Last week I read a brilliant book about making-up stories. In it, Roz Morris explained how writers weave plot. There’s one thing, she says, that novelists often fail to factor in. It’s not death or drama, or even dialogue. The vital ingredient, she says, is conflict.
Reading her guide to plot was like being handed an X- ray vision potion. Unable to read a book or watch a drama the same way again, I found myself the other evening in front of Holby City. Conflict was all I saw:
A man walks into the hospital pharmacy. He leans over the counter and demands the pharmacist hand him a drug. He looks unwell, waving a needle, says he needs it. Now.
The pharmacist looks for the drug. She wavers, says she can’t give it to him, the computer won’t let her in. The man moves closer to the pharmacist, holding the needle like a weapon.
The pharmacist is now having an asthma attack. A doctor walks in, tries to talk the man round, the pharmacist falls as the needle-wielding man stands over her, she hits her head, blacks out…
The scene had me gripped. Some say we are wired for it, the human brain poised to solve problems, buzzing with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Conflict dramatized can be delicious in its intensity, reflecting back the brain’s need to resolve, cathartic in its climax.
In my own first draft I had tried hard to make the scenes ‘realistic’. But a novel is pure artifice. Tricks hidden beneath the story keep us engaged. One of them is surely conflict, pushing the characters to the limit, creating an electrical charge to power the whole piece.
Science fiction author Brandon Sanderson advises new novelists in his filmed lectures, to begin with character, setting or plot and to let the conflict come from any, or all, of those places. That’s where story begins, he says. His advice makes the blank page far more inviting; the doorways into plot are many.
As I research my second draft, watching reels of film from the 30s: the heart of Spain’s cities and valleys hardened to hand grenades, neighbour turned against neighbour, I am reminded that Conflict is a big word – war and fights most often come to mind.
But pick up any novel and conflicts abound. Everyday, normal decisions which might somehow spiral into plot or subplot. I think it was John le Carré who said:
“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story.
“The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear of your experiences plotting (conflict-driven or otherwise!)