Going against my nature to write a good story

By Carol / March 6, 2013 /

Lions FightI enjoy peace and harmony, for myself and for others. I spent 30 years as a public relations consultant helping people  find their way out of problems. With every fiber of my body, I avoid trouble, not make it. I didn’t realize what a challenge my own nature would be to writing my novel.

Last summer, writing workshop leader Rebecca Johns extolled the virtue of “causing more trouble” for my characters. I returned to my keyboard committed to ratcheting up the conflict. (Blog post) And I’ve been doing that, but I find I have to fight my natural instinct for peace every step of the way.

A recent blog post at Moody Writing reminded me how important conflict is. In his very good post I encourage you to read all of, “Worst Case Scenario Is Something to Aim For,” Mooderino wrote:

Sometimes in life we get worried and worked up about something and it turns out not to be as bad as we had feared. The terrible thing we were convinced was about to happen doesn’t materialise. It’s good when it turns out that way. In real life. In a story, however, that kind of build up and release is not rewarding, it’s disappointing. … On a basic level, you always want to choose the path of most conflict.

I laughed when I read that because I’d been puzzling over a scene in my novel that just wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out why. Then, in one of my wake-up-in-middle-of-the-night “AHA!” moments, I realized what it was. 
Here’s the set up: My character is exceedingly anxious that her husband will have to go to war. They go into town where he has to sign up for the draft. Anti-war and pro-war crowds line the streets. Tension builds. And what did my character do? She stepped away from the action and went shopping! I’m not kidding. That’s what she did.
Of course I rewrote the scene. As much as I personally want to avoid a conflict, my character is now wading into the thick of things.
Mooderino points out that:

Falling into the worst possible situation is the best thing for a story. It’s not easy to write and it may not be fun for the characters involved, but it’s the most entertaining version for the reader.

He has that right. It’s not easy to write, particularly because I have to fight my basic instinct every step of the way. But when my characters do face the worst case scenario, and come out the other side, sometimes bruised but often stronger, the result is so much better.
What about you? Are you a natural born trouble maker or do you struggle with this aspect of writing as much as I do?
photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

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  1. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on March 6, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I haven’t written a novel, however, I do like conflict. The French are excellent at showing those love triangle conflicts, which seems to reflect their lifestyle, or perhaps they are more “open” about it than Americans. I always like to compare cultures, since I have lived in Europe as well as the US.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 6, 2013 at 9:27 am

      I wonder if there is a cultural difference toward accepting conflict? Interesting thought, Sonia. I admit/accept/agree that conflict really moves a story along, and I like that, but I also know that I appreciate authors that give the conflict (and me!) a rest from the conflict from time to time. In so many ways, writing is causing me to understand myself better!

  2. annamaria on March 6, 2013 at 9:34 am

    interesting… i used to fight a great deal more than i do now… like you, i like to surround myself with harmony. i always remember what an author friend of mine told me once… to be the best writer you can be you must write about the things that make you uncomfortable… for you and me, i guess, that would be placing our character into conflicting situations.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 6, 2013 at 9:40 am

      In writing about things that make me uncomfortable, I often find myself facing a truth I hadn’t acknowledged before. Your author friend may have been getting at that. Conflict and truth certainly lead to richer characters and scenes!

  3. A.D.Trosper on March 6, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I am not a fan of conflict in my real life and prefer to stay out of the way of it. That said, I have no trouble throwing it at my characters.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 6, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Maybe you’ve found a way to live a double life, Audra. You’ve given me a new way to think about the conflict in my novel. All the words I don’t say in real life get to find voice in my novel!

  4. David Lawlor on March 6, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I do love a bit of conflict, I have to admit. I think it opens up so many avenues for the author to explore and develop characters. But you’re tight, carol, sometimes too much conflict can be a bit hard to take.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 6, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Conflict presents the opportunity for characters to grow. I know I always want to see that in books I read. I wonder if there’s a recognized balance between scenes with conflict and scenes that let the reader take a breather?

