Writing Basics: Conflict

One of the five elements of a good story is conflict.

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Conflict is any struggle between people or things in a story. Here are some of the basic types of conflict:

  • Man vs Man – the typical hero vs villain setup, with one person striving for one goal and the second person striving for a different one that conflicts with the first
  • Man vs Nature – the protagonist struggles with natural forces instead of another person. This could be something dramatic like a storm, or something subtle like the struggle to survive a hostile land
  • Man vs Self – this is the protagonist struggling with his or her own desires and temptations, striving to do the right thing in spite of inner darkness
  • Man vs Society – the protagonist struggles against his or her society, defying and striving to change the role they have been given
  • Man vs Technology – the protagonist struggles with the modern world. This could be a science fiction story with intelligent machines, or a simple struggle with today’s  high-tech society

Some writers also include categories such as Man vs God or Man vs Supernatural to this list.

5 Steps to a Great Book Blurb

Amanda Patterson writes a mean blog over at Writers Write! Here’s her method of writing a great book blurb.

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She calls it SCOPE:

  • S=Setting. Detail where and when the story takes place, in as few words as possible
  • C=Conflict. A good way to start this section of the blurb is with “But” or “However.”
  • O=Objective. Detail what your characters need to achieve.
  • P=Possible Solution. Give one idea how the protagonist can overcome the conflict. Give the readers a reason to pick up the book and read it.
  • E=Emotional Promise. Tell the readers how the book will make them feel. Set the mood.

Let’s see how this would work.

London. The late 1800′s. Scrooge is a sour old miser who hates Christmas. But he’s given a chance to change, to see the good in life. A chance offered by the visits of three spirits on Christmas Eve. Can Scrooge change his attitude, or will his own spirit suffer through eternity the way his former partner suffers? A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a heart-warming tale of Christmas cheer and good will toward all men.

Find Your Voice

Voice is a hard one for many beginning writers. What exactly is a writer’s voice, and how do you get that unique one that all of the agents and editors are looking for?

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One of the biggest roadblocks to finding your unique voice is the feeling that you “should” sound a certain way: you should write like a professional, or sound like an expert. You should use big words to sound educated, or short sentences to give more impact.

The actual fact is that you should sound like yourself.

The goal is to have your writing read, and the best way to do that is to sound completely natural and genuine. Write like yourself instead of trying to be what you think someone wants you to be.

Here are some writing exercises to help you find your unique voice:

  • Write a love letter – pretend your airplane has crashed on a deserted mountaintop, or that you’re floating at sea in a life raft, and that you’ll never see your loved one again. Really ramp up the emotion on this exercise, and you should find a unique voice in under 500 words!
  • Try on different personas – write a scene (200-300 words) from the point of view of vastly different personas. Try a priest, a murderer, a small child, and an old man. Try whatever you want, but try to be authentic to each persona. When you’re done, write the same scene in your own point of view, in your “normal” voice and see how different it sounds.
  • Talk to your best friend – write down what you’ve done this week as if you’re telling your best friend. Take 200-300 words and find your voice.
  • Describe your personality – what adjectives would describe you? Write 200-300 words and try to make your writing sound like those adjectives.
  • Write a letter to yourself – make it something powerful that you need to tell your inner being, or something from your future self that you need to know now. Whatever it is, make it emotional.
  • Try different moods – write a scene in different moods (happy, angry, mopey, etc.) and see which one flows better for you.
  • Mix a metaphor – if your writing style was a drink, what kind would it be? Would it go down as smooth as fine brandy, or would it be spicy like a rum toddy?
  • Have a conversation – write to just one person, not to an imaginary crowd of readers. Imagine that person vividly. You can even give them a name to help you picture them.
  • Put yourself somewhere else – picture yourself writing in a different environment and see how different your voice sounds. Perhaps you’d prefer the excitement of writing in a crowded coffeeshop or in the mall courtyard. Maybe you’d feel better in a secluded wood or on a tropical island. Experiment and see which voice you like best.
  • Read out loud – yes, actually read your work aloud. Pretend you’re talking to your best friend, or to that one imaginary reader you’ve invented. See if your writing sounds the way you’d talk to them, and change it if it doesn’t.

For You: Kirkham Speaks

This was one of the original chapters from Kirkham’s POV – ditched it because nothing exciting happens to poor Stone unless he’s with the lads.

     Lieutenant Johnson kept up a solid stream of curses for the entire time it took the Pacific Express to clear the rock cut. His squad had dismantled the barricade in only fifteen minutes, but it took another fifteen to thread the train through the side of the mountain. The boom of the trestle exploding behind them didn’t improve the lieutenant’s mood any.

     Agent Reginald Kirkham paid no attention to Johnson, except to frown when the volume grew annoying. An educated man had no need to resort to such language, and he thought it spoke poorly of the man’s self control. Kirkham busied himself readying the gelding for travel. He had to catch up with those two reprobates before they disappeared again. The Bureau still hadn’t managed to figure out how they did it, but following each robbery, Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid just faded into the background. Obviously, they either had either an impenetrable hideout, or alter egos that could stand scrutiny. He planned to find out which.

     The army squad had complained at the presence of the horse within their boxcar. They’d changed their tune now that the payroll was likely halfway across the mountain range. Suddenly, every man wanted a horse, and every man wanted to go haring off after the outlaws. Kirkham had bought the mustang before they loaded the train. The animal was purported to be an excellent trail horse. He’d need a sure-footed horse if those two had taken to the mountains — and if they were half as good as they were supposed to be, they’d taken to the mountains.

