Category Archives: Subtle Confict

“The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever”

Jack Foley.

The first time I met Jack Foley was in Elmore Leonard’s novel Out Of Sight. Elmore Leonard was a literary genius and his approach to storytelling and dialogue are two of my biggest influences when I write. You’ve probably been aware of his work (notably Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma, and the television series Justified to name a few). When I read Out of Sight, I immediately liked Foley as a character. But when the movie came out, something incredible happened. The movie version released in 1998 and was directed by Stephen Soderbergh. It remains one of my favorite movies and, in my opinion, the best of Leonard’s novels turned into film (in a tie with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown – which I’ll discuss next month!).

Foley’s career bank robber with a good heart escapes from the Glades Federal Penitentiary in Florida and promptly runs into U.S Marshall Karen Sisco. In the commotion of the escape, they end up in the trunk of a Cadillac as Foley and his accomplice, Buddy, run. By the time we see this, we’re already in love with Foley. He is smart, good looking, charming as hell, and always has a plan. In the trunk of the car, lit by the reverse side of the taillights, Foley and Sisco have a conversation that feels as natural as one that you and I could have. In the midst of the dangerous situation, sirens and flashing lights close by, we’re pulled into their discussion as naturally as possible. By the time they got out of the car, and the rest of the tale unfolds, we’re clearly following both of them and wanting them to get together at the end of the movie.

In the movie, George Clooney plays Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Sisco. With Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton, and Albert Brooks as some of the stellar cast, the movie is very true to Leonard’s novel.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Jack Foley a memorable character?

Flash forward a few years and Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Out of Sight was released. Road Dogs follows Jack Foley after his release from prison as he tries to build a new life for himself but keeps running afoul of shady characters out for money and blood. From the book Out of Sight, which is one of my favorite Leonard titles, I liked Foley’s character. However, seeing him played by Clooney so perfectly, as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. The likable, memorable character has become something else entirely through the visual medium.

There are a few movies that suck me in when I find them one television. All of them have something in common. A sympathetic, regular guy protagonist with a good heart trying to get by. All of those movies have been perfectly cast so that the main characters are indelibly etched into our minds. Seriously – could anyone other than Tim Robbins have played Andy in Shawshank Redemption? Clooney’s performance as Jack Foley did exactly the same thing. When written stories become films, so many times the elements the make the books vibrant and alive are lost. Sometimes, we cannot see a character in our minds as clearly as the movies define them.

But when a likable, memorable character is played by the right actor or actress – wow. And you all know exactly what I’m talking about. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Using What Scares You

I went to a publishing conference in New York some years ago, and an agent said that a great author is a great storyteller. You can have all the craft and technique in the world, but if you aren’t a good storyteller, you won’t become a true success. Alternately, you can have the worst craft and know nothing of technique and be the next huge star of the publishing world. Yet, she could not define what made a good storyteller, like it’s some nebulous thing that cannot be truly understood. She was in the “you can’t learn it, you just have to be born with it” camp, a believer in which I am not.

But what is good storytelling if it’s not the expert use of craft and technique? I’ve been puzzling over it for years and I think I finally figured out a rather large component—a good storyteller is one who can tap into emotion with every word.

We humans, above all else, are creatures of emotion. We like to think we are creatures of intellect and reason and morality, but these things are constructs we’ve created to put limitations and controls over the nasty, hind-brain, instinctual animal side that is human emotion. Emotion motivates us in pretty much everything we do. Our desire to feel happiness, love, safety, pleasure all shape our choices. Our desire to not feel pain, sorrow, grief, all push us to move in a particular direction, even if it’s subconsciouly. Every choice we make is rooted in our emotional health, or lack thereof. Our need to feel one emotion over another.

The crazy thing is, everyone human being past, present, or future feels the same emotions. Emotion is the one, true universal language. It is the one thing we all as a species, share, and no emotion is more familiar to us all than fear. Writing our fear, more than any other emotion, can truly raise a writer’s prose to new heights.

There’s two ways of writing what frightens us, and both are equally beneficial. The first is the obvious definition—if we want our audience to fear something, start with what we, ourselves, are the most afraid of. J.K. Rowling once said that she decided to put giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets because she herself was afraid of spiders. Similarly, Peter Jackson’s rendering of Shelob in the Return of the King was built off his personal arachnophobia. Think of it as a mind hack. It’s easier to write what we know, how we personally feel about a particular thing or situation when we write about something that makes us feel the emotion we want to invoke. It’s easy to make spiders terrifying if the author is terrified of the creepy bastards, but harder to make a horse frightening if they make the author all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monster. It can be a fear of rejection, a fear of success, a fear of fear itself. It’s making the fear personal that’s the key, no matter what genre or sub-genre we are writing. Every genre deals with some sort of fear, and the more we make that fear our own, the easier it is to make the reader feel it with us.

