Friday, September 21, 2012

The Art of War for Writers with Guest Blogger: Shannon Donnelly

Win a copy of Paths of Desire 
and meet author Shannon Donnelly 
today at the Book Boost!

She's here to chat about the art of war when it comes to writing and here's what she had to say...

One of my favorite Monty Python skits involves The Argument Clinic. A man shows up and pays for an argument—the person he paid tells him he didn’t pay. And we then get "did too"/ "did not" back and forth. The fellow who came in for an argument puts forward this is contradiction, not an argument. Again with the "is too"/ "is not".

That’s sometimes what I feel I’m getting in books—not really good arguments from the characters, but them contradicting each other. Or, even worse, manufactured, contrived conflict from characters that do not really have deep conflicting issues and goals.

So…what’s good conflict? What will a reader pay for?

The best way to find this out is to look at where your conflict comes from. The best summary I’ve heard of this is from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.

What does that mean?

1. What does a character want?
This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really really wants.

The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.

2. What does a character really want?
Under every want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.

3. What does a character really, really want?

When you find out what a character really wants, ask: But what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.

This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical to marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.

4. What does a character really, really, really want?
This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl.

The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.

Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict. Working out characters who want things that conflict with the main characters wants.

This is where you look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict.

In every book, I love it when every character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. And all of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea (of course) meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together.

And that brings up the next issue with conflict.

If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.

Recently I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day. His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.

Now this is a character that seems without a goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of a drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.

The really interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling at first to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff that no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.

Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story.  And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.

That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters.

A Note from the Book Boost:  Shannon, this is a great lesson for both writers and for life experience in general.  I wish you'd done this post on my Bestsellerology site for writers.  Great information and fantastic examples.  Love that Monty Python skit.  "Oh, this room is for Insults.  Arguments are next door."  Classic!  Please tell us more about your book.



She wants a rich lord for a husband—she won’t end like her mother, abandoned and broken.


He wants to prove to his friend she’s the wrong woman—he knows too well the pain of a bad marriage.


The last thing either wants is to fall in love, but when desire leads to a passion that won’t be denied, how can the heart do anything but follow?


Leaning forward, he cupped her face and kissed her, hard and deep. She held still under his touch, but her lips parted, her tongue met his. Her hand stole up to clutch at his coat collar. He moved his hand from her face to her breast. Kissed her until he had no breath. He pulled away while he still could and leaned his forehead against hers, breath mingling in matching ragged gasps.

“I don’t know what you do to me—I’ve not looked at any woman in months. Not had one for longer. I’d convinced myself I’d had no need for this.”

“I’m not doing anything!”

“You are—just by existing. I’d forgotten the joy of bringing a woman pleasure. I’d forgotten too much.”

She turned away and pulled her cloak tight. “I’m not looking for pleasure—I’m looking for a husband.” He gave a laugh, and she turned to him. “You wouldn’t laugh at a lady who said as much—and you wouldn’t handle a lady as you have me!”

“No—thank merciful heaven for that. But I want more than to touch you.”

“Go away—and stay away!’re a distraction! An arrogant, conceited distraction. And—”

He caught her wrist. “Don’t lie to me. Don’t lie to yourself. This doesn’t end here between us.”

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