What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

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Juice Up Your Characters With Inner Conflict

In Chapter 9 of Conflict & Suspense I write about Inner Conflict. I define it this way: Think of this interior clash as being an argument between two sides, raging inside the character. Like the little angel and the little devil that sit on opposite shoulders in a cartoon, these sides vie for supremacy. For inner conflict to work, however, each side must have some serious juice to it.

I had a chuckle re-reading that, which chuckle I must now explain.

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the annual Story Masters Conference. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and your humble correspondent spent four solid days with a roomful of writers, digging deeply into this craft we all love.

I enjoy Story Masters each year, not just because I get to hang out with Don and Chris and a whole bunch of motivated storytellers, but also because I pick up something valuable each time myself.

This year, during Chris’s talk on The Hero’s Journey, I was struck by something he said about how we feel stories. This came to him, he explained, during his years as a reader for the studios. He noticed that strong emotions hit him physically, at points in his body. There were different points for different emotions.

He connected this to the concept of Chakra. What happens is that certain emotions immediately fuel a secretion of chemicals in areas of the body. Chris realized the that best scripts, the rare ones that really knocked him out, were hitting him in more than one place.

With a playful gleam in his eye, Chris announced to the class what he calls “Vogler’s Rule”—

If two or more organs of your body are not secreting fluids, your story is no good.

This got a laugh from the crowd. Thus, my reference above to the serious juiceof inner conflict is apt.

As Chris’s session went on, I started thinking more about this idea. What Chris suggests is that when our “fluid centers” are activated, we are not being rational. Thus, a great form, perhaps the best form of inner conflict is when the character’s rational mind is being assaulted by a strong emotional, er, fluid.

How human that is, isn’t it? Think of the traveling salesman. He has a wife and children he loves. But at the bar in Wichita he sees a cocktail waitress whose sultry walk and Lauren Bacall voice unleash inside him an immediate animal lust. The fight is between his mind, which reminds him of all he has at home, and his body, which doesn’t care what he thinks at all.

Or what about a sheriff with a high and honorable sense of duty? That’s his mind. He’s thought this through his whole career, lived by that code. But then killers come after him, and he cannot gather a posse to stop them, and his body starts feeding him fear—of death, of losing the woman he’s just married, of perhaps being a coward. This is the inner conflict that throbs throughout the entire movie High Noon. It’s head versus body.

I was reminded of something Iago, who has all the best lines in Othello, says to Roderigo:

If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts. 

Shakespeare was describing this very thing, the battle between reason (the mind) and all our bodily “raging motions.”

It’s such a great way to think about inner conflict, because you can create this tension at any time in your novel. Just arrange for something to strike your character on a strong emotional level, and put that at odds with something he strongly believes.

Thus, I came up with “Bell’s Corollary to Vogler’s Rule” as it relates to inner conflict:

You must have at least one hot fluid fighting your character’s head!

This is where you have so much potential for ratcheting up the readability of your novel. We follow characters not because of what’s happening to them, but because of what’s happening inside them. Make it real and full of churning, roiling inner conflict.

What about you? Are your characters conflicted enough?

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A Key to Creating Conflict in Fiction

Today’s post is brought to you by Conflict & Suspense, two things every novel needs. Yes, every, no matter the genre.

I’m not just talking about plot here, but characterization, too. It’s this latter aspect that some writers fail to take full advantage of. To illustrate, let me talk about one of my favorite movies of all time.
12 Angry Menis the 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Reginald Rose (based on his play). The plot is disarmingly simple. Twelve jurors deliberate in a capital murder case. The entire drama, save for a short prologue, takes place inside the jury room.