The second way of looking at writing what one fears isn’t so obvious, and it’s something we all face at one point or another. It’s taking on those scenes that make us cringe. You know those scenes, the ones that make us uncomfortable or leave us at a loss. Wether its fight scenes or sex scenes or scenes of moral uncertainty, we all have a scene somewhere that tempts us to just skip it and have it happen off screen. After all, the worst fear of any writer is that an important, necessary scene will suck and bring the whole piece down.

But nine times out of ten, that seemingly impossible scene will become one of the more powerful moments in a story. Dan Wells once said that a scene in I Am Not a Serial Killer, where the protagonist draws a knife on his mother, was an especially difficult scene to write, but the final product is one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the book. Alternately, I have a friend who kept skipping over scenes where people were fighting (verbally or physically) because he wasn’t comfortable with violence, but it left his work lacking conflict and the story suffered because of it.

Part of why this is so effective, I think, is that the struggle to get the scene written and fear that it won’t work makes us slow down and take a long, hard look at what we’re doing, much more so than a scene that just plops itself down on the page. Difficult scenes force us to pull out all the stops, to dig deep and give it our all, thereby forcing us to put our best work on the page because anything less would just prolong the torture. Also, fear is conflict, and whether it’s felt by the character or just subconsciously by the author, it puts an edge, an undercurrent in the scene that can lift it above simple prose. It’s always the scenes I didn’t want to write, the ones that kick my ass, that I always end up the most satisfied with, and I think it’s because of the fear. If I wasn’t afraid of what I was writing, the writing would not be as good. Period.

Use the fear, share it. It won’t be easy, but more likely than not, your readers will feel it, and what they feel is what will stay with the reader long after they finish the story.

Kill Them With Kindness

Whenever someone asks me where I grew up, I claim Atlanta. Though I was born in Ottawa and lived on or above the Mason-Dixon line for the first fourteen years of my life, the person I am today came into being through the time I spent there. Though, I’m not a true southerner (you can’t be unless your roots go five or six generations back), I have picked up on some of their tricks.

When I first moved to the south, I remember thinking how nice and polite everyone seemed to be. A large part of the Southern social contract is devoted to avoiding overt conflicts. True, brawling does happen, but relations often stay friendly after wards. Things happen at a much slower pace, and no one really cares if you are two or three hours late to a bar-b-q. Southerners have turned hospitality and friendliness into an art form.

They have also turned sneakiness and subtly into a competition sport. In this arena, southern belles are the Olympic athletes. I’ve met women who can flay you alive and leave you thinking that they paid you the sweetest of complements. It’s actually pretty amazing to watch.

This tendency comes from years of practice in a culture and social system that strongly discourages direct physical conflict and prizes politeness and civility. However, when you try to disarm someone they will simply find another means to fight. Humans are still apex predators no matter how much we work to “civilize” them. We are also social animals who constantly struggle for their place in the clan’s heiarchy. When you take combat into a social arena, you simply change the rules, not human nature.

Where physical combat is an attempt to damage someone’s physical body or possessions, social combat is a war of perception and reputation. The combatants are trying to insult, slight, discredit, and embarrass one another in such a way that it influences the opinions and views of those around them. In so doing, the combatants are trying to change how others react to and interact with their target. Though more difficult and much longer term, social combat can also be designed to change how a person views themselves and how they in turn interact with the world around them. Break down someone’s self esteem, make them feel worthless and stupid, and they will break.

We are taught to ignore social combat as children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Unfortunately words, and the perceptions they alter, have incredible constructive and destructive power. Don’t believe me? Look at the absurd amounts of money political candidates pour into their media campaigns or the budgets that companies devote to advertising. These avenues are just mass social combat.

Social combat is nothing new to either life or fiction. However, it has seemingly had a resurgence in recognition and popularity. Reality TV is almost entirely based off turning social combat into a circus. Those sorts of bouts are more often like social brawls, however, lacking the refined elegance truly skilled combatants. For true social warfare, one can look to The Song of Ice and Fire books or their The Game of Thrones HBO made for TV adaptation. Many viewers love the politics and backstabbing as much, if not more than the physical conflicts. Some of the series’ most popular characters, such as Tyrion Lannister, Lord Varys, Little Finger, Tywin Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Melisandre, are beloved because of their skill and wit. In fact, the writers of The Game of Thrones directly call out the effects of social combat in a conversation between Varys and Tyrion in season 2 episode 3.

Varys: “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?”
Tyrion: “Why? Am I about to hear one?”
Varys: “Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”
Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword.”
Varys: “Does it? He has neither the crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.”
Tyrion: “He’s has a sword, the power of life and death.”
Varys: “But if it is the swordsman who rules, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?”
Tyrion: “I have decided I don’t like riddles.”
Varys: “Power resides where men believe it resides, it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

Social combat has a lot to offer fiction writers and our stories, but it is also difficult to use well. However, if you keep these six tips in mind, you can quickly find places to integrate this sort of conflict into your own writing.

