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Conflict: Move That Bus!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I am one of the seemingly few people who actually enjoyed the movie Castaway. I thought it was a wonderful character study, but there is one thing that really bothered me about it—the fact that we never find out what was in the box with the angel logo on the outside—and that the film ends with him standing in the crossroads—there is no actual ending to the movie. I’m left with that “hanging” feeling.

Have you ever felt that when watching a movie or reading a book? Like the writer did not bring the storyline to a close? This is called resolution and it’s what you must have for the conflict in your novel.

In browsing some websites that deal with this, I came across a really good example. A man living in a second floor apartment always takes his shoes off and drops them on the floor before going to bed. His below-stairs neighbor has complained about this over and over and over, but he keeps doing it. One night, he drops the first shoe, then remembers his neighbor’s complaints. So he sets the other shoe down quietly. Then, after a few minutes, he hears his neighbor yell, “Drop the other shoe already!”

Conflict keeps our readers reading out of anticipation. If their anticipation is not rewarded with the relief of a resolution, that anticipation will turn into annoyance and disappointment. It’s why TV shows end their season with a cliffhanger—the anticipation from the conflict the characters are in the middle of when the show ends in May is what gets the viewers back in September—for the payoff. When you give your characters an easy out, when you resolve a major conflict off stage, or when you do not resolve a conflict, your readers lose trust in you as a writer.

Has anyone ever related a story to you and when they finish, all you can think (or say) is, “And the point of this story is . . .?” Don’t waste your readers’ time. You’ve set up great conflict. You’ve explored your character’s desires and how to thwart those desires. Now you have to give your character the victory.

Think of it this way. On Extreme Home Makeover, the team comes in and tells a family who have gone through some kind of conflict/turmoil (a handicapped child, loss of a spouse, house fire, etc.) that they are going to go away for a week and come back to a brand new house. We watch the show because of the anticipation of seeing the family’s reaction to seeing the new house. But what if, when the family came home, they came home to the same house—or, even worse, no house at all! How would the family feel? Cheated, lied to, betrayed? On a smaller scale, when we do not resolve the conflicts in our stories, this is how our readers feel. If the family came home to some little prefabricated, bare-bones house, yes they would have a roof over their heads, but they sure wouldn’t have gotten what they expected and would be disappointed. This is what you’re doing when you give your characters easy outs, or when you avoid the resolution of the conflict by having it occur off stage. What if the family came home to a house only half-built? What if you only resolve a few of the conflicts but not all of them? But regardless of the problems they face on the jobsite, the Extreme Team always completes the house before the family comes home. As writers, we must complete our “house” by resolving the conflicts we create for our characters.

Now that’s been resolved, stick around because over the next several days, I’m going to try to figure out how to convert the class I teach on characterization for visually oriented writers—Using Real World Templates for Characterization and Inspiration—to the blog to explain how I go about creating the storyboards that I posted the other day and how I use them in my writing.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    Wednesday, October 18, 2006 4:12 pm

    I confess I’m not a fan of Castaway, and for the reason you mentioned. I feel like the story just…quit.

    I can’t wait to read about your characterization methods.



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