     His assignment was to trail the outlaws to whatever hideout they were using, and to approach them if possible. Kirkham thought little of the latter idea. Some desk-bound bureaucrat back at the Capitol figured one special agent could easily overpower two of the worst the West had to offer, even somewhere back of beyond with two to one odds. Kirkham had no great hankering to get shot, so he planned a lengthy period of observation instead.

     The train had pulled clear of the cut and stopped, per Kirkham’s orders. He slid the door to the boxcar open. Lieutenant Johnson slammed a fist against the wall of the car.

     “Blast it, Kirkham! I ought to appropriate that animal in the name of the army. We can track down those two hooligans faster than any Washington city slicker.” His scowl darkened as Kirkham pretended he’d heard nothing and led the horse down the ramp to the tracks.

     Johnson leaped down in front of the horse, causing it to shy back against the boxcar. That was entirely too much! Kirkham took two steps and shoved a finger underneath the man’s nose. He had a difficult time making it a finger instead of a fist.

     “You had this entire plan explained to you by the governor himself, Johnson. I don’t care what you think, but you’ll get out of my way or you’ll find yourself in irons.”

     The lieutenant did raise a fist, and then thought better of it, and stepped back. Kirkham didn’t spare him a second glance, but mounted up and urged the horse into a canter. It’d be useless back-tracking to the trestle — or what was left of it. He knew pretty much where the outlaws had lain in wait. What he needed to figure out was where they were headed. To that end, he needed to pick up their trail on the dry riverbed.

     He took a deep breath as he left the train behind. The crisp mountain air cooled off his temper some. Sure, he could have used a few extra riflemen as backup, but he’d prefer men who were better at creative thinking than at following orders. Maybe he’d gotten spoiled working in Washington, surrounded by the cream of the Bureau. It had taken them nearly a year to track the outlaws this far. He’d hate to imagine how long it would have taken if he’d had Johnson and his squad helping instead of his pick of the Bureau statistics team.

     Perhaps his boss had been right; perhaps he did need to get out in the field and see how the world really worked. Although if that army squad was any indication, most people in the “real world” were about as observant as a lump of coal. If any one of those men had paid attention during the robbery, instead of shouting empty threats and useless curses, they’d have been able to successfully creep up on whichever one of the two had holed up in the rocks. Kirkham had figured out early on that the other outlaw was actually underneath the trestle: the bottle of nitroglycerin so pointedly mentioned had been positioned at the bottom of the explosive bundle, not at the top. Once he’d noticed that, he’d watched the shadows at the bottom of the ravine. He’d spotted the arm reaching out to haul the payroll box between a couple of crossbars, and felt a grudging respect for their ingenuity.

     Kirkham thought about it as the horse picked its way down the side of the mountain. He’d requested this assignment because of that grudging respect, and he was about to learn whether he was as good an agent as he actually thought he was. Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid were the best at what they did. Even though Kirkham abhorred the idea of breaking the law, he admitted that fact, and admitted that they had to possess significant intelligence to be the best. The two outlaws had managed to outwit banks, trains, and stage lines for over ten years. Bankers who bragged of their impenetrable defenses unlocked their doors to find the safe emptied. Railroad presidents who’d plotted supposedly top-secret deliveries found their trains diverted and robbed. 

The Basics: Setting

Setting is another area where beginning writers have trouble. They may not fully understand the concept, or they might not have completely thought out their particular setting.

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Setting is not only the place in which the story occurs, but also the time and social environment. A story can take place in New York City, for example, but the reader also needs to know when it’s happening (present day? the 1890′s? prehistoric times?) and which social setting the characters must deal with (high society? desolate poverty? middle class?).

In order for your readers to identify fully with the story, your setting must be both clear and vivid. The reader must understand where and when the story is taking place, and must form a memorable mental image of that setting.

Here are some tips for crafting your setting:

  • Use all of the senses – Don’t just show the readers where they are. Let them smell and hear it, and they’ll remember it better.
  • Make the setting a character – Create a setting that is unique to your story, such that the action simply couldn’t take place anywhere (or anywhen) else.
  • Know the setting intimately – Find or create a map and post it onto your cork board. Choose photographs to inspire you (these can be actual pictures of the setting, or just something that reminds you of your imaginary world). You should know the setting well enough to give a stranger directions. You may never use all of your knowledge, but just having it in your mind will create a more vivid experience for your readers.

5 Tips for a Great Opening Chapter

How are you going to grab that agent’s or editor’s attention and make them want to request your entire manuscript? Here are some tips.

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  • Make your characters three-dimensional – have strong, well-defined characters from the first scene, and make them vivid enough to hook the reader into their emotions
  • A strong plot – don’t start with all the subplots immediately, but give a good idea of what the main plot is going to be, so the reader knows immediately if they want to read further
  • Tight writing – cut the flowery speech, unnecessary adjectives, and most especially the adverbs. Watch for passive sentences as well (“The newspaper was read” instead of “We read the newspaper”)
  • Unique voice – practice your craft until you have your own style and voice, and any agent or editor can spot that immediately
  • Something new – never try to write what’s currently selling, because it’s already out of fashion by the time you get your book to the market. Write what’s in your soul, and it’ll be something they’ve never seen before (or never seen in that light)

“But what about that great ‘hook’ sentence?” you ask. Every English teacher has told you that you need one. Well, here’s the trick to writing a great opening sentence:

Finish the book first! The best way to craft the perfect opening sentence and chapter is to have the whole thing finished, and edit the first part to match the ending.