The doctor is in! :) Here's some details from our chat last night. And today, there's a new blog of mine on Savvy Authors, check it out here!
Conflict versus Struggle
Dx: You have conflict, really good conflict, but are you spending enough time on the struggle against that conflict? Rx: Don't spend a lot of story time summarizing or discussing the conflict itself. If you have scenes in which characters need to explain the conflict with internal monologues or discussions with other characters, try changing these into arguments and confrontations. The conflict will be delivered to the reader in a clear and engaging way. Do spend lots of story time on the struggle itself. Once the conflict is introduced, readers need to know more details about the conflict, but they should be able to get those details by watching the characters struggle, not simply by learning facts as events unfold. Every fact, every new detail should come out of a struggle.
Highlight the aspects of the struggle by spending lots of scene time on it. For example, your character's conflict is to take back what was stolen from his family. Spend scene time showing him struggling to figure out what happened to the goods and where they are now, scene time showing his struggle to get to the stolen goods, scene time showing him struggle to finally locate the goods, scene time showing him struggle to take possession of the goods, scene time showing him struggle when trying to leave with the goods, scene time showing him being forced to choose between the goods and something else he cares about, scene time questioning whether the goods are, in fact, truly his, scene time showing the value of those goods to him, scene time showing the value of those goods to the people who stole them, etc. Nothing should be easy. The story is made up of scenes that show him struggling with the conflict in many different ways.
Introspection versus Immediacy
Dx: You've got a great story idea, but the story lacks tension
Rx: Immediacy, even the smallest kind, keeps tension on the page. By immediacy I don't mean characters are running for their lives every second. Immediacy means the character needs to do or to get or to face something right now or very soon. He needs this thing or must do this thing or must face this thing in order to resolve the conflict. He may or may not want to do this thing, but he's responsible for doing it. And in the process of doing it, he may not succeed. To practice this, take the tiniest most mundane detail in your life and imagine what it would be like if you didn't succeed with it. Grocery shopping. You never make it to the store. The store is closed. They don't have the products you need. No milk. No bread. No eggs. What will you feed your hungry family? It's your job. You need to do it. What will you do? Do have the character think about it and share some of that with the reader, but don't have the character spend loads of time just thinking about it. They must do something. Right now! Try another store? Borrow from the neighbors? Back to your character: what small thing must he do right now to solve the conflict, either directly or indirectly? What could prevent him from doing it? Think small. Small is easy to imagine. Small is profound when properly thought out and worked into the fabric of the story.
That was Now, This is Future
Dx: You're showing what's happening now without mentioning or emphasizing what will happen next. Rx: Scenes should be in the present, showing what's happening now so readers can enjoy living through the experiences with the characters. But they should also emphasize what will happen next. What will be the effects of a decision a character makes, the outcome of a confrontation, or an expected event? The now should be full of tension, but most of that tension will come from the effects of what's happening now. The reader will worry in the moment what the decision will be because of what might happen due to that decision. Example: if Susie doesn't get to the store, her little twins will have no supper, they will cry and cry until they fall asleep, exhausted and hungry.
Focus on the tension and a sense of something impending. The usual advice is to think of the worst that can happen. That's terrible advice, because it steps over lots of lovely things you can use to build tension. Often the worst that can happen is not realistic, making readers doubt the story's reality. The worst that can happen might be that Susie gets no food at all. But what if she gets some food, it's just not enough? What if she has to choose between feeding herself and feeding her children? That's not the worst, but it's still pretty bad. What if she gets barely enough food for today, but is now certain that there will be absolutely none for tomorrow. Focusing on what's happening now is good. Projecting trouble into the future is better.
Highlight a character's unfulfilled intention. What your character is doing now is interesting and engaging and may keep readers going for a time, but what is your character planning to do later, tomorrow, next week? Writers are advised to hold back, don't reveal too much too soon. Keep the reader guessing. Perhaps. Keep the reader guessing about what might happen, but why keep the reader in the dark about what the character intends to do? Susie knows there'll be no food tomorrow. She's putting her babies to bed. Is she going to spend half the night wondering what will happen to her family? No. She's already plotting. She noticed a neighbor loading his truck with food. She could sneak into his house and steal some, seduce the neighbor in return for some food, offer to cook or clean or simply beg. She could forage in the woods, apply for food stamps, call distant relatives for help. She must get food, and somehow she will.