After much nagging from my kids, urging from writer friends, and the debut of the movie–which I thought was really well done–I finally decided I needed to read The Hunger Games.
I’m not big into young adult fiction–though I loved the Harry Potter series–but I can see why Suzanne Collins’ books are such a big hit.
She not only delivers on the emotion, she does just about everything right.
Sympathetic characters? What’s more sympathetic then a group of oppressed people with tragic lives and little hope for the future, who work hard to survive?
That would probably be enough to draw you in, but Collins also gives her characters bravery, loyalty, interesting skills, and selflessness. You couldn’t be apathetic about Katniss, Peeta, and Gale if you tried.
Conflict? The Hunger Games has it in spades. How’d you like to be allies with someone you’ll eventually have to kill if you want to live?
And Collins keeps twisting the knife as the book goes on, but I don’t want to give too much away, in case you haven’t read it.
Setting? North America in some dystopian future where the Hunger Games arena can be anything the Gamemakers can dream up. It’s Gladiator meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies. I dare you to snore.
I’m not saying everything was perfect. Some of the build-up could use tighter pacing, especially in book two (Catching Fire), but even if young adult books aren’t your usual thing, I think all of us could learn a thing or two about writing compelling fiction from Ms. Collins. And, enjoy ourselves along the way.
What’s not to like about that? Next chance I get, I’m curling up with Mockingjay.
Have you read any of the books in the series? What did you think?
I watched Sleepless in Seattle as homework for my upcoming Michael Hauge seminar, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to evaluate the movie in terms of conflict.
I don’t go into great detail, but beware, I will spoil the ending.
If you're not familiar with the story, or don't remember it well, you can find the script here.
This story's a bit different than a typical romance because the H/H don’t really meet or talk until the end of the movie, so I can’t evaluate the conflict in terms of their relationship, and there’s no external conflict keeping them together in this case.
But, a lot of the elements still apply, especially early on.
The internal conflicts are stated:
–The hero, Sam, who lost his wife to cancer doesn’t believe that true love happens more than once in a lifetime, so plans not to remarry.
–Annie, the heroine, doesn’t believe in destiny or “signs” that someone is right or not right, for you. Her fiancé meets all of her criteria and she thinks she’s happy with him.
Awareness that their beliefs may be incorrect begins to form:
–Annie quickly realizes that she might be wrong about her fiancé Walter. There’s no magic between them, and their relationship lacks excitement.
–When Sam’s son Jonah calls a radio show and tells the host that his dad needs a new wife, Sam initially denies that he needs someone, but later starts to wonder if maybe he should get back “out there”.
Their beliefs are challenged and they start to explore (test) them:
–Annie hears Sam and Jonah on the radio and feels a connection to Sam. She asks her brother how he felt about getting married and figures she’s just getting cold feet. She starts to write a letter to Sam but tears it up.
–Sam talks to a coworker about dating, makes a date with a woman he met through work, and they become an item.
They dump core belief:
–Sam commits to a weekend alone with his new love interest.
–Annie flies to Seattle to meet Sam under the guise of doing a news story.
Okay, normally this is where a vacuum would form, and the characters would start to fill it with new beliefs about the other person, culminating in the realization that this is the person for them.
Then the black moment where one or both revert to the old belief after some kind of misunderstanding or betrayal (he lied to me, I was right not to trust him; after all we’ve been through she still doesn’t believe in me, I’m outta here).
One or both would realize leaving was a mistake (climax, race to the airport, near death experience, etc…) and they’d resolve it=>Happy Ever After.
SIS is a bit different, so the second portion doesn’t follow the pattern in quite the same way, and most of the change happens on Annie’s part. The way I see it, the black moment is when Annie decides she was being an idiot, goes to New York to meet Walter, and puts renewed energy into their relationship.
Quickly, she realizes she made a mistake and she’s still unhappy. She and Walter break up amicably, and she races to the Empire State Building where Sam might be waiting.
After a near miss, they meet for the first time and walk away holding hands (resolution/implied HEA).
The conflict structure I just went through is really geared toward traditional romance, but still works here with a little imagination. I’ll try this again with a better example when I get a chance.
A man wants to climb Mt. Everest but is afraid of heights.
A woman wants a big family but her husband hates kids.
With my latest WIP, I came to the realization that my conflict isn’t strong enough, neither internal nor external, despite the fact that I thought I had it all worked out ahead of time. Because of that, I’ve been struggling with where to take the storyline.
Even BLIND FURY, which I think has pretty good internal and external conflicts, has been dinged for carrying a single conflict for too long. Clearly, I needed to get help. Happily, I found some.
Maybe these are brilliant, or maybe they were in the right place when I needed them. You know that rule that I have to be exposed to an idea or concept a number of different times and in multiple ways before it clicks for me? (Not that I think I’ve mastered it…) Conflict wasn’t any different.
First, I found a helpful blog post by Holly Lisle that helps you brainstorm three types of conflict: internal, external, and (what I’d consider a subcategory of external) interpersonal.
