Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: A Do-Over

I don’t believe I’ve ever finished a presentation or lecture without immediately wanting a do-over, a chance to add something or approach things from a slightly different angle.

Things were no different this past residency when I presented on “Conflict.” As it happened, I did get one chance for a do-over because my presentation and another were scheduled concurrently and we repeated them so students could attend both. I was grateful for the chance to revise and reorganize between the first session and the rerun.

But not even ten minutes after the second presentation had concluded I wanted to corral all the students back into the lecture hall. "More, there’s one thing more! I forgot something!"

And I have Phyllis Root to thank for that.

In the final moments of my allotted time that second time around she asked the question that I should have anticipated and the answer to which should be part of any lecturer’s talk: “Can you give an example from your own work?”

I was gobsmacked. I hadn’t included an example, and in the rush of adrenaline that accompanies fifty minutes of jabbering in front of an audience, I couldn’t think of one on the spot.

Ten minutes later when everyone was gone from the room and the rush was subsiding, I of course came up with an answer, but it was one that made me realize, “Oh, wow, I forgot to talk about that.”

So now I am indulging in a do-over on the Inkpot. First, a recap of the topic and lecture.

I was speaking on “Conflict.” Early into the talk I reminded those present of one of the many gems from Laura Ruby’s first-day lecture on world-building: Within the rules of the fictional world are the seeds of conflict.

I then suggested to those present in the lecture hall to consider that there are also worlds within worlds, and each has its own set of rules.

Identify all of the worlds your character lives in and navigates between, I advised. In a realistic novel, for example, these worlds might be labeled, “Family” or “School” or “Job.” There might even be—should be—smaller worlds within those worlds. “Cousins” or “high school band” or “night shift.” Each will have its own rules. Identify the rules. (Never talk about the uncle who drinks; never flirt with anyone in the clarinet section; never give free ice cream cones to people you know.)

Then I once again brought up a favorite craft theory of mine: Power + Belonging = Identity. Our stories are essentially about identity, the realization of an individual on the page. If conflict is what makes a story soar (and heaven knows the writing experts tell us just that) than one should look to create conflict in the worlds where a character’s power and sense of belonging are the most vulnerable or the most secure. Those places are the sweet spot of conflict. Use them.

What I didn’t say and will now is …Those spots are also the places where the conflict you create MUST resonate. Get that? I used all caps, so I hope so.

Even if the important action happened elsewhere in the main character’s life and not in the places where he/she/zhe feels most or least powerful or at home, the impact must be felt in all those places. If not, your conflict is cheap stuff.

And Phyllis Root, my dear friend and esteemed colleague, I have an example from my own work.

As Just Like That begins, Hanna Martin, the main character, dumps a boyfriend and (now in a churlish mood) takes a late night walk to a nearby lake. The mood is made worse by the high spirits of a couple that is riding around—illegally—on a four wheeler, so she doesn’t tell them that the ice is thin on the lake. The next morning she learns they went out on the ice and broke through; both have died. She, not surprisingly, feels enormous guilt.

Hanna is a talented artist and she also has a very loving relationship with her mother and two best friends (power and belonging, yes?) While her art and the relationships have nothing to do with the inciting incident, you can bet I turned to those parts of her life to demonstrate the impact of the accident and the devastating power of her guilt.   

So this is my lecture addendum in a nutshell: Yes, the worlds where a character’s power(s) and sense of belonging are the weakest or strongest will indeed provide the sweet spots for detonating conflict, but they are equally important as barometers of that conflict.

My do-over is done.


  1. Just what I needed to read right now - thank you!

  2. :)

    Will be good to see you in April!

  3. How I miss your lectures. I would happily attend a do-over again and again.