Becoming a Storyteller: Creating Conflict, or, Do I Have a Green Thumb for Fiction?

Drama is life with the dull parts taken out.  –Alfred Hitchcock

This post’s information comes to you via the works and words of one James Scott Bell, an author of numerous thrillers and books on writing craft, including Conflict & Suspense. James Scott Bell contributes regularly to Writer’s Digest, is an active teacher at writing conferences, and has a useful, entertaining Twitter account (@jamesscottbell), where he links to helpful articles on writing, provides tips and quotes, interacts with other writers and fans, and shows us mortals how to dangle the carrot:

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bell at the 2012 Writers Digest Conference in New York City. I attended his workshop on Conflict and Suspense, and after recently reading his article, The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them, for the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, I dug out the notes I had scribbled during the session.

Along my journey toward becoming a storyteller, I felt Conflict was something I had a good handle on. I mean, I know that without Conflict you don’t have a Story. I know it’s the struggle between two opposing forces, and I thought I did a decent enough job of sewing the seeds of Conflict into the lives of my characters. As it turns out, I might not have the greenest of fiction thumbs. I’m too soft on my characters, and when I do start to squeeze ’em a bit, it’s too late.

When I leafed through my notepad (Useless Bit of Information #1: As a lefty, I prefer Steno notepads to regular notebooks whose binding crowds my hand.), I found that one of the first bullets under James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense session read as follows:

Soil for Conflict: A Lead Character that Readers Care About

This struck me for two reasons. First, because I had spend part of the afternoon working on an interview for Julie Kolb, whose awesome blog is: 500approaching50.wordpress.com, and answered one of her questions with a gardening metaphor. She had asked if I kept any of the stories I’d written when I was young, and here was my answer:

Do you still have those early stories? 
The earliest stories I have kept are from my college days as part of the creative writing program at Florida International University. I can look back and see the seeds of something greater. I don’t know that I’ve spent enough time watering those seeds though. The one complete novel manuscript that I have developed over 10 years, with its roots stretching way back to high school and much of the first draft being grown through college.

Second, my wife had quite literally just asked me to go water the plants in our new garden. (Useless Bit of Info #2)

During his talk, James Scott Bell discussed how true character is revealed in times of trouble and conflict. He said suspense is the withholding of a resolution.

Bell went on in the session to describe different types of Lead Characters to plant in said Soil. There’s the Positive Lead, vindicating or representing the values of the community; the Negative Lead, or someone who doesn’t represent the values of the community; and the the Antihero, someone who doesn’t want to be involved in any community. Bell said, foundationally speaking, we need a bonding with the Lead Character before we can get to the next part. Death.

Bell said in order to truly reveal these Lead Characters, the threat of Death needs to be involved. He went on to describe three types of Death: physical, professional, and psychological. The article in Writer’s Digest really does a nice job of developing this point. Our job is to make the Lead Character’s problem feel so important that failing to overcome it will mean a permanent setback in their life.

As I said in my answer to Julie’s question, many times I’ve seen the seed of Conflict in my fiction, but I haven’t done enough to cultivate it. I haven’t watered the plant of the story, and I’ve failed to let the Character bloom to his full potential. The guidance of writers like James Scott Bell helps me understand the different methods I can use to better tend this garden of fiction.

Check back soon, as I’ll have another post dedicated to James Scott Bell’s article: The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes + How To Fix Them and how I’m the jackass that has made ’em all.

Conflict & Suspense
James Scott Bell signed my copy of Conflict & Suspense, and he told me to keep writing. He’s a pro, so I guess I’ll listen.

Becoming a Storyteller: The 15, er, 10 Commandments

I’ve discussed rules for writing on this blog in the past–you can check out that post here–but in piecing together my last post, I came across my old creative writing notebook from my days at Florida International University. While most of my days at FIU were forgettable, many of the classes I took as part of the creative writing program are indelibly etched on my memory. So, flipping through the book I found my notes from a Narrative Techniques class I took with John Dufresne.

In his book called The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, Dufresne presents his Ten Writing Commandments. The book was published in August of 2004, and since I took the class the Spring semester 2001 I was privy to the working draft of Dufresne’s guide to writing. I can see how the scribbles in my notebook morphed into what’s presented in the publication–and that’s awesome.

Here’s Dufresne’s list of Commandments from The Lie

  1. Sit your ass in the chair.
  2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
  3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
  4. Honor the lives of your characters.
  5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
  6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
  7. Thou shalt steal.
  8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
  9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
  10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.

Sitting my ass in the chair has always been difficult, but I’ve resolved myself to do just that more often. As I’m sure many of you know, it’s harder than it seems. There are any number of excuses I can find to not sit in the chair, but, as the saying goes, novels don’t write themselves. Dufresne and others say Writer’s Block is nothing more than an excuse that gets a writer off the hook, and I tend to agree. In an interview with Southern Scribe, Dufresne goes on to explain his first commandment:

First Commandment–sit your butt in the chair. I’m not sure there’s a secret to this except loving what you do and wanting to do it so badly you miss it if you’re not in the chair. This means being patient and tenacious and trusting in the writing process.  Nothing good happens in a single draft. Writing a story wasn’t built in a day. You need to get to know your characters before you can care about them. Once you care about them, you won’t have any trouble getting back to the writing desk. You need to make writing a priority in your life if you’re serious about it. You need to sacrifice something. Writing takes time most of all. And you have to want to write as badly as you want to watch TV or go to the movies. You manage to get those done. And you can probably manage all three.

I think the concepts in play there are invaluable, but also difficult to come to grips with–at least for me. I may be passionate about my dream–my goal, but I struggle with making it manifest. When he discussed the writing process, Dufresne quoted Blaise Pascal, who said: “most of the evils of life come from man’s inability to sit still in a room.” He continued by saying that, in the crafting of a story, time leads to place, and place leads to character, and character leads to destiny.

Regarding destiny, he said: “Destiny is making a choice to seize the opportunity of chance.”

Here’s the list of commandments as John Dufresne presented them to that Narrative Techniques class waaay back on January 17th, 2001.

  • Sit your ass in the chair
  • don’t bore the reader
  • don’t be obscure
  • don’t create passive central characters
  • surprise the reader/yourself
  • don’t confuse the reader with audience
  • be accurate, get the details right, be particular
  • don’t write the unimportant
  • go for the precise gesture
  • revelations lurk in the details

I see how many of the notes I took in 2001 became part of the manuscript published in 2004. I understand the economy of words in the published version, and the polish of them. I get the implementation of theme.

But I love my notebook.

The very first line from my notebook reads as follows:

That’s what we are: thieves, writers are thieves.

Since he said that, I guess he won’t mind that I’m stealing all this shit from him.