Tag Archives: conflict

Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard

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Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

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Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock

12 May

by Julie Eshbaugh

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“The ticking clock,” is a plot device that is used to constrain your story and put a time limit on your protagonist as he or she works to resolve a conflict. The concept is simple – a certain task must be completed by a certain deadline or the character will fail and suffer the consequences of that failure. An entire story can be a ticking clock (the film RUN LOLA RUN is a good example) or a ticking clock can be part of a single conflict within a larger story (such as the clock tower scene in BACK TO THE FUTURE.)

The addition of a ticking clock instantly creates increased tension. A challenge may feel relatively easy to overcome if time is not an issue. But take away the luxury of unlimited time and you immediately turn up the heat on your characters.

Let’s look at some real life examples. If you’re a student, consider the last paper you had to write. When did you feel the most tension – when you had two weeks to get it written, or 24 hours to hand it in? Writers under contract to a publisher know the reality of the ticking clock all too well when they are up against a deadline to turn in revisions. How about a football team, down by 10 points, at the two minute warning? We all run into ticking clocks in life, and we know the stress they can cause. Sometimes that kind of stress is just what your story needs to increase the pressure on your characters and make the action as compelling as it can be.

Although the ticking clock may feel like a device that is best suited to thrillers, it can be used in almost any kind of story. Below are a few examples taken from films. (I came up with a few from books I’ve read recently, but I was too concerned about spoilers to include them!)

RUN LOLA RUN – Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to deliver 100,000 German marks to save her boyfriend’s life.

TITANIC – In one scene, Rose (Kate Winslet) has to rescue Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) from a room below deck before it floods and he drowns.

SAY ANYTHING – Lloyd (John Cusack) has until the end of the summer to win the heart of Diane (Ione Skye) before she leaves for a new life in England.

ROMAN HOLIDAY – Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has just one day to experience all the joys of life as an anonymous citizen, including falling in love with an American reporter (Gregory Peck.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE – Doc (Christopher Lloyd) has until the moment lightning is destined to strike the clock tower to get the DeLorean time machine in position to send Marty (Michael J. Fox) back to 1985.

(While avoiding spoilers is too important to me to mention specific examples, I can at least say that I can think of examples of ticking clocks in all three of Suzanne Collins’s HUNGER GAMES books, as well as INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher, which I just finished and highly recommend.)

Tips on getting the most out of the Ticking Clock:

• It’s important to maintain the tension all the way up to the deadline. The device alone will increase the pressure on your hero, but the conflict still needs to escalate. As your hero runs out of time, the stakes need to stay high. Your protagonist can not accept missing the deadline as a viable solution.

• As the deadline approaches, the obstacles to succeeding should increase. In the eleventh hour, the plan that has been working smoothly should completely crumble. Don’t let your protagonist off the hook by allowing her to solve the problem too early.

• Don’t let your hero know how it turns out. It’s easy to imagine that a ticking clock could come across as a gimmick. This is most likely to occur when your hero doesn’t feel threatened by the deadline. Your hero must respect the danger of the ticking clock. Don’t let your hero become too confident.

In closing, I want to share the clock tower scene from BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, but I’d like to ask you to watch it for the example it gives of a perfectly executed ticking clock within the plot. (Also, watch for the two actual “ticking clocks” in the scene.) ENJOY!

What do you think of the ticking clock device? Have you ever used it? Do you think it’s something that you would like to try in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Self-Indulgent Fantasies: Funny, but Not Appropriate

2 Mar

by Susan Dennard

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Once upon a time, there was a really beautiful girl with LOTS of money. Her name was Susan, and she was super popular.  Everyone wanted to be her, but she was nice, so everyone liked her too.  She fell in love with a handsome Frenchman.

Oh, and she could fly and turn invisible.

Oh! And Sam Worthington wanted to go out with her, but since she was already married to the wonderful Frenchman, she had to turn him down.  He still sends her flowers and chocolates, regularly…and they like to hang out.

Okay, okay, enough.  If you don’t want to gag yet, you should.  Just writing that triggered severe gag-reflex in me.  Sure, that may be My Ultimate Fantasy, but it’s not a story.  It’s really not something I should share with people either, methinks.

