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Conflict and Theme

For me, when I was just looking this stuff up I blinked a few times at the words “Confilct and Theme” and said “Huh? What’s the difference?”

I got the following definitions from Literary Vocabulary.

CONFLICT: The opposition between two characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist), between two large groups of people, or between the protagonist and a larger problem such as forces of nature, ideas, public mores, and so on. Conflict may also be completely internal, such as the protagonist struggling with his psychological tendencies (drug addiction, self-destructive behavior, and so on); William Faulkner famously claimed that the most important literature deals with the subject of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Conflict is the engine that drives a plot. Examples of narratives driven mainly by conflicts between the protagonist and nature include Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (in which the Californian struggles to save himself from freezing to death in Alaska) and Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (in which shipwrecked men in a lifeboat struggle to stay alive and get to shore). Examples of narratives driven by conflicts between a protagonist and an antagonist include Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, in which King Arthur faces off against his evil son Mordred, each representing civilization and barbarism respectively. Examples of narratives driven by internal struggles include Daniel Scott Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” in which the hero struggles with the loss of his own intelligence to congenital mental retardation, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the protagonist ends up struggling with his own guilt after committing a murder. In complex works of literature, multiple conflicts may occur at once. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Othello, one level of conflict is the unseen struggle between Othello and the machinations of Iago, who seeks to destroy him. Another level of conflict is Othello’s struggle with his own jealous insecurities and his suspicions that Desdemona is cheating on him.

THEME: A central idea or statement that unifies and controls an entire literary work. The theme can take the form of a brief and meaningful insight or a comprehensive vision of life; it may be a single idea such as “progress” (in many Victorian works), “order and duty” (in many early Roman works), “seize-the-day” (in many late Roman works), or “jealousy” (in Shakespeare’s Othello). The theme may also be a more complicated doctrine, such as Milton’s theme in Paradise Lost, “to justify the ways of God to men,” or “Socialism is the only sane reaction to the labor abuses in Chicago meat-packing plants” (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). A theme is the author’s way of communicating and sharing ideas, perceptions, and feelings with readers, and it may be directly stated in the book, or it may only be implied.

So what does that mean for your novel? You have to have each of those three components.

If your novel were a car, Conflict would be your engine…so you won’t really get very without that, huh? There are three types of conflict: Internal, Interpersonal and External.

Internal: Shane really wants something, but he’s going to have trouble getting it.
This brings up two questions. What does Shane want (maybe it’s a who)? Why will he have trouble getting it? Maybe he really wants to be a teacher but has been told countless times he’s worthless, doesn’t have patience and must go into the family business of pottery. So Shane’s biggest obstacle to achieving his goal is himself.

Your turn: Write down at least three things your character wants and the reasons s/he stands in their own way of getting them.

Interpersonal: Problems with the people in Shane’s life, the people around him.

His father: Is dead-set on Shane going into the family business and so proud that so far, Shane’s worked there every summer. He’s so happy his son is going to follow in his footsteps in the vast world of pottery in which he has established a name for himself. Or maybe he’s the second or third generation, which puts even more pressure on Shane…

His girlfriend: She wants Shane to have a secure job and knows his family business is stable.

His best friend: Maybe he’s jealous of Shane and tells him things like ‘you’d never have the patience’ or ‘stick with what you’re good at.’ His own dreams of playing video games for a living have long since expired and he dropped out of college after the first year. Maybe he’s working at a local restaurant as a waiter and if Shane becomes a teacher fears they won’t get to spend as much time together.

Maybe his dad will refuse to help him with money for college if Shane really wants to go for a teaching degree. Maybe his girlfriend will bitch and moan, maybe even say she’s pregnant (maybe get pregnant on purpose with him or cheat on him with someone else). And perhaps the best friend will call him to hang out the night before his big interview…

Your turn: Write down at least three people who stand in your character’s way and why.

External: Outside forces.

Maybe Shane can’t get financial aid because his family is well-off? Maybe there is some big tornado or earth-quake or zombie attack. Or maybe Shane is given some bedamned quest by a God to go and save the world!

Your turn: Write at least one major ‘getting hit on the head with a sack full of bricks’ external conflict that changes your character’s entire world!

The literary world is full of potential conflicts. And now, grasshopper, you have conflict.

