Monday, 16 December 2013

THE CRAFT OF WRITING: The Big C

by Anne Hamilton 

Man overboard! I was planning to write a fourth post in this series on narrative hooks, but I decided to abandon ship. Still I’m valiantly striving to keep my nautical metaphor.

The plan went awry after reading a fascinating section in Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. That’s the book which explains how the brain is wired to interact with storylines and gives you clues about how to write in an engaging, compelling way.

Cron talks about conflict. The Big C. It should go without saying that conflict, conflict, and still more escalating conflict is the basis of western literature (though not necessarily of eastern — if ever you’ve tried to make sense of a Japanese novel or a manga series, you’ll know that evocation of mood is of ultimate significance there). Still, conflict is often missing in the manuscripts I assess. Increasingly it’s missing in books I’m recommended, particularly by friends of self–published authors.

Cron explains why: the reader craves conflict situations in a story because this is a simulated learning experience for the brain. In real life, however, most of us hate conflict. So many authors can’t bring themselves to put their fictional darlings through the wringer. 

However, this wasn’t what intrigued me. Cron mentions eight different types of fictional conflict that the brain craves according to research in neuroscience. The last one made me sit back in my chair and think hard. It’s this: The antagonist vs mercy. 

The opportunities for Christian writing here are just fantastic, the potential enormous. The average person wants to know when to exercise mercy and one of the things a reader desires in a book is a template for that process. And by template I mean a thoughtful exploration of forgiveness that does not trivialise the wounding. Often Christian novels present forgiveness in a way that seems so unbelievable it’s almost trite. The heroine is suffused by peace and the struggle is over. 

Do we do anyone any favours by creating idealised ‘too good to be true’ Christian characters? Yep, we’ve fallen into the trap Cron identifies: as authors we want to minimise conflict for our darlings. 

Yet, have you taken a look at the book of Acts lately? Peter might have taken some huge leaps forward but he was still fallible and more than a touch hypocritical. Paul was so unforgiving he had a huge row with Barnabas and they split up. 

In our rush to wind up the story with a happy–ever–after of forgiveness and mercy, it’s important not to forget truth and justice. The mercy conflict in Christian terms is the perennial and age–old question of how those two opposites — justice and mercy — can both simultaneously be satisfied. Only a story wrestling with these ancient questions can ever truly hope to satisfy what both our brains and our hearts crave. 



Anne Hamilton is the author of the award–winning children’s fantasy, Many–Coloured Realm. She’s just checked the final word count of her forthcoming children’s fantasy Daystar: The Days are Numbered Book 1 to make sure it really is 77,777 words long and also to be certain the mercy conflict is quite prominently featured.

17 comments:

  1. I recently read a blog post by Lisa Cron, and could really relate to the concept (and Wired for Story is now on my Amazon Wish List). I’m another person who comes across books (often self-published) that don’t have enough conflict—or where there is the potential for conflict, it’s skipped over and never properly resolved. I’m reminded of this quote from Debra Dixon, author of Goals, Motivation, Conflict (another classic writing book):

    “If conflict makes you uncomfortable or you have difficulty wrecking the lives of your characters, you need to consider another line of work.”

    This explains why I’m a reader, reviewer and editor, not a fiction author. I understand why authors are reluctant to put conflict in their novels. I understand Christian authors might be reluctant to add conflict between Christians, because there are biblical admonitions not to be in conflict with our Christian brothers and sisters.

    But without conflict, there is no story. It’s just a series of events. Conflict, whether internal or external, is what we react against, and those actions and reactions to events are the essence of good fiction.

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    1. Hi Iola
      Cron explains this too - that because writers want the conflict solved (their brains are wired for this too), they tend to pull back rather than escalate. This means the writer needs to go against their own desire to wind up the conflict asap.

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  2. I couldn't agree more, Iola. Conflict is story - period. There cannot be a story without conflict. Great post Anne.

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    1. Absolutely, Catherine. However most writers who do include conflict often leave it until too late - not realising that it should be multi-layered and needs to move up and down (but always rising within the up-down movement).

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  3. Annie, excellent post! It's fascinating to learn the brain science behind why the universal themes of forgiveness and mercy can be so powerful in stories.

    Debra Dixon's GMC book was a massive 'light bulb' moment for my writing. My early writing contest feedback on my first manuscript, prior to reading GMC, usually included 'story lacks strong and compelling conflict'. Debra Dixon presented her one-day GMC workshop at a Romance Writers of Australia conference in Sydney in 2010, and I learned so much from her about how to strengthen the internal and external conflict in my stories.

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    1. Thanks, Narelle. I think one of the most difficult balances to achieve is the pace of the conflict. Relentless conflict is ultimately as boring as no conflict - the pauses and breaths before the conflict is racheted up once more, prior to the final resolution are just as important.

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  4. Thanks Annie. What a learning post. There is a lot to think about here.

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    1. Hi Jo
      Yours was a book I really thought of in relation to the mercy conflict. That sudden question in Though the Bud be Bruised as to whether forgiveness was made too easy and too soon - and thus grief suppressed - was immensely well done.

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  5. Great post, Annie. I'm going to have to put Lisa Cron's book onto my wish list, too.
    Thanks for the recommendation.

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    1. It's an amazing book, Dotti. I'm sure you'll get a lot from it.

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    2. It's an amazing book, Dotti. I'm sure you'll get a lot from it.

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  6. Yes, I am another Annie who has that book on the to read list. Thanks for a great post. Agree that conflict is vital. The reality is Christians disagree and have conflict as you mentioned with Paul and Peter and Barnabas and Paul. As writers we need to be able to realistically show how God can still use that conflict as the bible does.

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    1. Absolutely, Dale. I don't think it serves any purpose in writing to avoid conflict, but rather to show people how to move through it.

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  7. Thanks so much for writing this post Annie. It's so true about conflict being the basis of our literature. It's also so true about writing conflict going against our need for resolving conflict.
    I find it hard to write about characters in conflict. I'm so tempted to explain away conflict instead of letting it happen naturally.
    I second what Jo Wanmer said, great learning post.

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    1. Thanks, Linsey. I think it's even harder to allow the conflict to deepen, rather than resolve it early in the piece!

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  8. Like everyone said, great post Annie. I've just bought Lisa's book. Just have to find time to read it now :-)

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