At first, the verdict seems like a done deal. All the early chatter is about how guilty the defendant is (he’s a slum kid, accused of stabbing his father). One of the jurors (Jack Warden) has tickets to the ballgame and would love to get out early. Others don’t see the point in spending a great deal of time actually deliberating.
They take an initial vote. And only one juror, Number 8 (Henry Fonda), votes Not Guilty. Everybody else grumbles.
And for the next hour and a half, we sit in on the deliberations.
The movie violates all the currently fashionable, postmodern, ADHD stylistic conventions. No quick cuts or explosions or overbearing music. It’s all talk. It’s even in black and white, for crying out loud!
Yet, no matter where I happen to come in on the film when it’s on TV, if I start to watch I have to finish.
Why? Because inter-character conflict works its magic. What Rose did was bring together twelve distinct characters, each with their own background, baggage and personality, and throw them into what is essentially a great, big argument.
Therein lies the real untapped secret of creating conflict: orchestration. That means you cast your characters so they have the potential of conflict with every other character.
In 12 Angry Men, for example, there’s a Madison Avenue ad man (Robert Webber) who spouts bromides and tosses out suggestions, just like he would at a brainstorming meeting at the office. “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.” He’s amiable, easy with a laugh. But he never makes a final decision. He vacillates. Finally another juror (Lee J. Cobb) gets fed up. “The boy in the gray flannel suit here is bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball!”
There’s a mousy bank clerk (John Fiedler) who automatically draws satirical comment from the macho salesman (Warden). There’s a coldly rational stockbroker (E. G. Marshall) who arrogantly dismisses all reasonable doubt, until backed into a corner by Fonda. There’s a young man who grew up in the slums (Jack Klugman) who, at one point, turns to E. G. Marshall and asks, “Pardon me, don’t you sweat?”
“No, I don’t,” Marshall says. There is nothing more to that exchange, but the line is memorable because of Rose’s superb orchestration, knowing the personalities and quirks of all his characters.
Then there’s the bigot (Ed Begley) who in one unforgettable moment alienates everyoneelse on the jury.
But it is, finally, the main conflict between Cobb and Fonda that is the focus of the drama. Cobb wants to get this kid executed (for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear at the end). Fonda wants to give the kid his due under the Constitution––the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
And that’s another lesson about conflict: the stakes. They have to be high. In fact, I hold that death must be on the line. Not just physical death, mind you. There is also professional and psychological death. Unless you have one of these overhanging, your story is not going to be as gripping as it should be.
In 12 Angry Men, physical death is on the line for the kid, but more importantly it’s a matter of psychological death for each of the jurors. After all, they could be sending an innocent man to the chair. In addition, each of them has some inner baggage to deal with. Like the old man ignored by his family (Joseph Sweeney), and the newly naturalized citizen trying to make it in America (George Voskovec).
Orchestration for conflict is essential in any genre, including comedy. Especiallycomedy. Think of, say, City Slickers.You have three friends from the city going on a cattle drive out west. They are very different from each other – one is a joker, one is macho, one is just a loser. Then they come in contact with someone who is unlike any of them – Curly, the ramrod. The comedy flows naturally out of the conflict between the different personalities.
So as you’re getting ready to write, you would do well to create a chart of all your important characters, a grid like the one produced below (taken from my article “Vitamin C For Your Thriller” in the July/August 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest):

Then figure out points of conflict between the characters, as in this example:
You will be pleased and amazed at all the natural plot tension, subtext and foreshadowing that will emerge from this simple exercise.

Trouble is your business, writer friend. Go make some.
What are some of your favorite ways to increase conflict, tension and suspense in your work?

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The Two Things Every Novel Needs


“Trouble is my business.” – Raymond Chandler
So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you’re thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you’ll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.
Well, you won’t. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.
Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an “experimental novel,” and that’s okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that’s your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).
But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.
They are Conflict and Suspense.
Conflict
What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.
And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post).
That’s where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that’s too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!)
In The Silence of the Lambs,it’s professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
That’s why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren’t going to care enough to finish the book.
Suspense
The second element is suspense,and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel. 
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.

[Insert short commercial here!]
For the PRINT version:
Or E-BOOK:
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]

I could go on and on about this subject, but we don’t want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about. Try it and see.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
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NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.
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