Okay, themes. Going with the car analogy, maybe Theme is the transmission. Yeah, works for me.

I suggest reading this article by Holly Lisle. Themes are about finding what your book is really about; it’s about looking for answers to unasnwered/unanswerable questions! Like, a clichéd example, what is the meaning of life? (And don’t say 42.)

Alright, go forth and put what you’ve learned to use!

Happy writing,
EW

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Character Creation/Development

You need a character, huh? When creating characters, I’m going to suggest not picking the name first. With names come a lot of pre-existing concepts and ideas of what that person will be like. Every character should be at least mostly thought out if not completely.

So first, you should pick a gender (hopefully this will be easy for you). If age is necessary for the novel, pick that now. if not…then you should eave it until later. If you need to call them something, their temporary name can be Character.

Think about your novel, and the character.*

  • Where does Character live? Has s/he always lived there? If not, where is s/he from?
  • What is Character’s full-time job? Is s/he employed full-time, a student? Whatever it is, does Character like it? Does s/he work two jobs?
  • What activities does Character like to do for fun? Has s/he got any hobbies? Why hasn’t s/he decided that this passion isn’t what s/he wound up doing for a living?
  • Ah, romance. Does Character have a significant other? What about in their past, any heart-breaks or tragic affairs? If not, why not?
  • How about pets? Is the pet special to Characters, or does s/he hate it? Has it ever saved Character’s life?
  • Who are Character’s closest friends? Any old friends that have grown distant? Regrets? How about enemies? Who is Character’s main enemy in the story? You should think about the people that effect Character’s life, and how.
  • How about family? Who raised Character, has s/he got any siblings, cousins, or anyone they consider family?
  • Why does the enemy hate Character?
  • What are Character’s fears?
  • What are Character’s innermost desires?
  • What is the one thing in the world your character would do anything to avoid? Why? What has he already done to avoid this? What do you see him doing in the future to avoid it?
  • How about sacrifice? What is the one thing in the world your character would do anything in the world to have? Why? What has he already done to try to obtain it? What does he hope to try in the future?
  • Name at least five of Character’s biggest flaws/weaknesses.
  • Name at least five of Character’s strengths.
  • Any medical conditions? Any physical or mental disabilities?
  • If you haven’t already, what is Character’s age?
  • Describe what Character looks like. Any distinguishing features? ie: tattoos, piercings, scarring…
  • Finally, you should give Character a proper name. Does s/he even have a middle name?
  • You should now have enough to go on to write a decent biography about Character’s life so far. You should do that, and make sure you write everything you know about Character.

    *I took a lot of questions from Holly Lisle’s website, and added a lot of my own.

    I hope this was a helpful guide (:

    Happy writing!
    EW

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Starting a Novel

So you’re stuck staring at that blank word document, huh? I hear ya.

As Holly Lisle wrote “You’ve decided you want to write a book. Terrific.”

I’m going to be using her tutorials and advice a lot in the next several posts, and probably after that, too. Her website is full of really good advice and can be found at HollyLisle.com. I’ve done a lot of research on advice (mostly when I was stuck staring at a blank page or document lol) on how to move on, get out of writer’s block or even character development and I’ve found her information very useful. However, I’d like to add some advice of my own in this blog as well as perhaps leave out a thing or two. I still advise you to check out her site, and I’ll be providing extra exercises along with some of the ones she offers.

Alright, back to the purpose of this blog: starting your novel.

My first piece of advice is to write something, anything, even if it doesn’t mean anything to you at the moment. Get writing!

Even if you just copy and paste these following questions and answer one of them, it’s a start!

  1. Do you know your world?
    What kind of world is it? Are you using the modern, current world? Is it historical? Maybe you’re creating your very own world! Are you in some way changing or altering how our world works? Adding magic, vampires, shifters…how does that work? Are there rules?
  2. Do you know your characters? How well?
    Who is your main character?
    Who is the antagonist?
  3. What is your conflict? What is your theme?
  4. What is your plot?
    Refine the answers to the above two questions and solidify it in to a plot.
  5. Whose voice is the story told in, is it first or third POV? Does it switch between them? Does it switch between characters?
    -When asked if there was a preference, Agent Kathleen Ortiz said “Both. But if you write in first POV, then that character better be that much more likable since we’re in their head” in a recent #askagent on Twitter.
  6. What genre are you writing?
  7. How long is this going to be?
    Full novel? Short story or Novella? Is there a word or page goal?
  8. Do you have a deadline?
    Sometimes setting a deadline and some kind of self-imposed penalty (or maybe get someone else to impose one on you) will help you to finish if you struggle with that. You know, no chocolate or -insert favorite food or thing here- until you finish if you don’t finish on time.

