2WB Dialogs: exploring plot and conflict

ConflictWelcome to the Two Writing Buddies dialogs, where we talk about our creative process and issues that arise in our writing.

We’re experimenting with using an author quote as a jump-off point in our discussion on writing. This time it’s one by John Gardner on plot:

In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.
–John Gardner

Robine: The key element in this oversimplified plot description is opposition, that is, conflict. The problem in my novel Marshall’s Child, according to the instructor of a writing course I took recently, is that the conflict—Kat wants a baby but her husband Marshall does not—is not compelling enough. The instructor also felt that the action should more directly be focused on advancing the plot and should not be just a sequence of events.

So the question for you, Denise, is how strong does the conflict in a story have to be? How much does a story have to rely on plot, as described above by Gardner? And does conflict equal plot? Can you have a good story “whose strength,” as Gardner suggests elsewhere, “is language or structure or playfulness, and whose plot is weak and ailing?”

Denise: I’ve certainly enjoyed stories that have a conflict that is no stronger than the one in your novel. It’s all in the execution, as the second quote by Gardner implies. Even an internal, emotional struggle can suffice as plot, if the reader cares enough about the character. This takes great skill with language and a willingness to delve deep into a character’s internal life. Failing that, a strong plot is needed to keep the story interesting.

For example, I loved The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman. The conflict is the main character’s struggle to overcome her own emotional limitations. What makes it work for me is Hoffman’s beautiful prose and her ability to build up to an emotional climax. Plus, this story has a fantasy element that adds interest. Alice McDermott and Virginia Wolfe also come to mind as authors who rely more on language and everyday details rather than bold and suspenseful plot.

We’ve all heard that there are only seven plots in narrative. These are famously laid out in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker. He lists the following:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

I’d say your story is a quest: the protagonist seeks to acquire something (a child, in the context of her marriage) and faces obstacles along the way. This is a perfectly respectable story. Your task is to make us care about her, by conveying powerfully how deeply this matters to her and how much she suffers in her effort to achieve her goal.

For myself, I enjoy reading a story with lots of action, so I’m trying to get better with plot. It’s not one of my strengths as a writer.

Robine: Yes, it’s all in the execution, as you say. My plotting skill also needs help, so I hope by making the writing more vivid (I’m told my imagery is strong) and increasing the likeability of the protagonist, I’ll get the reader to identify with the character and to perhaps overlook a not-so-strong plot. At the same time I want to retain some of the adventures my protagonist goes on, although they may not directly advance the plot, because I see them as fun and a way of injecting some playfulness in the story.

What do you see as the basic plot for your Chloe story? I see it as literally overcoming the monster, or at least that’s where it seems to be heading. But two other plots—the quest and rebirth—also seem credible. Have you tried describing what your story is about as in the difficult-to-achieve, succinct (25-to-35-word) elevator pitch?

Denise: I think you have to go beyond making Kat likeable, although that’s a good start. You also have to make her suffer. I find this a challenge, as I love my characters and probably identify with them too much.

Your writing does have a good sense of humor and terrific imagery, which keeps it entertaining. Being entertaining is often downplayed by writers aspiring to do serious literary work, but plenty of great writers manage to be both deep and entertaining.

I agree that Chloe is engaged in all three of the plots you mentioned. The plot engine is definitely Monster. That’s where the fear, wonder, and excitement come in.

Chloe’s story, like most YA literature, is about coming of age. This kind of story includes both a quest and a re-birth. Chloe is on a quest to define her adult self while her mind and body undergo puberty, her rebirth into her adult self.

That’s one thing I like about writing young characters: they are constantly in transition and their viewpoint is fresh and sometimes naïve. I see lots of opportunities there.

However, I need to stay focused if this short story is not to turn into an unwieldy, un-finishable Monster (a novel). My plan is to write a series of stories that one day might be re-worked into one longer piece – a novel. I’m trying to sneak up on it, as it were.

My first Chimera story was around 7,000 words. The new Chloe story is around 4,000 words now, and with the remainder of the plot that I’m trying to execute, I guess it will have to run between 8,000 and 10,000 words.

Here’s my attempt to summarize the story concept:

As Chloe deals with her grief over her mother’s death and the weirdness of her mother’s transformation into the Chimera, Chloe and her friends confront a Lovecraftian monster drawn into this world through an art work.

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