The point is this: YOUR FANTASIES ARE PRIVATE AND SHOULD NOT BE THE CORE OF YOUR STORIES.

Fan fiction is one thing, as Savannah explains very well here, but original fiction is quite another.  You need to distance yourself from self-indulgent drivel.

And here’s why:

When we write our fantasies out, there’s never enough conflict.  Perhaps there’s no character conflict (notice that Susan above is an obnoxious Mary Sue), or maybe there is no plot conflict (um, there is no resistance to Susan’s love story with the Frenchie) or maybe it’s just all-around cheesy (yes, my fantasy definitely has a lot of CHEESE).  No matter what, the problem is private fantasies have no conflict, and without conflict, the story is of no interest to the reader.

Now, of course, you can use parts of your daydreams in your novel.  Or you can draw inspiration from your fantasies.  Gosh, the kiss scene in THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS is definitely something plucked from my Most-Perfect-Kisses-Imaginable-Bank.  And, of course, the rogue-ish Daniel is built from my dreams of swoon-worthy boys.

But those personal favorites are layered underneath not-so-happy conflict, rough decisions, crappy circumstances, and lots of failure — all stuff that doesn’t happen in my fantasies. 😉

Of course, fantasies can sometimes be hilarious for anecdotal tales…  Case in point:

If you ever have fantasies like Katie’s, I ask that you please share.  Or if you ever walk backwards into bushes while sighing deeply.  (Like, seriously, email me or something.)

But if you have fantasies like this, please don’t share! (Go to ~1:00 to hear the about the self-indulgent screen play.)

But if your fantasy is PG rated, just go ahead and share in the comments what your personal DREAM starring YOU would be!

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Taking Tips from the Movies and TV

24 Jan

by Susan Dennard

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One thing you’ve probably heard in your writing-career is that it’s important to read.  Perhaps people have told you how to “read like a writer” by analyzing characterization, scene, syntax, and all the other stuff that goes into a novel.

Well, reading can take time, and dissecting can take even more time.  But the same things you see in a book you can see in a movie.  The key is to watch a movie like a writer.  Seems obvious, right?

It occurred to me while I was watching The Walking Dead. You may or may not like the show (there is some definite Cheese Factor and plot unbelievability), but there are a few things I think the creators do really well that keep viewers coming back for more episodes.  And these things got me thinking…

There are a some common elements in all popular stories, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you can easily spot them and use them yourself!

**Sorta spoilers below for The Walking Dead and Pride & Prejudice…  I try to be vague, but some things might be revealing.  Sorry.**

1) Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, I was invested in the story and attached to the hero, Rick.  Why?  Because Rick showed immediately that he was 1) brave (he’s a cop), 2) devoted to his family, and 3) in a really crappy position (um, waking up from a coma to find the whole world has turned into zombies and your family is missing?  SO NOT A GOOD DAY).

Give your readers a reason to care about and respect your protagonist as soon as your story starts. Show your protagonist as the underdog, show your protagonist helping others, or show your protagonist putting on a big smile even those his heart aches, and your readers will have something to instantly latch onto and appreciate.  (Note: don’t go overboard — make it appropriate to the story.  No on likes a Mary Sue or a Mary Jane.)

2) As The Walking Dead episodes progressed, I kept my eyes peeled for other aspects that kept me interested.  The most obvious thing this show has is conflict — but not the kind you’d expect.  Yeah, there are zombies everywhere trying to eat Rick’s brains, but most of the show’s drama revolves around relationships. For example, Rick’s wife thought Rick was dead, so she started having an affair with Rick’s police partner — OOPS.

Conflict isn’t just about external plot; it’s also about tough decisions, strained friendships, blossoming love, disagreeing goals, self-defeating guilt, etc. Harrowing external events aren’t usually enough to keep a plot interesting.  The tension stays high when characters have to deal with conflict within themselves and amongst themselves.  Above all, it’s conflict that matters because it’s conflict we can relate to.