This is just a note: Don’t expect anything…just write to enjoy it and don’t worry if it will sell or not. If you worry too much, you won’t enjoy yourself and probably won’t finish…and it probably won’t wind up a very good novel, either, in my opinion. Remember to give yourself wiggle room, allow yourself to make mistakes.
Also, don’t worry about format if you don’t know the proper MS (manuscript) format, just enjoy writing and edit it later. Especially since different agencies and publishers sometimes have different format preferences. If you don’t want to worry about it later, then I’ll be doing a post about format soon. Let me know if you’d like that to be sooner rather than later and if you’ve got anything you’d like me to quote you on, please feel free to email me at: exotericwriter@gmail.com

Happy writing!
EW

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Writer’s block driving you crazy?

We live to write, but what can we do when we don’t feel like writing or we stumble upon writer’s block? Instead of hitting your head against the desk there are some things you can try.

Magazines – RT magazine is filled with author’s books. Read through your genre, and see what others are writing about. Sometimes this will spark an interest in something you never thought about before. How would you change the story? Let your imagination wander, and sometimes the simplest thing can get you to writing.

Keep a notebook – Jot down all those ideas that pop into your head at the supermarket or as you’re reading an email. Pretty soon you have a full notebook of ideas ready to be turned into a story. All you have to do is open the notebook up.

Lists – This is my personal favorite thing to do. I make a list of things I love. Pillows, sunsets, laughing, kisses, Levi jeans, staying up late, white chocolate, surprises, and money. I just made up this list, and while I was typing it, I started thinking about a woman who is working in a pillow factory and the stuffing machine goes haywire. Feathers fill the air, and despite the chaos, the heroine finds it hilarious to be covered in feathers. The boss walks in. He is not pleased, but boy is he sexy. The heroine has had a crush on him forever, but he hasn’t noticed her until he hears her laughter. It’s music to the ears. After hours of cleaning up, getting to know each other, they slip off to a restaurant for a drink…and white chocolate cake. Over the table, they smile at each other as he picks a stray feather still stuck in her hair. Now you give it a try…

People watch – This is a fun one! Did you notice the elderly couple holding hands while walking across the street? Adorable, huh? Now imagine them young, in love. They were just like us at one time. Maybe he was serving in the army, she was a nurse where his buddy recuperated. He asked her out for coffee. Or, maybe he was a wild young man, flirting his way through girlfriends, until he came across a young lady…a librarian. She, of course, made him mind his manners and showed him how to love himself first, before falling in love with her. There are lots of people in the world, and they all have a story. It’s always fun to ask your coworkers, relatives, and neighbors how they met too. Sometimes they’ll shock you!

Polls – Put a poll up on your blog/website. Ask questions on Twitter or Facebook. Everyone loves to talk about how they fell in love.

Read – Authors should never stop reading. Ever. It’s a wonderful thing, and a tax write off when you become a published author. You need books for research, for ideas, to study the industry. The benefit is it will get you thinking of your own story to write.

Think outside the box – What happens when a cowboy goes into the future? What if there was a new type of animal…a cross between a gorilla and a dog, and you have the only one? What happens if you found the cure to all cancers? What impact on the world would curing the common cold have? What would you do if you met your fantasy partner? (If you have children, this is a fun one to involve them in. Kids are naturally imaginative. Have them ask you silly questions.)

Last one for the day is…

Write! – It doesn’t have to be a story. It can be a grocery list, a blog post, or an email to a friend. Still can’t come up with anything? Start writing a recap of how your day is going. If you get in the practice of setting an hour a day to writing, it becomes a habit. Once you have that hour down pat…try two!

 

 

Debra Kayn writes for Carina Press (Harlequin’s Digital 1st Imprint), Etopia Press, and Breathless Press

 

Visit Debra’s website www.debrakayn.com

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