But I’ve now written a 180,000 word epic fantasy and 23 romance books (some short ‘category’ length, some 100k and over) as well as six other novels, and I’ve had a dozen short stories published and won prizes in fifteen competitions. So I believe I’m starting to get a good idea of how to put a story together, and how to write well enough that many readers come back for more! And I’m happy to share the Things I Wish I’d Been Told with other writers in the hope someone may find the information useful. Many of you will have heard all this before. But I hadn’t. And if it helps just one aspiring writer, it will have been worth it.
Over the next few weeks I’ll talk about all kinds of things—plotting, characterisation, dialogue, finishing the damn book, tips for editing your work, submission tips, what happens when you finally have a piece of work accepted, the publication process, getting a cover, promotion and marketing, and all sorts of things in between. I’ll tell you about my experience because I’ve learned the hard way, and I’m still learning, and I’m living proof that if you have 5% talent, 20% know how, 25% luck and 50% sheer determination, you’ll get there in the end. Feel free to ask me questions, and I’ll share wherever I can. When starting out, I was hungry for details about publishers and royalties and ways to improve, and I’d have died to have five minutes with a published writer to pass on tips. Well, I’m here, I’m happy to share, so make the most of me!
So without further ado, what’s the first Thing I Wish I’d Been Told, way back when I first started writing?
Let’s start with the ‘C’ word. No, no, not that one! Conflict!
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was fifteen, and by the time I was in my twenties (I’m 43 now), I’d had a scattering of minor successes in the form of published letters and poems and one or two short stories, but the kind of success I wanted—nay hungered for—eluded me. Time and again competition judges would shortlist my entries, but I still failed to place, and I continued to gain the usual stack of rejection letters.
Then, in my mid-twenties, two things happened. Firstly, I wrote a short story about the Black Death (cheery I know.) It was set in a medieval village that had been visited by the plague, and everyone had died except one man. It’s told from his POV (point of view), and it followed his memories about the people who had died and how he wished he could have done things differently etc. Then he digs his own grave, gets in it and, well, dies. It was very moving and poignant. I swear.
I described it to hubby. This is how the conversation went.
Hubby: “Sounds great! But what’s it about?”
Me: ??? “I’ve just told you.”
Hubby: “You told me the setting, the background, the characters. But what’s it about?”
Me: ??? *sulks*
The story shortlisted in several comps. Had some nice comments about language and metaphors and mood. And (as usual) that was it.
Shortly after this, I bought a book. It was called Cracking the Short Story Market by Iain Pattison, and it’s now out of print unfortunately, although I’m sure there are a billion other books out there with the same information, just in a different format.
It was full of heaps of good advice, but the most important thing I took from it was the importance of conflict. Without it, you don’t have a story. You have an anecdote. And that was the problem with the Black Death story. There was no conflict.
(Note: I’m not necessarily talking about literary fiction here, which doesn’t always follow these rules and is often about atmosphere and mood. I’m talking more about genre fiction which IMO has a stronger sense of plot/story/conflict. And of course most books also have sub plots and not all have strong conflicts that can be named in a sentence. But in a good, strong piece of writing, conflict is pretty much essential.)
So what is conflict? Someone (I can’t remember if it was Iain or not) describes this as putting your character up a tree, throwing stones at him, then getting him (or her) down again. Loosely interpreted, this means you have to make your characters miserable before you give them what they want!
In summary, you have to decide three things:
- What do your characters want/need?
- Why can’t they get it?
- What do they learn by the end of the story/book to enable them to get it?
Point 1 is the central story. Your character has to want or need something, otherwise there’s no story at all! (One problem with the Black Death story. He didn’t need anything. He was just commenting on his life. Yawn.)
Point 2 is the conflict. What is stopping your character from achieving their goal? (Again, the problem with the Black Death story. It was moving and touching and atmospheric. But the dude just died. Where’s the conflict in that?)
Point 3 is perhaps the most important. Your character has to change by the end of the book in some way to enable them to achieve their goal. Otherwise you have the Deux ex machina or ‘Fairy Godmother’ device, where the character’s problem is solved either by the wave of a wand, the statement ‘it was all a dream’, or the invention or appearance of some amazing device/person that magics away their problem. That’s not what we want. We want the character to learn throughout the story and to develop in order to solve the problem themselves.
Another way to look at this is outlined on the Kiwi Writers site.
1) The Goal is WHAT the character wants to achieve (whether it be in the story or the chapter).
2) The motivation is WHY the character wants to achieve the goal.
3) The conflict is the OBSTACLE that the character needs to overcome.
And they give a simple formula to remember this:
The character <Goal> because <Motivation> but <Conflict>.
Let’s take The Lord of the Rings as an example.
Frodo’s Goal: to destroy the one ring
Frodo’s Motivation: he wants to save the Shire because he loves his home
Frodo’s Conflict: Sauron wants to subjugate Middle Earth and is determined to regain the ring.
So using the formula,
Frodo wants to destroy the one ring because he wants to save the Shire but Sauron is determined to take the ring back. Simplified, obviously, but it works.
Before I give more examples, let’s look into conflict a little further. There are two basic types. Internal and External conflict.
External conflict is perhaps the easiest to address. This is where something external to the character (ie nothing to do with his/her emotions) comes between him/her and the goal. But it’s not just about fighting. Conflict doesn’t mean arguments (necessarily). So what types of external conflict are there in fantasy writing? What things can get in the way of a character completing a journey or quest, for example?
