Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Faculty Voices with Marsha Qualey: The Big One - Conflict and Antagonists

We focused on plot this past residency. I welcomed this topic immersion because for the last several months I have been writing short stories after years of novel writing, and I have been hugely challenged by the need to pare down the scope of my storytelling. How much plot can a 5000 word story handle? How do I know what is essential? What should I spend time on?
The residency session I concocted and led (with gracious participation from very game students; thank you, all) was, frankly, quite self-serving as it was an exploration that’s relevant to my own writing questions.

In the session we first discussed the types of conflict in fiction as outlined by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in her book Story Structure Architect:

Relational Conflict 
This is the main character in conflict with another human

Social Conflict
The Main Character faces the group and the cultural/social/legal limits of that group--a religious organization and its laws, a secular institution and its laws, or maybe a book club and its expectations.

Situational Conflict
The main character is challenged by something that occurs or arises in the natural or human-made world, maybe tornadoes or fire or being lost in the woods or swimming among sharks.

Inner Conflict
The main character is challenged by the self—by habits or uncertainty or memories or any of the many physical or emotional elements of that person.

Paranormal Conflict 
The main character is challenged by technology, science, or the limits of what is possible: unleashing a new strain of bacteria, dealing with superpowers, ghosts.  

Cosmic Conflict 
The main character deals with fate, destiny, or God

Then we did a close reading of a few scenes from The Goose Girl, one of the residency’s common books and discussed what types of conflict were present in the scenes. Were the scenes loaded with too many types? How much is too much? What types of conflict might be best for what types of scene?

Types of conflict are nearly interchangeable with types of antagonists. I concluded the session by encouraging the writers to make their own conflict/antagonist list for each of their own stories. What are the specific conflicts or antagonists a protagonist might encounter? This is crucial world building. 

In her lecture “Bad Luck and Trouble: Antagonists in Fiction”, Laura Ruby told us that the most important antagonist “is the self.” Similar, one could say, to Schmidt’s “Inner Conflict.” I agree with Laura (who wouldn’t!) but my final caution to the residency students in my session was about this very important antagonist: Use this conflict sparingly in scenes. This is especially and most obviously true of action scenes, of course, but all scenes can bog down when they focus on inner turmoil. Once established, the inner conflict is part of the reader’s base knowledge and the writer need only—at most—quickly signal that inner struggle. Unless there is a change about to occur that will alter the plot trajectory, it might be a good idea to bury the self.

Marsha Qualey has been a faculty member in Hamline's MFAC program since it began. She is the author of several YA novels, one novel for adults, and several work-for-hire books for younger readers. For more information please visit her website.

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