemble” the place they live in.
In cities like Vancouver, BC, I noticed that people were more formally dressed (at least the working locals.) They had sharp edges to their clothes, suits, shoes, just like the tall, glass, high-rises of the downtown. They didn’t meet your eye as they brushed past you in the street (much like NYC, where I grew up.)
Victoria, BC, was quite a bit different. Without the tall skyscrapers, people seemed more intent on immediate surroundings, including nodding at passersby. The buildings were shorter and stouter and had a very British feel. So did the locals. You can take that to mean whatever you like.
From Canada we ferried across to Washington and then drove to Olympic National Park. Amazing crystal clear lakes, thick and tall evergreen forests that blocked out the sun, and myriad green colors that could shame Scotland. Most folks were travelers like us so we couldn’t discern any particular likeness to the environment. Oddly, the few natives seemed to not know much about other parts of the Park. So they worked and played in one area only. I guess, like the grand old trees, they are rooted to one spot.
From the wilderness we ferried back to big city: this time Seattle. Much bigger and more built up than I remembered from visits twenty years ago. Almost overpowering in downtown now, with giant skyscrapers of glass and stone. Still, there was the old, more comfortable feel of its former, smaller self. Seattle has so many attractions, it’s hard to pick and choose. The Pacific Science Center was a dear old friend from my museum days, but we didn’t visit this time. Instead we went to the Chihuly Glass Museum and Garden. OMG. Words can barely describe the beauty.
Again, it was hard to gauge the people since many were from other places. But I think it’s safe to say that Seatte-ites are a bit cool, aloof, and keep to themselves, what with huddling under umbrellas and all. Many carry a Starbucks coffee cup, however, which is no surprise.
And finally, we took Amtrak to Portland, Oregon. Portland was a cozy, warm and friendly town, with lots of environmentally friendly businesses and people. And then there’s Powell’s Bookstore, of course. The most amazing place to spend some hours (days, even.) They were nice enough to set out my bookmarks!
Portlanders like to chat. They like to smile, despite the often gloomy weather. And they have the greatest ice cream shop in the world. “Salt and Straw,” where you can get a cone of salty, caramel ribbon ice cream. My kind of people, indeed.
The next time you travel, study the setting, study the history and architecture, wildlife, museums, galleries, and gardens. And study the people. They could be the inspiration for your next characters.
Warm and cozy or gritty and dark?
In one of my blogs I discussed what novel writers can learn from screenwriters. Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments. One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing. The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark.
This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category. And they are legion. Let me name a few you might be familiar with: Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist. Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title: Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer. (Really?)
So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect. When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up. And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.
Don’t get me wrong. The villains in novels can be just as rotten. However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced. Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller. Excellent series. The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series. Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.
But back to point. There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark. See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.) The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category.
To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia? Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.