Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Quest for Story: #5 -- A Con Artist

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Roadblock)

(This is post #5 in a quest to define what creates "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

In earlier posts in this series, I hit the three key elements that must be developed to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice.  Now we're expanding some of those elements.

But, before I get into today's stop on the quest, I think there might be one question that arises during this series:

So what the hell do I know about all this, anyway? 

It's not like I've got a huge track record of published success, or years of experience in the publishing industry, or an MFA in Creative Writing from a well-respected university, or even a thick catalog of completed works under my belt.  So to anyone who wonders let me say, you're right -- it's a very valid question.  But it's also an easy one to answer:

Not much, really.  

I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination, so don't take what you read in this series as anything more than one guy's opinion.

I've only acquired what I know about writing from a few college classes here and there, a lot of personal research, a commitment to learning all I can about writing, 45 years of avid fiction readership, and -- in the end -- a gut feeling about what seems "right," even if I'm still struggling to pull it off.

This series isn't meant to be a lecture from my blogging podium, and I hope it never comes across that way.   This is supposed to be a sharing of the things I think make up a good story, as I'm still learning about them. Basically, I'm a rookie writer still on my own personal quest for story, not a wizened old veteran pontificating about the vast experience I've gained from a lifetime of publishing. But I still think the quest is worth talking about, even if I'm not an expert.

Plus I'm always open to feedback, thoughts, debate, and any other enlightenment you might care to add. If you have experience in any of this, feel free to share it.  Correct me if I'm wrong, Fill me in if I'm missing something. Give me a well-deserved kick in the pants if I ever come across as sanctimonious or snobbish in anything I write.

So, with that out of the way, let's get on to stop #5 of the quest:

I think in order to write a good story, an author must be a skilled Con Artist.

No, not "con" as in "confidence", although there is certainly a need to be able to get your readers to trust you and to suspend their disbelief as they read your words.

What I mean is "con" as in


A good story must have conflict, opposition, and tension or it simply fails.  There doesn't have to be epic battles or global strife, and a good story certainly doesn't have to be depressing or dark.  But there needs to be at least something that is opposing the main character.  Something that they are struggling against, something that is trying to prevent them from going or getting where thy want, something that they must overcome.

Conflict and opposition are at the core of the plot. A plot with no challenges for the characters isn't really a plot.  It's just a series of events -- dull and lifeless.  There has to be roadblocks for the characters to overcome, or to at least struggle against.

Conflict can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Struggles of one character against another.  "Man vs man" or "The Hero against The Villain" in all its variety, like Beowulf vs Grendel, Sherlock vs Moriarty, Ripley vs the Alien, or the Roadrunner vs the Coyote.
  • Struggles of a character against outside forces.  Some sources may break this one down into subcategories like "Man vs Nature," "Man vs Society," "Man vs Technology,"  and "Man vs Fate,"  but essentially it's any form of conflict where a character deals with opposition from some faceless force much larger than any specific antagonist.
  • A character's own inner struggles. "Man vs Himself."  A battle with inner demons, or a fight to resist the lure of something that will lead to significant consequences.  The inner struggle can often be the most dramatic conflict, and is a key part of effective characterization. But it is also the hardest to 'show' without resorting to 'telling' and exposition.
These three buckets are pretty wide, and yet there can still be overlap, and frankly -- there should be. Moby Dick might involve Ahab vs the Whale, but that whale can just as easily represent the force of Nature, God, or Fate. The same for Ripley fighting against that multi-jawed, acid-slobbering alien.  Luke vs Darth Vader succeeds because it also features the struggles of Luke vs the Evil Empire and Luke vs the inner pull of the power of the dark side.

An author must become a skilled artist at creating conflict within their own work, and the richer and deeper the conflicts involved, the more likely a piece of fiction is to elevate to "Good Story."


And a few other Blogging tidbits to share:

Milo James Fowler is holding  a contest at his blog In Media Res.  Visit to enter for a chance to win the latest edition of Bardic Tales and Sage Advice, which contains his story "The Second Option."

Milo is a very talented author whose stories I greatly admire.  His ever-growing body of work has featured such iconic characters as Captain Quasar, Mercer (seen again in "The Second Option"), and Coyote Cal.  Milo is also one of the lynchpins behind the Write 1 Sub 1 writer's group.

If you're unfamiliar with Milo's fiction, I encourage you to pay him a visit.  If nothing else, stop by for a chance to win a wonderful collection of great writing.

