Sunday, 4 November 2012

Must there be conflict on every page?

I’ve just been through an intensive editing period for an entire manuscript for my third science fiction thriller (Eden’s Revenge), and something nagged at me when reviewing a couple of the chapters. Although the writing seemed fine, I sat back and realized they needed deeper ‘surgery’. In both cases they lacked sufficient conflict. But you don’t need conflict on every page, do you? I used to think not, but now I’ve changed my mind.

A writer colleague of mine sometimes writes an acronym in the margin next to a paragraph: MEGO. It stands for ‘My Eyes Glaze Over’. It means he, as a reader, disconnects from the piece; he gets bored. Sometimes I find this acronym next to a passage where I’ve inserted some tech detail about how some scifi thing works, and he’s not interested (he’s interested in what it does, now how it works). Other times there is a conversation he finds predictable, not moving the plot or character forward. Other times it just feels like nothing much is happening.

Another writing colleague said she’d read somewhere (I think US literary agent Donald Maass may have said this) that you should be able to take a manuscript and throw it in the air, and then be able to pick up any page at random and there would be conflict there, on every single page. I’d argued against this on the grounds that (a) it’s not reasonable to do so, (b) the reader needs to relax sometimes, and (c) wouldn’t that in itself become tedious or repetitive?

But then, the other day, my own eyes glazed over while reading two of my own passages. Well, if the author feels that way, how is the reader going to feel? So I changed them, ramped up the internal conflict in both of them. But how could this happen?

Authors are human. My books are generally full of conflict, because they are thrillers first and foremost. But every now and again I want there to be some humour, for the characters to be able to relax. The trouble is, it reads like the author (aka the narrator) has gone native, and is ‘hanging out’ with the characters, indulging them. The problem is that as a reader, it feels like being at a party with a bunch of people you don’t really know, and they start talking in banter, uttering private jokes you don’t really get or share, being gushy and giving each other hugs, slapping each others’ shoulders, etc. They’re having a great time, you’re not. It doesn’t feel real, and you don’t engage with them. You make your excuses and leave early or head for the kitchen, wondering why you came in the first place.

So, I killed those passages, stripped them all out, replaced them. I’ve left in little one-liners, the occasional smattering of humour, glimpses of heartfelt moments of true camaraderie under fire, but they’re all short-lived, and the reader knows that just around the corner is something that is going to test these characters to the limit, and the reader wants to turn the page to find out what it is, and see how these people are going to react.

If, as a writer reading this, you’re still not convinced, think of it this way. We bond with people fastest when under pressure. Ask any war vets about it. I’m grateful I’ve never had to go to war, but I was a diving instructor for years, and when you scuba dive with your buddy, especially when doing difficult, dangerous dives, an enduring bond is created. Does the same kind of bond emerge if you meet someone down the pub and have a few pints with them?

So, as a writer, you want the reader to bond with your characters, right? Then keep them under fire, and when the fire ceases, let their emotional conflicts surface. Meanwhile, keep the pub and parties for your mates in real life J  

In answer to my own three former arguments about not needing conflict on every page, this is how I now think about it:

(a) it’s not reasonable to do so: in fact it is, because there can be inner conflict as well as external conflict. Also, it doesn’t have to be big conflict all the time, e.g. a slightly harsh word in dialogue signalling that someone is a bit angry with someone else, is conflict.

(b) the reader needs to relax sometimes: yes, but if the reader relaxes too much they can get bored and put the book down. I’m talking about thrillers, here. The hero and heroine can be drinking champagne on the beach, having a great time, but it won’t get interesting until either they have sex or the waiter pulls out a gun J

(c) wouldn’t that in itself become tedious or repetitive? There is no end to the ways conflict can manifest. Our lives are full of conflict. As a writer, different forms of conflict have to be explored.

And that last point is the key. Conflict engages us, because we know conflict well enough from our own lives or people we know. Even boredom is conflict! But in a book it can be resolved, whereas often in life it can’t, at least not in a clean and satisfying way. Maybe that’s why we read in the first place.

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