Probably the most popular one is an evil baddy (or group of baddies) that the hero/ine has to confront and/or defeat. Think Sauron, General Woundwort, Nightshade, the White Witch etc. A few other obstacles you can shove in the hero’s path are: family problems (overbearing parent, sibling rivalry etc), political problems like a civil war or protest or overcoming a corrupt ruler, bad weather/disasters, illness, being captured… Anything that stops your character getting to his/her goal. And heap them on. The more conflicts/obstacles the better. Continue to keep tripping them up. You really want to make your characters suffer, because that makes achieving their goal all the more rewarding.
Examples of these types of conflict in novels might be:
- The hero wants to help his friends to a safe place of refuge so they can settle down, but a rival group is determined to destroy their new home (Richard Adams’ Watership Down)
- The heroine wants to live a normal life with the man she’s fallen in love with, but she’s in hiding because she saw a murder and the gang responsible want to kill her so she can’t testify against them (Nora Roberts’ The Witness)
- The hero is trying to govern a kingdom but several antagonists including a witch and a dragon are determined to bring him down. (Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale.)
Some other ideas I’ve had are: the heroine’s an archaeologist protecting an important dig site that was her late father’s passion—the hero is a developer who wants to build a hotel on the spot. Or the hero is the captain of a spaceship delivering vital medical supplies to a planet with his sick mother on it, and an alien ship has just dropped out of warp to intercept him. Or the heroine’s a thief with a commission to steal an ancient artefact from a museum and the fee will mean she’ll never have to work ever again, but the FBI got a shot of her on camera and they’re hunting her down. You get the idea.
In the Black Death story, to introduce some conflict, the hero could have just buried his family and is about to lie down in his own grave when a group of outlaws comes into the village. Maybe they plan to rob the graves and take away his family’s precious belongings. He’s determined he will not die until he’s defeated them. This could still be a poignant, moving story about loss, but it gives some sense of structure to it, and a reason for us to want the hero to succeed, even though we know he’s going to kick the bucket!
With Heartwood, my epic fantasy, I’m interested in the Templar knights and the way a man could balance a love of his god with fighting ability when, on the surface, the two things seem so polarised. I knew my holy knights were going to defend the Arbor—the tree that controls the movement of energy (and thus the growth of the land) through its roots. And if they were going to defend it, naturally there was going to be an invasion. That’s the central external conflict—defeat of the bad guys. The Darkwater Lords want to destroy the Arbor. The Militis want to save it. Ta da!
Now let’s look at Internal Conflict. Often what is stopping the hero or heroine from getting what they want is due to something that’s happened in their past colouring the way they look on life and influencing how they act and think. But it’s not just about tear-jerking emotions. And it’s not just used in romance.
Using the books above, these are some of the internal conflicts:
- In Watership Down, Hazel struggles to control the group because he is not the strongest rabbit, and the animal kingdom is usually run by the survival of the fittest. Hazel has to have faith in his own special abilities to lead and must take time to show the others that his ideas work before they will follow him in the final resolution.
- In The Witness, the heroine, Elizabeth, has been brought up in a very strict household with an overbearing mother who governs every aspect of her life. After she goes into hiding, Elizabeth learns to survive by keeping herself to herself, and she has to overcome this fear and her desire to withdraw from life in order to find happiness with the man she loves.
- In Magic Kingdom, Ben’s wife and child have died in a car accident. His life has lost all meaning and he is trying to find a way to go on without them. As he begins to find purpose in his new life—and starts to love again—he has to overcome the guilt he feels at the fact that he is still alive, and believe in himself in order for the mighty Paladin to defend him in battle.
Internal conflict is essential, because if a reader connects with a story’s characters emotionally, they will come back to that author again and again. Often I stop watching TV series because I just don't care whether the main character(s) live or die. Internal is often the major conflict in fantasy, where characters have to overcome an inner battle before they defeat the external conflict. Think Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara, where Shea Ohmsford has to do a great deal of soul searching before he can wield the Sword. Think of Joss Whedon and Firefly. Lots of manly stuff going on there, guns and horses and Westerns and sci-fi spaceships, but it’s packed with emotion, with romance and feelings of revenge and redemption and hope.
With internal conflict, a good place to start is the main character’s past. Rough up some notes about your hero/heroine. Are their parents still alive? Brothers and sisters? Where did they grow up? What happened in their childhood? From these your character’s main internal conflict will stem. If their parents died when young, then they will have had to stand on their own two feet much earlier. Perhaps they have trouble asking for help and have to learn to work as a team to achieve their goal. If they were bullied, perhaps it has made them defensive and resentful, and they have to learn to accept compliments and trust others.
In Heartwood, every year a number of children of the age of seven are brought to Heartwood to undergo a series of tests. From these children, a select few will be picked to join the holy knights. My main hero, Chonrad, comes to Heartwood for the Allectus—the choosing—but he is rejected. And that rejection remains with him all his life. He trains extra hard as a knight to overcome that constant feeling of inadequacy, and he understandably bears resentment toward Heartwood. That will affect his choices and his reasons for helping (or not) when he is called for the Last Stand.
For the perfect story, it’s best if there’s internal and external conflict. External tends to drive the plot—it gives the emotional story a framework to hang onto. I think of the external conflict as the skeleton, the internal as the flesh. One hangs on and moulds to the other.
Hopefully you can see the point I’m making. The stronger your conflict—and preferably you have both internal and external—the stronger your story. Once you get the hang of this, it will lift your writing out of the ordinary. Only when I found this magic button did I really start to sell stories and win competitions. (And then I was, like, why didn’t I realise this before?)
I hope you found this useful. I wish I’d been told this earlier in my career. But it’s never too late—I’m living proof of that. I’ve been writing nearly thirty years and my first epic fantasy comes out this October. But it’s been worth the wait! :-)