Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Most Important Rule of Writing

What is the most important rule in writing? We hear about the rules all the time—show, don’t just tell; don’t use be verbs; don’t include backstory—but which rule is the most important?

For the most part, the rules are nothing more than general rules of thumb. There are plenty of examples where writers have successfully violated each of the ones I listed above and there are times that we will violate them as well. But there is one rule that is an absolute; we must follow it no matter what. Some writers have attempted to violate it. I suppose all of us have violated it at some point, but none have done so successfully. And yet, if we handle this one rule well, the other rules either fall into place or they don’t matter quite as much.

So, what is this all important rule? Every story must have conflict. It sounds simple enough, but the thing that kills a story more quickly than anything else is lack of conflict. Do you have a sagging middle? That is caused by lack of conflict. Are you reading a book and flipping forward to see when something interesting is going to happen? That is cause by lack of conflict. Without conflict, the plot comes to a standstill or if the conflict is too small, the plot moves very slowly. We must have conflict on every page, or we will lose our reader.

Conflict Defined

Conflict is opposition. Our protagonist wants to go one way, but there are other characters, forces or rules of society that are holding him back. Our story is about how our protagonist overcame or failed to overcome some form of conflict. That conflict must be significant enough to require the length of the story to resolve the conflict. In Cinderella, we see an example of conflict between her and her step-family. Without them, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Cinderella goes to a ball, woos the prince, leaves a glass slipper behind and he finds her. What kind of story is that? It is only when her step-family prevent her from going, she has to go by another means and then her step-family try to prevent the prince from finding her that we become interested in the story.

When Conflict is Missing

Let’s face it, there are times when we will reach a place in our writing that has very little conflict. Our protagonist is looking for something and needs someone to tell him where it is. He asks someone and that person begins a lengthy explanation of what the protagonist must do to locate it. The explanation is relevant to the story and to the central conflict, but things are going much too smoothly in the immediate story. We need to bump up the conflict or the story will die. One way of doing that is to create the other character in such a way that he doesn’t want to give the protagonist the information. This forces the protagonist to drag the information out of him, creating conflict, but we can’t always redefine the character. It may be a friend who has the information.

Another way to force conflict is to place another character or multiple characters into our story for the purpose of adding conflict. Imagine our protagonist is a mother who is at a supermarket talking to the manager about ordering a special item for her. The manager is eager to help, so there is little conflict, but what if the mother has a child pulling on her arm? “Let’s go home, Mommy.” Now we have conflict that adds interest.

Conflict Creates Flow

If you are trying to write and the words just won’t come, you want to show your character doing a particular activity, but it is hard to find the words, you probably need more conflict. You want to show your character at work, so she gets out of the car, walks to the front door, speaks to her boss on the way in, goes to her desk, sits down, and all of that stuff, but it hardly fills a paragraph and you can’t find the words to make it longer. What you need is conflict.

“Good morning,” Pam’s boss said with a smile. “I sent you an e-mail about the James account. Barbara’s out on vacation. I need you to finish it today.”

“But I’ve got all that other stuff you gave me to do,” Pam said. “I’ve got the Martin account and the…”

“I know you’re busy. We all are, but it still needs to be done. I need you to put in the overtime and get it done.”

“I had something I wanted to do tonight.”

“I’m sorry, but this can’t be helped.”

See the difference? We could go on for pages with this conflict over Pam’s boss giving her more work. After talking to her boss, Pam could talk to a co-worker. She could look for a way to get out of doing the work. The story flows from our fingertips. That’s what conflict does for us. It is like the oil of a story. Without it, everything grinds to a halt, but with it, the story flows.