I’m probably going to be talking a lot about Sol Stein in the next few weeks. Sorry, I’ve been reading him to buff up on my editing skillzzzzz, so please bear with me. Sol Stein is a self-celebrated writer and editor, and I don’t think that his own hype is unwarranted. He’s got some great reminders of what readers are really looking for. Some of his stuff may seem heartless, but that’s becuase he’s an editor as well as a writer. He looks past the passion and enthusiasm that drives the first draft of writing and really analyzes what needs to happen in the second draft. I find his approach a good way to step back from the work and scrutinize the mechanics of my own writing.
Last week I talked about his chapter on tension. Today I’m going to be looking at a short but powerful statement of his. It is this:
“The essense of dramatic conflicts lies in the clash of wants.”
The first time I heard it, I was in my college creative writing class. I had been doodling in my notebook, trying very hard to pay attention. Then Dr. Gipson said, “The essense of dramatic conflict lies in the clash of wants.”
I sat up straighter, wrote it down on the back of a piece of notebook paper, and then immediately hunched over as I tried to write the thoughts as quickly as they started flooding into my brain. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
It is such a brutally simple statement that it suddenly makes everything clear. You have your protagonist, who wants something bad enough to act upon it. Then you have the antagonist, who wants the exact opposite. BAM! Two people with opposing wants. It’s like putting two trains on the same track and having them drive toward each other. Even if there were another track that one of them could get off on, they won’t, because they are both determined that THIS is the track where they belong.
In creative writing class I had been agonizing over the main conflict in Into the Flames. I had some ideas about what I wanted to accomplish with the scenes, but I had been mulling it over in my mind for so long that everything had begun to get muddled. I wasn’t sure which way was up. Then I realized. What was the one thing that the main character does or doesn’t want? Great. Now take that and create a person who wants the exact opposite, and find a way to expose the two. I immediately knew where everything was going.
The tension that I talked about earlier is all about the build-up of this clash of wants. Remember oblique dialogue? It’s about two people trying to be indirect, trying to accomplish something without letting the other person know what is really going on. But here, the overarching conflict needs to be direct. It needs to hit your MC head-on. Take all that tension that you’ve been stretching out, and then crash it like those two trains are going to end up. See what comes out of the wreckage. It sounds kind of messy, but let’s face it, if you don’t have a driving force and a clashing one, your train is just going to be sitting in the station turning to rust, and nobody’s going to get on it.
Aw, I just made it sound like I want you to kill your readers. How sad. Maybe I should work on this analogy.