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It’s Good to Be Conflicted

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In her writing craft book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, novelist Nancy Kress explains that middles make up the majority of our novels and are where we dramatize events that increase conflict, reveal character, and put everything in place for the ultimate climax at the end.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to go back to the road trip analogy. I have a clear beginning: my house in Nashville. I have a clear ending: my parents’ home just south of Dallas. In writing a romance novel, I have a clear beginning: the H&H meet. And a clear ending: the H&H reconcile and live happily ever after.

But how to get from beginning to ending is as varied in writing as it is on road trips.

Sure, the fastest and easiest way to reach my destination is to take the interstate. But what if I decide I want to stop and see the Shiloh battlefield in west Tennessee on my way? That means getting off the interstate—off the safe, not-very-conflict-filled path—onto back roads. I could get lost. My car could break down in the middle of nowhere. The mountain people could get me. Or I could arrive there safely and have a profound, emotionally and spiritually moving experience. From there, I might decide to go to St. Louis and see the Gateway Arch, then down to Springfield to visit my friends Jill and Tracey. Since I’m so close, I think I’ll stay overnight in Branson and take in a show or two. Then I could drop down south through the Ozarks to Hot Springs and visit the spa at the Buckstaff bathhouse for a hot mineral bath and massage. From there, I’ll hit the interstate for a couple hours’ smooth sailing to Texarkana, where I’ll stop on State Line Avenue—the border between Texas and Arkansas. Ooh, I can take another side-trip down to Shreveport to visit my uncle and his family, as well as try to meet up with several writing friends who live there. Now, unfortunately, once I leave Shreveport, there really aren’t too many places to stop between there and Dallas.

All of this sounds like fun, but think of all of the things that could possibly go wrong with a trip like this! Is my car reliable? Do I have a good road map? Will I be able to find my way along all of these backroads that might not be marked the way they are on the map? Can I trust the locals to be able to give me good directions if I get lost? Sure the trip on the interstate is much easier (and faster)—but a lot more boring!

When we write our middles, we want to take our characters off the safe path. We want to write them into corners we’re not sure they’ll be able to get out of—and then let them figure out how to do it. We cannot let them walk away from conflict.

When I was twelve or thirteen, there were several prehistoric “video games” I loved playing on our TRS-80 computer. (How prehistoric? Try on cassette tape!) All of them dealt with overcoming obstacles, whether it was answering a series of “what do you want to do now?” questions to get out of a haunted house you had to draw on paper if you wanted a visual, or as a little graphic moon rover having to jump craters and shoot aliens. These games were fun because they were about facing obstacles and overcoming them. Once we learned how to write BASIC and manipulate the code in the games so that we could never lose, though, they lost their appeal.

We like to hear and read stories of real people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to survive—the parent company of the publishing house where I work, Guideposts, was built on just such stories. Think about it. Christopher Reeve. Lance Armstrong. Scott Hamilton. Survivors of the Twin Towers or Hurricane Katrina. The man who got trapped in a ravine when hiking and cut off his own arm to survive. The mom right here in Middle Tennessee who sacrificed herself to protect her two little boys during a tornado and now may never walk again—heck, every family they build a new house for on Extreme Home Makeover. We love to see victory over conflict.

But the human spirit cannot experience that elation if there are no obstacles to overcome or if conflict is too easily solved. Nor will these pseudo-conflicts bring about change. It’s been said that an addict will never want to change his destructive behaviors until he hits rock bottom—sometimes several times. Like the addict, we do not know what we are capable of until we are faced with situations we never thought we would have to face: our greatest fears, a deep dark secret being revealed to the person it could hurt the worst, losing a parent or spouse or child to a debilitating disease or death. People face these crises every day. Some cave. Some look for easy outs and end up miserable, in jail, or dead. The ones whose stories we want to hear are the ones who stood up, learned, changed, grew.

This is what the middle of the story is about—the triumph of our characters of any conflict we as the writers can throw in their paths. Be mean to your characters. Take away from them what they treasure most in this world and give it to their arch-nemesis. Strip them of everything. Treat them like Job and see what they do.

Since I’ve learned so much through the past series I’ve done, this is the first of several posts I’ll be doing on Conflicted Middles, in which I’ll include physical, emotional, and spiritual conflict, so check back often or sign up in the box under the links on the right and receive e-mail notification when I’ve put up new posts.

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