3) In one of the first episodes, one of the characters makes a Really Bad Decision — he leaves someone behind as zombie food when he could have saved the person.  In later episodes, it’s revealed Mr. Zombie Food managed to survive and is now at large in Atlanta.  As a viewer, I know Mr. Zombie Food is going to come back and be a Really Big Problem for the guy who made the Really Bad Decision.

Every decision has a consequence — usually bad or at least not what the character expects. Stories are more than just cause and effect, they’re decision and consequence.  Good decisions can have bad consequences, bad decisions can have good.  But if the consequences are immediately good, you’ve got a very short story.  The best-laid tales show an ever escalating series of decisions and consequences until the final showdown where things are all wrapped up (for better or for worse).

4) And that escalation leads me to my final point.  Life for the characters is bad — like really really bad — and it’s only getting worse as each episode progresses.  Every step forward leads to two steps back, and that leads to me tuning in every week!

The stakes keep rising and rising until the end. What began as one man’s quest is now several families (oh no!  there are more lives a stake!).  What seemed like it might be a solution (a cure for the virus) proves to be a giant death trap (oh no!  There is no cure!).  Every safe haven the characters think they’ve found proves to be a zombie wasteland (oh no!  there is no escape!).  If you can keep escalating the consequences of decisions (a là element #3) and also escalate what stands to be lost, you’ll have a real page turner on your hands.

Looking at Other Kinds of Film

Action TV isn’t the only place these rules can be found.  Throw Pride & Prejudice in your DVD player (faster than reading the book, remember?  But the book is AMAZING — I definitely recommend it), and you’ll see the same things happening!

Element #1: Elizabeth Bennett is the most clever daughter in a household of ninnies (she is a witty and endearing heroine); her family is bordering on poverty (she is a heroine in underdog circumstances); and she wants nothing more than for her sisters to find good marriages and be happy (she is a selfless and loving heroine).

Element #2: While there is some external conflict (illness, unwanted suitors, cruel Bingley sisters) much of the conflict stems from Elizabeth’s interactions with others and her own inner turmoil.  She doesn’t hit it off too well with Mr. Darcy (lots of lovely tension in those scenes!).  She has to deal with her horribly embarrassing mother in public settings (ugh, so much awkward conflict).  And eventually, she has to deal with her guilt/regret over how she treated Mr. Darcy (inner conflict).

Element #3: Every decision Elizabeth makes leads the story in different directions and has resounding consequences.  She learns the truth about Mr. Wickham, but chooses not to reveal his shady history.  As a result, her sister Lydia runs off with him.  She dislikes Mr. Darcy because of his snobbishness, and as a result rejects a marriage proposal that would have elevated her family to prosperity.

Element #4: Elizabeth’s sisters need to make good marriages in order to provide for the rest of the family, but one by one, their options disappear.  Jane loses Mr. Bingley; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins; Elizabeth’s mother embarrasses the family at every turn and lowers any chance that the Bennett girls will attract good husbands; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy; Lydia shames the family by running off like harlot.  You have to turn the page to find out how it will all work out for the Bennett sisters, and most importantly, to find out how it will work out for Elizabeth.

Applying it to Your Stories

When I set out to write The Spirit-Hunters, I laid out all my favorite novels, movies, and shows and I figured out what elements I liked best, why I liked those best, and how I could use them in my story.

Now it’s your turn to do the same!  Grab your favorite films and TV shows, and pay close attention!  I bet you’ll notice elements 1-4 in play, and what you need to look out for is how the elements are executed.  Maybe the hero is introduced right after he got fired from work (element #1), or maybe every episode shows the heroine dealing with dark secrets (element #2).  Whatever the use, is there some way you can infuse it into your own story?  And are there other things you see and want to use in your writing (maybe a spine-chilling ghost or a passionate love scene)?

Good story-telling is good story-telling, no matter if the medium is film or prose or smoke circles, so why not learn from the people who’ve already done and done it well?

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

16 Dec

This post has been updated and MOVED to our new website: Pub(lishing) Crawl.

