30 Apr

NDTS: Telling Conflict

I have a series of notebooks labeled Never Do This Shit.

When I’m reading a book and come across something egregiously awful that tempts me to compose ALL CAPS EMAILS, I copy the problem text (or summarize if it’s a pervasive problem) and jot down my thoughts about why that shit should never be done.

It’s difficult to learn from excellent writing because excellent writing sucks you into the story and feels effortless and magical while you’re reading.

Bad writing is an undervalued teaching tool. When you come across writing you hate, it screams at you and beats you about the head with its wrongness. If you systematically eliminate all of those things from your writing, you can’t help but end up with a better finished product.

The category of Shit Never to Be Done presented today falls under the heading of “show, don’t tell” in the grandest sense of the meaning.

A lot of things, frankly, aren’t important enough to be shown, in which case I’m all for briefly telling what needs to be known and moving on to showing the next thing of significance.

The protagonist’s central emotional conflict for the duration of the book is show-worthy.

I’m reading a book in which the heroine and hero have a months-long online relationship. There’s no urgency to this relationship, no timeline to justify skipping the high-conflict event I’m about to describe in favor of starting the story in the no-conflict place where it starts (and stays, honestly, but that’s another rant).

The heroine got fired after refusing to fuck one of her superiors. This is her central emotional conflict throughout the book. It is her entire motivation for doing and not doing. It is the foundation of her characterization, with which the reader is desired to empathize.

The book tells us this in one after-the-fact sentence:

Three weeks ago, I got fired because I wouldn’t fuck my boss.

(Not the actual sentence, but you get the gist.)

What would have been really effective is a scene in which the heroine gets fired. Everybody in the room knows it’s because she declined to ride that guy’s dick, but they make up some bullshit grounds for dismissal so she can’t sue their asses. They’re smirking at her as they take away her livelihood. She’s not really shocked because she had a sense of foreboding when she rejected the unwanted advance, but she’s still sick inside and trudges out of the building in defeat. Driving home, it hits her that she no longer has the means to make her car payments, and she gives in to tears at a stoplight. Some impatient asshole honks at her, and she flips him off, and that triggers her anger phase at fucking men who are delighted to destroy a woman’s life over their dicks’ hurt feelings. And then she walks into her apartment and there’s a message waiting from the man she’s had a months-long cybersex relationship with. Does she take out her disgust toward men on him? Does she let him restore some of her dwindling faith in his gender?

This is her primary inner conflict having a direct, immediate effect on the relationship that is the focus of this romance novel.

Instead, we get:

Three weeks ago, I got fired because I wouldn’t fuck my boss.

And it’s not even delivered in the context of how it relates to her involvement with the romantic interest!

It’s lazy writing to dash off a sentence and rely on the reader to provide the desired emotion because “oh, everybody can relate,” and it’s destined to backfire. The reader says “that sucks” and maybe thinks about a similar experience in her life, but she doesn’t FEEL anything as a result of that sentence. Yes, it’s awful, but it’s also status quo in the lives of women. We hear it and live it every day. We’re suffering fatigue. We’re desensitized to the headline, which is all this sentence amounts to. What makes us feel is the personal story behind the headline, and this book denies us that story.

Readers give an event as much emotional weight as the author tells them to with the words she chooses. Nobody gives a damn about a single-sentence backstory, which is disastrous when it’s the only key provided to understanding why the character behaves the way she does.

The protagonist’s defining conflict deserves more than one line that could be overlooked entirely while skimming for something more interesting to happen.

On the rule/guideline spectrum, when it comes to conflict, here’s one that should be set in stone:

Don’t summarize—DRAMATIZE.