* * * * *

DL Hammond's WRiTE Club 2012 is going strong!  Having expanded the preliminaries to 36 rounds this year, DL is putting up a new bout each and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So far the quality of the entries has been fabulous. 

Each bout in WRiTE CLub lasts a week and feature two anonymous 500-word writing samples going head-to-head. Blog visitors vote for their favorite in the comments.  In October the preliminaries will finish and the next rounds will begin, pitting earlier winners against each other, with the final goal to come away with just ONE final winner.  The finals will be judged by an esteemed group of writers, agents, and others in the publishing profession. The list of  the preliminary winners so far is HERE.

Be sure to visit DL's blog Cruising Altitude 2.0 to read the entries and to vote for your own favorites.


Suze said...

Great post, Chris, on all counts. Just logged onto Blogger to take a break from a manuscript I've been editing for a friend, and she's got the conflict thing down pat. Wearing me out. :/

I was the kid who wanted to distribute the Good News Gazette. Writing gripping fiction is very hard emotional work. Tipping my hat to all con artists. (Never thought I'd write that.)

Into the fray ... !

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I usually combine inner conflict with outer. Never really had a villain per se.

M Pax said...

Conflict is a must. You're right.

How did you like David Weber's Honorverse? I thought it was a pretty good read.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Another super installment. We sometimes get so enamored with our own characters, we don't want to make things too "difficult" for them, but it's their struggles to overcome obstacles that gives them reader appeal.

Chris Fries said...

@Sue: Thank you! I really appreciate that. Too much conflict can be draining -- there also has to be resolution. Unending tension without release only leads to headaches, lol!

@Alex: I think a lot of it depends on genre. For mysteries, I always have an antagonist. Science fiction, usually not.

@M.Pax: Thanks! And I really need to update the books on my side bar. I finished the second Honor story a while ago. I've liked the books so far. They remind me a lot of space-based strategy games. I can easily see the action taking place as the story behind one of those game battles in space -- the missles from far range, energy weapons in close. ECM, ECCM, etc.

@Susan: Thank you very much, Susan. And I agree. I really appreciate your comment!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

You know, conflict is something I'm always working on (and an editor just pointed out this week a place where I dropped a conflict I should have pursued in a manuscript).

But I really did think you meant an author needs to be a confidence artist too. Because I love when an author has led me by the nose to a conclusion I've seen coming from way back ... only to pull the rug out from under me and present me with a completely different solution that makes sense and I would have seen coming if it hadn't been for the author's sleight of hand.

Yeah, I want to be that kind of writer. Still working on it, though.

Martin Willoughby said...

We have to torture our characters...or have them torture someone else.

Milo James Fowler said...

"Line by line" conflict -- that's what I've been told some of my writing lacks, and that's what I've been striving for ever since. We've got to "kill our darlings" or at least make their lives miserable, keeping what they desire just out of reach. Great series, Chris, and thanks for promoting my contest!

Simon Kewin said...

Great advice; it's all about conflict. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about what I put my characters through. Is that wrong?

Chris Fries said...

@Dianne: That's a great point and you're right. I love it when a writer surprises me with what seems blatantly obvious only AFTER the fact. ;^)

@Martin: Very true!

@Milo: "line by line" -- that's basically unending conflict, lol! Thanks, Milo, and you're more than welcome for the plug!

@Simon: No, I don't think it's wrong at all, lol! It just shows you care about your characters, and that's a sign that they're well-conceived characters. We have to care about them or our readers never will, I think. ;^)

Nicole said...

Excellent post! I love combining a little bit of all three.

Mina Lobo said...

Chris, I've been enjoying this series as an exploration, and you've certainly had some great insights to share. At every stage, we all have something to teach and to learn. Great post about different types of conflict!
Some Dark Romantic

LTM said...

Awesome post, Chris! I couldn't agree more. Next to great characters, a great conflict makes for an unforgettable story. And it can be anything like you said! Good stuff.

Thanks, and I hope you're well! <3

Chris Fries said...

@Nicole: Thanks! Me too. :^)

@Mina: Thank you very much -- glad you're enjoying the series. I really appreciate your kind words, Mina!

@Leigh: Thank you! And I am -- Hope you'r well, too! Very busy here, so my blogging and visiting is down more than I'd like it, but I'm expecting things to ease up in the next few days.