  5. Mary Gottschalk on March 7, 2013 at 9:28 am

    I loved this post, and the picture. It seems a very fitting coda to our conversation on Tuesday!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 7, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Thanks, Mary. Indeed. Several stars came into alignment on this topic. Your reactions to my manuscript. Mooderino’s post. Memories of last summer’s workshop. Is the third time the charm? Will I keep the importance of conflict in my head now?

  6. Grace Peterson on March 7, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    I hate conflict. I don’t write fiction but I find that there are plenty of real-life conflicts to deal with and write about. Years ago I inadvertently stepped right in to the thick of it, then had to wrestle my way out. My memoir reveals the conflict and the resolution.

    Conflict is everywhere. I work in a college town so there are a lot of kids on bikes. The other day I was driving down a city street and hit a young man riding his bicycle. Fortunately he had only a minor scrape. I felt horrible about the entire incident but the silver lining? I’ve got something new to write about.

    Great post. Good luck with your novel.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 7, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      You’re right, Grace, real life gives us plenty of conflict to work with. I’m so glad the bicycle rider is okay. For him and you! Thanks for commenting.

  7. Belinda Nicoll on March 8, 2013 at 6:09 am

    Great topic – thanks Carol. I’m generally a peace lover, but what’s exciting about being a writer is that I get to explore my ‘dark’ side. Besides marketing my memoir, I’m working on a creative writing guide, but I really can’t wait to get back to my novel – to a really horrid protagonist 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 8, 2013 at 7:36 am

      That’s a really interesting way to think about it, Belinda. What would the ‘good girl’ do if she really let go?! Good luck with all your projects.

  8. daniel quentin steele on May 2, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Fortunately, that’s not a hangup I have. I came from a family rife with conflict and have enjoyed 35 years of wedded bliss in which the first year was World War 3, the next 15 years only lacked physical conflict but had everything else, and to be honest if I don’t have at least one good go-round with my wife daily today, I think she’d get bored and wander off. That’s probably why I’ve found myself attracted to the genre I’m writing in today, which I’d have to call Triple X rated male/female cage match domestic dramas. I hate romances where nice people meet, fall in love, have a little conflict over what pattern to choose for their kitchen china and then live excruciatingly happily ever after. Happiness without conflict is BORING.
    Romances that run smoothly are BORING. MArriages in which the wife never looks longing at some bodybuilder after a nasty spat with her boring husband, or hubbie never ogles his secretary’s behind after the umpteeth fight with his wife over where to take their summer vacation, are BORING. Moreover, they’re fake. People fall in love and fight, think they’re falling for somebody else, make more mistakes and if they’re lucky find their way back to where they should have been. Husbands and wives cheat, divorce, re-marry. Look at your friends. Read any newspaper. Read any book on sociology. And the only reason we think things were better in the good old days is because the rich were sleeping around but the peasants never learned about it, and poor people were as likely to swap bedmates as any swingers’ group today. It’s just nobody cared becuase they were riff raff. I write what I write because broken hearts and romantic snafus will always be the rich soil for the best love stories – think “Gone With The Wind” which I think is the classic example. If Scarlett had realized that she was an idiot for pining after Ashley and that Rhett was a much better match and much hotter in bed, it would have been a shorter and much less loved novel. All of which is to say I am writing a milion-word legal epic called “When We Were Married” that is grounded in heartbreak, failed marriage, affairs, pretty hot sex, and people who are too emotionally stupid to realize they are cutting their own throats by their actions. And I’m having fun doing so and making a few dollars at the same time. Life can be good.

  9. Carol Bodensteiner on May 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

    “Triple X rated male/female cage match domestic dramas.” I love your description of your genre, Daniel. For a moment, I thought you were describing your marriage! My life has been anything but boring, but my job and general approach is to avoid direct conflict or to make it go away as quickly as possible. That does not make for the most interesting story.

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