The internal is the character against himself. That mountain climber afraid of heights.
The external is some outside force or event that he must deal with. The killer weather he encounters half way up the mountain.
Interpersonal conflict is about people standing in the way of the hero’s goal. His wife who sabotages his plans because she’s afraid he’ll die on the mountain.
I especially liked the addition of interpersonal conflict because it crystallized the notion that not all antagonists are evil villains. Often, they are well-meaning or have understandable reasons for the things they do.
The second source of conflict gold came from a presentation Susan Meier gave at my RWA chapter’s retreat last year (I listened to the archived recording), called Let the Conflict Tell the Story. It was especially helpful for me because it focused on conflict in romantic fiction.
According to Meier, internal conflict is what’s keeping the hero and heroine apart, despite the attraction between them. It stems from incorrect core beliefs each of them has that prevents them from thinking this person is “the one”, or that has them convinced that they’ll never marry anyone.
It could be as simple as “she’s rich and I’m a blue collar guy”, or “all men cheat so there’s no point in marrying one”, or “office romances never work out”.
Meier defines the external conflict as what’s keeping them together. For example, they inherited a house together, or they’re both assigned to the same murder investigation, or she’s being stalked and he’s her bodyguard.
In order to make the change from can’t be together to happy ever after, the characters must grow (character arc!) and change their core belief. The story then, is taking them through the changes step by step from slowly realizing what they believed was wrong to deciding that this person is the love of their life.
With a few bumps and a black moment along the way. 😉
Okay, let me stop here and say that, yes, this is obvious and simple. But to me, that’s what makes it so valuable. We can get so bogged down in the fine details of writing craft that sometimes it’s hard to break it down into it’s most basic concepts.
Like Robert McKee's +/- idea I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
Meier had much more to say on the subject of conflict, all illuminating, so if you write romance/romantic elements and you ever get a chance to take her workshop, do it!!
And above all, never stop reading, listening, or learning. You just never know which book, seminar, or class is going to provide the missing puzzle piece in your writing. Good luck!
Do you have enough conflict? Not in your life, in your book. My latest rejection from an agent mentioned some issues with the conflict. Not that it wasn’t there, but I clearly hadn’t handled it as well as I thought I had.
I didn’t understand some of her feedback until I attended my WRW chapter meeting on Saturday.
Author Sherry Lewis presented several workshops, including one on conflict that really struck a chord for me. I’ve studied conflict before. My first blog post was about Debra Dixon’s awesome book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and I've read several other craft books that handled the topic. I thought I had a decent understanding of it.
But with the recent rejection fresh in my mind, maybe I was more receptive than usual, because some of the things Sherry said lit up my brain as if I'd never heard them before. One of the reasons I read so many craft books, take online classes, and attend chapter meetings is because you never know when something will click.
Either way, here were my big takeaways from Sherry’s workshop.
The strongest internal conflict involves a character forced by circumstances (e.g. like saving a life, providing for a loved one, or personal survival) to do something that goes against his or her ingrained beliefs, or who wants two opposing things. A pacifist forced to fight, for example, or a devout priest who longs for children of his own.
Characters must hold on to their beliefs as strongly as we do in real life. They shouldn’t be swayed over coffee with a friend.
Don’t introduce all of the conflicts at once. Introduce them in stages to keep the middle from sagging. Maybe the priest finally comes to realize that he can serve God in other ways, but then finds out that he’s sterile after he’s already quit the church.
In addition to the overarching conflicts, don’t forget the scene conflicts (refer to Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, which I’m reading right now and highly recommend). Make sure the scene conflict is related to the story. The other character refusing to answer questions is conflict, an attack of swarming gnats is just annoying.
Motivation: To write a better story with believable actions and conflict.
Conflict: It's hard work!
I want to know what my characters want, why, and why they can't have it. Yes, I'm working on my new book's GMC. Again.
Here's the thing. This time around, I really need to know that I have plausible, believable goals, motivations, and conflicts for each of the main characters before I move too far into the story. Not just my main characters, but the antagonists too. I think the reason I've struggled in the past is because my GMC wasn't as solid as I thought, and it only became evident once I wrote enough words to get stuck.
GMC goes right to the heart of internal and external conflict. What's keeping my characters apart, as well as what's bringing them together. External conflict is much easier to come up with. Physical barriers are like mosquitos in my backyard. Plentiful! It's the internal conflicts that I need to solidify before I can go on.
This Mills & Boon article on emotional conflict makes the following suggestion:
A good exercise to try is deciding what story you would tell if your characters were trapped in one room for the entire book! Think of the emotional journey your hero and heroine would go on without any outside influences. How would you sustain the tension between the couple, build up to the highs and lows, when all they can do is talk to each other?
I'm not going to write this, but I am going to think about how the story would develop without any of the suspense plot that I've spent so much time trying to get right. Focusing on the internal conflict before throwing gun-toting bad guys, back-stabbing best friends, or evil CEOs into the mix should make the story stronger. And, I hope, easier to write.
Got any advice for GMC or internal conflict? I'd love to hear it!