The Unity of Opposites

21 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh

Conflict! What is a story without it?  But despite the fact that we all know the value of conflict, striking the perfect balance of opposing forces isn’t always as easy as a writer might like it to be.  But have no fear!  The principle of the unity of opposites is an amazing tool to have at your disposal when testing out a new premise or drawing up a new outline.

So what is the unity of opposites?

Imagine a Philadelphia couple walking into Citizens Bank Park to cheer on the hometown favorites, the Philadelphia Phillies.  They are both dressed in Phillies T-shirts and ball caps.  When they reach their row, they find that the neighboring seats are occupied by a couple dressed in T-shirts and caps declaring their support of the opposing team, the Atlanta Braves.

An argument ensues.  The argument escalates to insults, taunting, and eventually shoving and swearing.  Finally, a punch is thrown.  Soon the two couples are engaged in a near brawl.

Is this conflict an example of the unity of opposites?  No, because although the two couples, when it comes to baseball, may be opposites, they have no unity.  Nothing binds them to each other in a way that would prevent the more civil couple from simply brushing themselves off and walking away.  In other words, this is not a case of a conflict where only one party can win.  If one couple walks away, no one has really lost, and in fact, no one has truly won.

Now imagine if the two couples, instead of brawling, make a bet.  Say each couple takes out a hundred dollars and puts it on the wager, winner take all.  Now imagine further that the Atlanta couple splurged on their trip to the game and under-budgeted for expenses, and this very hundred dollars which they are betting was wired to them this morning by the wife’s overbearing and unforgiving father, for the express purpose of paying for gas for the drive back to Atlanta.  Add to the story that our couple from Philadelphia both are compulsive gamblers, and this hundred dollars that they are betting is owed to a dangerous loan shark.

Now there is a unity of opposites, because one cannot win without the other losing.  The conflict cannot be abandoned without one party accepting defeat.

The unity of opposites is not essential to conflict, but without it, there is always a danger that a character might give in or give up without seeing the conflict through.  Worse yet, the reader may wonder why a character continues in a conflict when walking away might be far more rational or advantageous.  A unity of opposites ensures that the characters cannot walk away.

Sometimes the unity of opposites involves a matter of life and death.  In The Hunger Games, only one tribute can live.  Compromise is impossible, since the tributes are united in their mutual goal to kill each other.  No one can win unless all the others lose.

A unity of opposites can exist without mortal death being the consequence of failure, of course.  Death of an important character trait or valued conviction can be a painful consequence to the loser.  An example of this type of unity of opposites can be found in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are bound together by their mutual attraction, but conflict exists because both of them are unwilling to compromise their proud and judgmental attitudes for the sake of the other.  Neither can “win” without there being a “death” to an essential characteristic of the other.  Likewise, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, though bound by their feelings for each other, the lovers are at conflict because they belong to opposing families.  Their love forms the unity; their family connections make them opposites.  Despite the efforts of both to overcome the power of the conflict between the families, eventually it is his loyalty to the Montague clan that leads Romeo to kill Juliet’s cousin.  The unity that binds Romeo and Juliet puts them in the perfect position to fall victim to the force of conflict between the opposites, a force which drives the characters to their tragic ends.

The idea of the unity of opposites is at its best when the protagonist and antagonist want the exact same thing in a story.  Some refer to this as perfect unity of opposites.

For example, in Romancing the Stone, the protagonist, antagonist, and villain all chase after the same precious emerald.  Indiana Jones and the Nazi officer are both pursuing the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The most perfect character triangle occurs when two characters are both set on the same third character as an object of their love.

The unity of opposites can be a fantastic tool, because it ties the protagonist and the antagonist together.  If you invent it effectively, it prevents one or the other from simply admitting satisfaction and walking away from the story, because neither can win without the other losing.

Can you think of other good examples of the unity of opposites?  Does the unity of opposites appear in your own writing?

Disclaimer:  Although the author of this post is a devoted Phillies fan who will be at Citizens Bank Park to see the Phillies take on the Braves on the evening this post appears, she has never gotten into a brawl or made any sort of wager with fans of opposing teams.  Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.