Beefing up that conflict: avoiding the Short Road Home

Looks like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? But no, I took this photo last night from my studio’s window. Snow. In Seattle. In April.

I don’t think Persephone’s going to be reunited with her mother anytime soon. She and that groundhog that was supposed to tell us how much longer winter would be are obviously holed up in an underground cave somewhere, shivering.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from pressing on, should it? Bundle up warmly, please; it’s going to be a long trek into the rough terrain of self-editing.

A few weeks back, in the early days of our recent series on getting good at hearing and incorporating feedback, intrepid readers Gordon and Harold wrote in asking about how to increase conflict and tension, respectively, in a manuscript.

As often happens with a request like this, my first instinct was to huff in the general direction of my monitor, “Oh, heavens, not THAT topic again! Didn’t I just cover that a couple of months ago?” Yet in going back through the archives to create these much-needed additions to the category list at right, I noticed — could it be possible? — that it had been over six months since I had addressed either issue in a really solid way.

My apologies. I guess my life must have been too full of conflict and tension for it to occur to me to write about it here. Since it HAS been such a long time, I’m going to go racing back to the basics, so we’re all on the same page.

Let’s define our terms, shall we? Colloquially, conflict and tension are often used interchangeably, but amongst professional writers and those who edit them, they mean two different but interrelated things.

Conflict is when a character (usually the protagonist, but not always) is prevented from meeting his or her goal (either a momentary one or the ultimate conclusion of the plot) by some antagonistic force.

The thwarting influence may be external to the character experiencing it (as when the villain punches our hero in the nose for asking too many pesky questions), emerge from within her psyche (as when our heroine wants to jump onto the stage at the county fair and declare that the goat-judging was rigged, but can’t overcome that fear of public speaking that she has had since that first traumatic operatic recital at the age of 10), or even be subconscious (as when our hero and heroine meet each other quite accidentally during the liquor store hold-up, feeling mysteriously drawn to each other but not yet realizing that they were twins separated at birth).

Tension, on the other hand, is when the pacing, plot, and characterization at any given point of the book are tight enough that the reader remains engaged in what is going on — and wondering what is going to happen next. A scene or page may be interesting without maintaining tension, and a predictable storyline may never create any tension at all.

Or, to put it so simply that a sophisticated reader would howl in protest, conflict is character-based, whereas tension typically relates to plot.

Because conflict and tension are related, a manuscript that suffers from problems with one often suffers from the other as well. First-time novelists and memoirists are particularly prone to falling prey to both, not only because keeping both high for an entire manuscript is darned difficult, but also because writers new to the biz are far less likely to sit down and read their manuscripts front to back before submitting them than those who’ve been hanging around the industry longer.

Long enough, say, to have heard the old saw about a novel or memoir’s needing to have conflict on every page, or the one about the desirability of keeping the tension consistently high in the first fifty pages, to keep our pal Millicent the agency screener turning those submission pages.

Yet another reason that I keep yammering at all of you to — sing along with me now, long-time readers — read your manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it. Lack of conflict and tension become far, far more apparent when a manuscript is read front to back.

Actually, pretty much every manuscript mega-problem is more likely to leap off the page at the reviser reading this way, rather then the more common piecemeal scene-by-scene or on the screen approaches. This is particularly true when a writer is revising on a deadline.

Which is, of course, precisely when it’s most tempting NOT to give your work a thorough read-through.

I can’t emphasize enough how great a mistake this can be. While many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

Let’s all chant the mantra together again for good measure: before you send it in, read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

I know, I know: it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so you don’t forget the night before the deadline. (Also, a word to the wise: if you want to leave time to fix mega-problems, waiting until the night before a contest entry needs to be postmarked probably isn’t prudent.)

There are many, many reasons that manuscripts lack conflict and tension, far too many to list here. In the interests of keeping all of you revisers’ spirits up as you approach the often-daunting task of revision, I’m going to begin with the easiest to spot — and one of the simpler to fix.

I like to call this extremely common manuscript phenomenon the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. For the next couple of days, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home is when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension — or to reveal heretofore unrevealed character nuances. Most often, this takes the form of a conflict resolved before the reader has had time to perceive it as difficult to solve.

