Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

I have noticed a disturbing trend in my media of late. At least, it’s disturbing to me.

Maybe it’s the stories.

Maybe it’s the theme.

Maybe it’s writers who are too proud. Or directors afraid to offend. Or editors, producers, and publishers. But…

Characters aren’t admitting their guilt anymore.

I’m not talking about the villains. I’m talking about the heroes.

I’m of the old school in which a person who commits a crime or is guilty of some fault is expected to admit their guilt as proof of their change-of-heart and this must happen before their status with their community is restored. But I’m not seeing it play out like this anymore either in the movies I watch or the books I read.

This concept is the heart of the Christian conversion experience and has been a staple of media in western culture for centuries. Heroes typically change over the course of their stories so this concept is tailor-made for them. Usually, a bit of dialogue is all that is required because change can usually be shown. However, it seems the modern incarnations of our heroes are taking a lesson from the villains’ playbook and never admitting to anything anymore.

Maybe I’m not watching the right movies or reading the right books, but I think this is a trend nonetheless and I think a bad one.

Brave Logo
If you’ve already read my post on Pixar’s latest movie, then you may remember my complaint that neither Merida nor her mother ever fully apologizes for their behavior. Merida’s rebellious attitude goes unrecognized and unpunished. Her mother’s anti-social behavior too.


My best guess is that it’s a symptom of modern culture. Because in everyday life even our President, someone who I largely support, has not prosecuted the wall street professionals responsible for taking our economy to the brink of destruction. I applaud him for moving us forward and seeing us through some very difficult times, but part of me wants Justice. Accountability. Revenge too, if I’m being honest. And now that our most pressing issue  – the US economy – is being dealt with I’d like to see these troublemakers get their comeuppance but it hasn’t happened yet.

Personally, I have more respect for baseball players like Mark McGwire who admit their drug use – even if it is years after the fact – than those who continue to hide their faults. (Better late than never but also better early than late.) Of course the irony of modern culture is that all publicity is good publicity. The fact that we know certain names and not others has little to do with morality and lots more with what makes a story news-worthy.

As for me, I plan on having my characters admit their guilt if doing so is in keeping with their character. It is easy as a writer to avoid the hard conversations, but it is those types of conversations where honesty prevails that are most memorable and true to life.

The following statement was issued by Mark McGwire on January 11, 2010 admitting to steroid use during his career:

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.

“Baseball is really different now — it’s been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players’ association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I’m glad they did.

“I’m grateful to the Cardinals for bringing me back to baseball. I want to say thank you to Cardinals owner Mr. DeWitt, to my GM, John Mozeliak, and to my manager, Tony La Russa. I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and to be back on the field in front of the great fans in Saint Louis. I’ve always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again, this time as hitting coach. I’m going to pour myself into this job and do everything I can to help the Cardinals hitters become the best players for years to come.

“After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I’ll do that, and then I just want to help my team.”

(Source: ESPN)

Note that McGwire didn’t issue this statement as a player. Nor did he admit to using drugs during a congressional hearing. He issued this statement after accepting a new position as hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, his conscience was bothering him and he admitted his guilt honestly from feelings of remorse. That’s why his fans believed him. That’s why he got a standing ovation prior to the Cardinals home opener on April 12, 2010 – four months after his admission.

His statement before the house committee on government reform is illuminating too:

Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations…My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. (Source: CNN)

This is reality. Why aren’t we writing more material that includes scenes like this?

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Fiction is about characters in conflict. In this column, I’ve talked about many different kinds of conflict over the years, but there’s one kind that I don’t recall ever discussing.

It’s the conflict that comes when one character changes the rules of the game. Changes them so radically that it’s suddenly a completely different game.

To understand this kind of conflict, let’s look at an extreme example. Imagine that you challenge your buddy to a match at the tennis courts. Whoever loses has to buy the pizza for dinner.

You show up at the courts with your tennis racket and all your other gear.

Your buddy shows up with a chessboard, sets it up on the sidelines, and sits down behind the white pieces.

He hasn’t got a racket. He’s not dressed for tennis.

He isn’t even on the court.

You wait for him to get his act together, but he’s paying no attention to you, so finally you serve an ace to an empty court.

Your buddy moves his king’s pawn forward.

You serve another ace.

Your buddy moves his queen out to the fifth rank.

You ace him again.

He moves his king-side bishop out.

You miss on your next serve, but you aren’t worried, because he still isn’t on the court. One more serve, and you’ll have him nailed for this game.

He moves his queen down to the seventh rank, takes your king’s bishop pawn, shouts, “Checkmate!” and leaps out of his chair, doing a victory dance.

What just happened there? You were winning, weren’t you? But he thinks he’s winning, because you’ve been playing different games.

This is an extremely weird kind of conflict. A meta-conflict. A conflict over what the nature of the conflict is supposed to be.

You might think this can never happen in real life. But in fact, it happens all the time. Here’s an example that’s a little less extreme:

Bossbert walks into Wally’s cubicle. “Wally, have you got the report done for the Gooberheimer project?”

Wally blows his nose loudly and tosses the Kleenex at Bossbert. “Wow, I’ve got the worst cold you ever heard of.”

Bossbert leaps back from the germy tissue. “I asked you a yes or no question. That means I need a yes or no answer. Are you planning to give me one or not?”

Wally coughs into his hand, then wipes it on his pants. “I should probably go home, if I didn’t have so much work to do.”

Bossbert’s hands are curling into fists. “Would you like me to fire you?”

Wally puts his hand to his forehead. “I think I’ve got a fever. Maybe it’s the flu.”

What’s going on here? Why is Bossbert getting madder and madder?

