Saturday, August 20, 2011

Theme, Plot and Conflict

A novel needs setting, characters, theme, and plot. From what I’ve seen, setting and characters come more easily to romance authors. Plot seems to be more work. Pantsers evolve their plots as they write. Plotters pre-plan their story arcs in a strict or fluid format. Either way, the goal is to end up with a sound and satisfying plot.

Plot is driven by conflict, whether the story is aliens versus humans (Independence Day), or a man changing because of a woman (Pretty Woman). Conflict has been defined as the simultaneous functioning of mutually exclusive impulses, desires or tendencies.

A plot is a series of conflicts and failures that involve the main characters and escalate until she/he changes, triumphs, or fails completely.

Writing sage Donald Maas advises, “Get into your conflict as soon as you can. Milk it for all its worth—lots of parries, lots of thrusts. You can start out quietly, if that makes sense, and build into a more heated exchange. Or you can rise immediately to battle pitch and stay there. Have your viewpoint character try several tacks but get nowhere in terms of achieving his or her {immediate} goal. Finally, when you’ve played out the conflict long enough that you feel you’ve exploited its full dramatic potential, move to the failure….a splash of cold water in your viewpoint character’s face, a slap—wham!.

Outer forces can keep the hero and heroine apart, but romances often emphasize the inner conflicts that arise in the main characters’ lives as they deal with outer missteps and complications.

Story themes are easy to grab out of real life. Every day women deal with issues involving their spouses and lovers, their jobs, and their children. Their in-laws, neighbors, and elected officials, etc.

Finding and keeping love can be hard work. Partners can hold different values and strong opinions. Some of these can be patterned from childhood; some are acquired during early adulthood; others reside deep inside our cores and are unshakeable.

So is how your partner spends money, deals with children, allocates time for work and family. There can be subtle retributions or revenges. Loss of intimacy. Threats. Divorce. Conflict.

Open communication between people of all ages and persuasions is a challenge to achieve. Children can shout that they hate their parents, cry that they are misunderstood. They can play parents against each other. They have needs that command attention NOW, forcing a choice between laundry and sleep. If a husband expects an ironed shirt at 6 am, and sleep was the unintended choice, there will be a conflict.

People lose jobs. Lose hope. Die prematurely. Any of these potentially set up long-term conflict in the lives of the survivors. Especially if there is a lot of money in the will.

No conflict, no plot. No plot, no sellable story.

Where do you get your story themes?

What do you focus on? Inner or outer plot conflicts?


Sheila Tenold said...

Ana, this is an excellent post! In my writing I attempt to focus on the inner conflict which grows deeper due to the external plot. At least, that's my plan when I begin. However, my characters sometimes change my theme, which I've carefully honed. Those pesky people have minds of their own.

Josie said...

I'm a pantser, so plot simply evolves as I get to know my characters. Sometimes I think I should plot each book carefully, but I get derailed, bored, and quickly lose interest if I go that route.