I’ve re-read some of my old stories recently. I enjoy all of them, of course – I’m slightly biased that way. I also mostly wrote the kinds of stories that I wanted to read. The grand majority of stories were for nobody’s eyes but my own, and I in fact would be mortified if some of them got into the wrong hands. The wrong hands being anyone’s other than mine. And even I cringe when I read them.
But, I digress. The stories that really keep me riveted are those where the characters are constantly in conflict with each other. I love the tension. I don’t want to know who is going to win ahead of time. I want the characters to struggle against each other even when they’re on the same team.
I re-discovered a story recently that I wrote, and it was really good! There were people fighting with one another over a third person, there was yelling, there was the threat of physical violence. It was so good that I missed my subway stop twice: once in the forward direction, and then I missed it going back as well.
It doesn’t just move the plot forward, but it makes it compelling to both read AND write. Write a Novel in 30 Days, by the creator of NaNoWriMo, encourages killing a character off when your story seems to stagnate. In the same way, throwing in someone angry, sneaky or just contrary can power up the scene again and give you the steam to push through. If I find myself wandering off in the middle of scene, wanting to write something more compelling, I have to take a step backwards and think what it is I can do to make this scene compelling. Why do none of the characters have conflicting motivations? Maybe I need to speed through the scene and get to something more interesting to read as well as write.
(I’m imagining characters flinging up their arms mid-scene and exclaiming, “I just don’t understand my motivation in this scene!”)
At the same time, you can’t manufacture conflict without a legitimate cause. Characters still need to act in a reasonable(ish) and believable way. For me, the best stories are about internal conflict, which is difficult to manufacture in a believable way. So to write a good scene, I have to keep all the character personalities, the overall plot, the pacing and the conflict in mind. No wonder plotting intimidates me. Fortunately, well-developed characters seem to do a lot of this work for me (more about this trippy and awesome effect in the future!).
It does beg the questions though – how do you write love scenes that move forward at pace? Or when two people are in tune for a common goal? Does there really need to be conflict in every scene? Maybe at some point, the momentum of the story is enough to keep the pace of the story without needing that conflict. Maybe I need to flip through some novels to see what other authors do to keep that kind of thing on track.