Monday Writing Motivation: Conflict, character and climax

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Here’s a three-finger exercise for you: what are the sinewy fibres that link conflict, character and climax?

The question arose as I pondered my strategies for our latest foray into the wilds of the Cotswolds. We’re holding a weekend writing workshop here in Stow-on-the-Wold, which we do once or twice a year, and each time I set myself the challenge of devising a new theme.

It’s also a necessary challenge, because many of the participants have been to previous Stow weekends and so it would be churlish – and bad for business – for me simply to trot out the same material each time.

On this occasion, we invited the participants to suggest, in writing, what topics they would like me to explore. Of course, I didn’t expect them all to converge on the same theme, and nor did they: this one wanted a hand in devising short stories, that one in structuring a memoir, another wanted to know how to incorporate conflict into every scene, and so on.

So rather like the diligent parent who, having invited a child to name three objects, then proceeds to weave a story that features each of those nominated items, I set out to think about how to incorporate in some organic way all the topics that the Stow crew had submitted.

Conflict lies at the heart of all stories, whatever the genre you’re working in. Conversations about conflict would be useful to short story writers. It would be useful to the participant who, having published three sci-fi/fantasy novels, is in search of inspiration for his next project.

But what about our memoirist? Surely, since memoirs consist of the recounting of events and incidents that really happened, conflict can’t be said to be a guiding principle, right?

That, I have to confess immediately, was a trick question. Because although a memoir is, indeed, a true story, it must still, of course, engage the interest of the reader, and this can only be done by identifying the arc the memoirist traced, say, from being an enthusiastic amateur, to becoming an award-winning endurance rider (like one of our participants).

You follow that narrative thread by choosing, from all the available events and incidents, those few that tell the story. Invariably, your choice is guided by the struggle the memoirist had in reaching her goals. Struggle implies conflict. So, voila, even the most truthful memoir is driven, like any fiction, by literary conflict.

I could conclude, then, that conflict is a good theme, but it isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of all the participants.

So I let my thoughts wander. What is literary conflict, after all? It can be described, very simply, as a device used by writers to pit two or more opposing forces against each other in a struggle for dominance. Those opposing forces always involve people. If your story features a lone protagonist, for example, your narrative will trace his struggle to get what he wants. He will be opposed in this mission by any number of antagonists. Some will be internal: self-doubt, a failure of nerve, rank cowardice, etc. Others will be external: Grendel, Fagin, Smaug, Mr Hyde, a white whale, a Great White, the National Institute of Mental Health*.

So it seemed to me that a discussion of conflict could not be useful without a discussion of character.

And then, because I’m a sucker for alliteration, my mind immediately sorted through possibilities of a theme or subject beginning with the letter “C”.

Climax.

Conflict, character and climax. That could be the sub-title of a best-seller, couldn’t it?

Ah, but do I hear a snigger amongst the throng?

Hear me out. I think that the silken threads that bind those three ideas together are in fact unbreakable. Because, it’s in the climax of any story that the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist released from the burdens of his quest. It’s the knot that ties all those threads together. It’s the end of the character arc. It’s where the rainbow meets the pot of gold.

And it marks the end of this disquisition.

Happy writing,

Richard

P.S. I’d love to know your thoughts on satisfying endings: do you prefer Hollywood endings, or endings that reflect more accurately the partial and compromised conclusions to stories that we experience in real life?

P.P.S. We’re thinking about running another Stow writing weekend from 6 to 8 September. If you’re in the UK and free that weekend, please let me or Trish know. If that doesn’t suit you, Jo-Anne will be in Barrydale in the Karoo with Joanne Hichens for a memoir weekend and general writing retreat in August,  and of course we’ll be in Venice in October.

*    The antagonists, respectively, of Beowulf in the eponymous epic poem;  Oliver Twist in the eponymous novel; Bilbo, in The Hobbit; Dr Jekyll in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Captain Ahab in Moby Dick; Chief Brody in Jaws; and Mrs Frisby in the wonderful Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

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