In its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages — and then resolve it in three.

We’ve all seen this in action, right? A character conflict seems insurmountable — and then it turns out that all the character needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. The first outsider who walks into town and asks a few pointed questions solves a decade-old mystery. The protagonist has traveled halfway around the world in order to confront the father who deserted him years before — and apparently, every road in India leads directly to him.

Ta da! Crisis resolved. No roadblocks here.

Or, to view this phenomenon in the form that Millicent most often sees it: pages at a time pass without conflict — and when a long-anticipated conflict does arise, the protagonist swiftly reaches out and squashes it like a troublesome bug.

Often before the reader has had a chance to recognize the conflict as important. Wham! Splat! All gone, never to be heard from again. It drives Millicent nuts.

Slice-of-life scenes are, alas, particularly susceptible to this type of too-quick resolution, as are scenes where, heaven help us, everyone is polite.

Yes, you read that correctly. Few traits kill conflict on a page as effectively as a protagonist who is unfailingly polite. Contrary to popular belief amongst writers, a monotonously courteous protagonist is almost never more likeable than one who isn’t — and even everyday polite statements tend to make professional readers start glancing at their watches.

Why? Well, as delightful as courtesy is in real life, polite dialogue is by its very definition generic; it reveals nothing about the speaker EXCEPT a propensity toward good manners. On the page, good manners tend to be predictable — and thus inherently tension-reducing.

Or, to put it as Millicent would, “Next!”

Take care, however, not to pursue the opposite route from Short Road Home by creating false suspense; Millicent doesn’t like that much, either. False suspense is the common tension-increasing technique of withholding information from the protagonist that a fairly simple and logical action would have revealed earlier in the plot, or even in the scene — or by denying the reader information that the protagonist already knows.

Hint: if the clue is in plain sight, most professional readers will resent not being filled in the first time it appears; if the protagonist has traveled five hundred miles to ask his grandmother about her past, Millicent is going to get angry if he just sits there passively and waits for her to blurt out the long-hidden information, rather than asking her about it.

Ditto if the protagonist sees his late cousin’s face appear in a window, confronts some hideous monster in the closet, and/or recognizes that the French ambassador is actually his long-lost brother — but the reader is not filled in on what he knows for six more chapters. It’s considered a cheap form of tension-building.

In its most extreme form, false suspense can become what the fine film critic Roger Ebert calls an Idiot Plot, one where the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot. (“Wait — HOW will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”)

We’re all familiar with Idiot Plots, right? Sitcom episodes very, very frequently feature them, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes.

“Wait a darned minute,” I can hear some of you say, “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it means that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the moviemaking industry. Since the reading public also watches television and movies, wouldn’t they just accept quick resolutions of conflict as the current storytelling norm? If the writing in the scene is good enough, can’t I get away with a few shortcuts?”

Well, it depends: does taking any one of those shortcuts reduce the book’s tension? Would fleshing out a conflict increase the book’s tension at a crucial point?

Would, in short, the manuscript exhibit both conflict AND tension on every page if you DIDN’T take those shortcuts?

Bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid or poorly written to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. Remember in the classic TOM JONES, where the heroine, Sophia, spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true?

And why does Sophia do this, you ask? I’d bet a nickel that Henry Fielding would have said, “Because the plot required it, silly. If she’d stuck around at the inn to ask him, the romantic conflict would have been resolved in thirty seconds flat!”

That may have been sufficient reason to satisfy an editor in the 18th century, but let me assure you that the folks working in agencies and publishing houses are made of sterner stuff now. They’ve seen the same movies and sitcoms you have: they’re tired of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home.

“Show me something FRESH,” Millicent cries at the stacks and stacks of manuscripts on her desk, “something I haven’t seen before!”

So here’s a special message to those of you who have deliberately held your respective noses and produced Idiot Plots because you thought the market preferred them: don’t. Try adding legitimate conflict to every page instead and seeing what happens.

Next time, I’ll talk a bit about how to spot the Short Road Home on the manuscript page — and what to do about it. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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