What’s going on is that Bossbert is playing one game and Wally is playing another. Bossbert needs information, so he’s asking simple yes-or-no questions.

Wally has no intention of giving an answer because he hasn’t done his work. Instead of playing Bossbert’s game (which he would lose), he plays a different game — “feel sorry for me because I’m sick.”

Only an unfeeling brute would fire a worker who has the flu. Bossbert can’t win at Wally’s game, and Wally refuses to play Bossbert’s game. So Bossbert loses.

You can introduce conflict like this in any category.

In GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett meets Rhett Butler in the library and learns that he’s been listening to her throw herself unsuccessfully at Ashley Wilkes.

Scarlett is upset and tries to insult Rhett by calling him an eavesdropper.

Rhett takes this as a compliment and happily informs her that he’s an experienced eavesdropper.

Scarlett gets more angry and tells Rhett he’s no gentleman.

Rhett is unperturbed and agrees with her. He tells her she’s no lady, and that’s what he likes about her.

Now Scarlett is furious. She tells Rhett that he isn’t fit to wipe Ashley’s boots.

Rhett thinks this hysterically funny, since Scarlett has just told Ashley she would hate him all her life.

Scarlett and Rhett are playing different games.

Scarlett is playing the insult game, because she believes that words have the power to hurt. Rhett is playing the game of court jester. He accepts every insult with a grin. Scarlett can’t win, because Rhett isn’t playing her game. Rhett wins simply by refusing to play.

This works even in the most direct of all conflicts –hand to hand combat. Every street fighter knows that the easiest fight to win is the one that’s over before your opponent has even begun.\

In Lee Child’s novel, ECHO BURNING, our hero Jack Reacher is lured into a bar by a couple of toughs who are being paid to beat him up. They’ve even called an ambulance in advance to make sure he won’t die if they get too rough.

They make the mistake of telling Reacher what they plan to do — how they beat up another guy once before, how they cut him up so bad, he almost bled out. They’re trying to scare him, to weaken his resistance. This is an intimidation game, part of the larger game of provoking a street fight. It would work on most people.

Reacher knows this game and he’s not worried. It’s been a long time since he lost a fight in a two-on-one battle. So he lets them know he thinks they’re full of beans. Matter of fact, he tells them that he’ll be happy to fight them right now if they’ll step outside with him. He heads toward the exit and they follow.

Reacher now has them playing the game he wants them to play, the game of “We’ll start an unfair fight out in the parking lot 30 seconds from now.”

But that isn’t Reacher’s game. His game starts 25 seconds before theirs, the instant he reaches the rack of pool cues. He grabs one, spins around and lays into Billy first, then into Josh, while they’re still thinking about what they’ll be doing half a minute in the future.

They’re unconscious before their game is even due to begin.

Why? Because Reacher refused to play their game. Because he chose to break up the timing of their game.

In most scenes of your novel, your characters are all going to be playing the same game. It might be tennis. It might be office politics. It might be verbal jousting. It might be a fist fight.

It’s not WRONG to let your people all play by the same rules. That’s the way most of life is played. You can have a nice conflict where everybody plays fair.

It’s just a whole lot more interesting when one of the characters decides to play a different game — a game the other characters aren’t expecting, aren’t prepared for, and can’t win.

If you want to try taking one of your scenes up a notch, see if you can find a way to get one of your players to change the game. He can either change the rules, change the turf, change the timing, change the definition of winning.

Whatever this rogue character does to change the rules, it needs to massively tilt the game to his advantage.

Try it and see what happens.

What have you got to lose?


The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
Randy Ingermanson (“the Snowflake guy”)
April 5, 2011
Volume 7, Number 4

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Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 25,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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Movie Performance Formula

…the most important variables in predicting box-office performance are [1] whether the film is in the action genre, [2] how conflict builds, and [3] whether the conflict is multidimensional.

via Applying Academic Formulae To Scripts Could Weed Out Hollywood Duds : Planet Money : NPR.

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Source: How-to Author, Randy Ingermanson – Margie Lawson.

Characters always do something for a reason. Writers usually call that reason the “motivation.” I like to break that out into three main parts, and let me go backward from the most visible parts to the least visible parts:

1) A STORY GOAL — Each character should have only one of these and it should be a clear and objective goal. Your reader should know what it would look like for the character to reach her goal. Scarlett O’Hara wants Ashley Wilkes. Either she gets him to marry her, or she doesn’t. Either way, you can have no doubt. This part of a character’s motivation should be one-dimensional.

2) AN AMBITION — Each character has something abstract that they want out of life. Miss America wants “world peace.” But what does that look like? Ambitions are always fuzzy. They have to be; they’re abstract. Each character translates their ambition differently into a concrete story goal–which we talked about above. Scarlett wants to be “the belle of the ball forever.” And she believes that marrying Asley will give her that. She’s mistaken, but that’s OK. She believes it. That’s what drives her. This part of a character’s motivation should also be one-dimensional.

3) VALUES — Each character believes certain core truths to be self-evident. No proof is needed that these core truths are really true, because it’s “obvious”–at least to the character. The ambition we talked about above always springs from your character’s values. This is where you want your character to be multi-dimensional. You want your character to have several values–core truths–and these should be in conflict. Scarlett thinks it’s obvious that “nothing is more important than being the center of attention.” This drives her ambition to be the belle of the ball. But Scarlett also believes that “nothing is more important than surviving.” This leads her to do all sorts of things that some of her friends are just too genteel to do. Scarlett is willing to get her hands dirty doing things that no belle of the ball should ever do. Scarlett’s values are in deep, deep conflict, and that’s what makes her a three-dimensinoal character.

I’ve never heard it explained exactly like this, but I think Randy is absolutely correct.

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