...but, then again, maybe not. :)
So, since I'm a writer, I figured at least ONE of my posts should be about writing. I have a lot to blog about on that topic, since I've recently gone to the Surrey International Writers' Conference and got my brain filled with a whole lot of strawberry flavoured inspiration. Okay, well, at least it was filled with inspiration. Not sure about the strawberry flavour. :) The SIWC is an annual conference held about 20 miles from my house...and somehow I'd never heard of it until this past year, when a friend of mine in the Netherlands, of all places, asked me, "Have you ever gone to this?"
No. I had never even heard of it. But now I have. And now I know, it's an amazing conference! Smaller, but just as fantastic as the SCBWI ones I went to in Western Washington and even NYC. I will certainly be making return appearances. (or, as Soames Forsyth in the Forsyth Saga says, "I shall recur.")
One of the talks I went to was called "Complex Conflicts," by Sam Sykes. I had never heard of Sam Sykes before, and yes, I do feel a bit funny writing about his fantabulous advice when I haven't even read his books yet. But, let me tell you, after the awesomely quirky/funny/amazing and inspirational talk he gave, his books are totally on my list! ...right after I finish "Happiest Baby on the Block" and "Childbirth Without Fear." (My bookshelf looks very strange now that I'm sharing reading time with pregnancy brain!)
What did he say? I'll try and distill it into a few concise bullet points. Unfortunately I can't give the same kind of hilarious spin he did on everything he said, but I hope it's still interesting enough for you to keep reading. :)
1: Messy Conflicts are good!!!
Try to put your protagonist in a situation where there is no obvious solution to the conflict...or where no matter what the protagonist does, someone will be left unhappy. Happy endings are for sissies. Are you a sissy!? I didn't think so.
This recommendation made me think of Clockwork Prince, by Cassandra Clare...which is still totally ripping my heart into pea-sized shreds even months after I finished it. (Spoiler alert!) At the end of the book, Will finds out the curse he thought he had -- that anyone who falls in love with him will die -- was a lie. He runs off to tell Tessa the good news (mainly that he doesn't have to be a douche to her anymore to keep her from loving him), just as Tessa becomes engaged to Jem, Will's "blood-brother." Will would never hurt his blood brother like that, so now he can never have Tessa. He missed his chance. And, she missed hers. Because, we all know she'll never love Jem the way she does Will. AH GUT WRENCHING HEART STOMPING CONFLICT OF A LOVE TRIANGLE! *ahem* Allow me to compose myself before proceeding..... Okay. So, see how Tessa has no one way out of this situation? No matter what she does, there will be a huge cloud of unhappiness hanging over. And, we will all preorder Book 3 and await it with bated breath. :)
An example Sam gave was, in sum, "Yes we took down the horrible dictator [resolved conflict], but now the whole region is destabilized and falling into civil war."
My fail-safe check for this: Once you have a conflict in your story, ask yourself, as the writer, do you know exactly how the protagonist will resolve it? If your answer is yes, then your conflict is too easy. Make things harder for your MC. Make sure their lives are a living hell. :) Try to use the phrase, "We succeeded BUT..." There has to be that "but" clause for it to be complex.
2: Keep your villains complex (this will help with point #1)
If you villain is just plain evil, there isn't much conflicting emotions if the protag just frags the asshole, right? However, if your villain has some likeable pieces, or some reason for being so villainous, it can add another layer to the conflict. Don't be afraid to give the villain her own story, or to allow readers to even identify with the villain.
Two ways to do this: You can make the villain "relatable" which means you can understand the villain on an emotional level. You feel for them. You know the protagonist has to win, but even when he does, it's a bit agonizing to see the villain's defeat.
Or, maybe your villain isn't that great of a person. Your reader isn't going to go all sappy and feel bad that he's lost. But you can still at least make the villain "understandable," which means you might not identify on an emotional level, but you can still logically see their point. You can see what he's trying to prove. The example Sam gave of this was the Joker in the second new Batman movie. He wanted to prove that he could easily pull down everything Batman had created in Gotham; he wanted to show the Batman/Gotham empire as being weak. While we might be like, "wow you're a douche bag," we could at least see his point.
In either case, the reader needs to be able to see things from the villain's side too.
My little check (loosely pilfered from some stuff of Donald Maas's: Ask yourself, "What do I like about this villain?" Or maybe try "What does this villain tell her psychologist?" :)
And a couple smaller points:
- Try to limit the coincidences that get the MC out of trouble. If a coincidence gets her into trouble, excellent. But she has to figure her own way out.
- Betrayal sits very strongly with readers. It stings worse than direct conflict because it's multi-sided. Everyone who betrays someone has to arrive at it by a touch choice.
- Make your conflicts on a small scale. No one cares if the armies of good and evil are clashing, but we'll all stop to watch that one soldier on the front lines who is fighting to stay alive to return to his love...or who is fighting against his own brother...or who is a pacifist but was forced there by his father...etc. People identify with small conflicts. We're riveted at someone sitting on a bench next to their crush, agonizing over whether to hold her hand. We're mildly interested in that same somebody deciding to save the world.
- Things that interest the character interest the reader. We care about world-building and other details because they matter to the character. (on a related note, things that interest the writer are good for the plot. Parts that you find difficult to write will probably be difficult to read.)