  1. Not everyone is cut out to be a master of social combat. Most people are not particularly good at it or even aware enough to notice when it is going on. Do all your characters have huge muscles and advanced military training? Then why would they all be able to fence with grace and skill in the social arena? Characters who are masters of this sort of conflict are some combination of intelligent, witty, clever, well spoken, charismatic, and mentally nimble. Most importantly, they have experience using those attributes to influence others.
  2. People who are really good at social combat are also highly empathetic and perceptive. They understand how people will perceive their words and actions, and use that knowledge to create a desired effect.
  3. Social combat is still combat and should therefore have real and damaging stakes. After all, the diplomat and the swordsman both may be trying to kill you, but only one is doing so overtly. To ensure that proper tension is maintained, it is critical to make the consequences of failure are clear to the reader and the pacing appropriate to the conflict.
  4. Social combat is layered and filled with misdirection. Verbal sparring and the artful insults are rarely direct. Be sure to make full use of sarcasm, innuendo and referential humor (within the context of the story). Subtext is also a powerful tool. David Jon Fuller wrote a comprehensive post on this very topic last week, so I’d recommend taking the time to go look at it for some practical tips.
  5. If the conflict is too obvious, social combat becomes melodrama. However, if it is too subtle, it’ll be missed by all but the most astute. Where you shoot for on that continuum depends on your audience and how important the conflict is to your overall story. I have found a lot of success in using sequels and deep immersion to highlight social combat and its effects. After all, if your character is skilled at social combat they will be aware of when it is happening and will both plan for and react to social sparring matches.
  6. As writers, we have two major advantages over our characters when it comes to social combat. First, we have time to carefully think through and tweak each move in the conflict. Second, we enjoy unparalleled access to the thoughts and reactions of all sides of the conflict. Make sure you use these advantages for all they are worth!

Good luck and happy writing!

About the Author:NathanBarra_Web
Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” Visit him at his webpage or Facebook Author Page.

Don’t say what you mean: writing conflict through dialogue

A guest post by David Jón Fuller.

There are a lot of ways to express conflict through dialogue in a scene, but it can be very effective – and a lot of fun – if it isn’t done openly.

People (and characters) hate conflict. They usually do everything they can to avoid it, unless they’re devoid of empathy. But readers… they love conflict. It makes for great dialogue, exciting scenes, and a plot that keeps moving.

I think, as a writer, it can be easy to fall into placating one or the other of those camps. You want to protect your characters from too much pain, so they work out compromises too often and no one gets hurt. Or, you throw them into the exciting drama of constant conflict, and they will die on that hill before they give in.

The happy middle ground – for characters, your story, and readers – is somewhere in between; and when I’m writing scenes, I follow some basic guidelines that govern how it plays out. These aren’t the only ways to do it, of course, but they’re options to consider.

(Also: one assumption underlying any scene I write is that the characters in it need something from each other. If they didn’t, one or more of them would just leave.)

 

  1. Characters want different things, but they don’t necessarily say so.

Conflict is more than this:

Character 1: I want the thing!

Character 2: I don’t want you to have the thing!

 

It’s more often like this:

Character 1: Say, why don’t we go outside and enjoy the warm weather? (The thing I want is hidden in the garage, and I want to get it)

Character 2: No, let’s stay in the living room and play chess! (I’ve already stolen the thing from the garage and I don’t want you to find out)

Give your characters subtext! They don’t have to say what they really want from each other. In fact, I think it’s better if they avoid doing so until they have no other choice.

 

  1. Characters want different things, but one or both of them don’t realize it.

In a different scenario, things could play out like this:

Character 3: Is there a gas station coming up soon? (My highly contagious stomach flu which I haven’t told you about is acting up and I need a washroom)

Character 4: Don’t worry about that! Even though it says “empty” here, we have plenty of fuel. (If we stop, I’ll be late for my meeting with the loan shark I owe money to)

 

You can use this to heighten tension, but be careful about confusing the reader. You can make it clear something deeper is going on by showing other details, rather than having the character say anything.

Character 3: (gripping the armrest, sweating, pale, trying to conceal a grimace) Is there a gas station coming up soon?

Character 4: (Checks wristwatch, glancing repeatedly in rear-view mirror) Don’t worry about that! Even though it says “empty” here, we have plenty of fuel.

 

  1. Characters generally want to avoid revealing deep truths about themselves. They may not know those truths, either.

It would be nice if scenes played out as logically as this:

Character 5: If you leave home, I’ll feel like a failure as a parent! That’s why I’m trying to make you feel like you’re the failure for leaving.

Character 6: If you keep me here, I’ll feel as if I’m not my own person! I need to leave so I can prove to you – and myself — I’m competent and independent.

 

Even if both characters know what the underlying issue is, they may try to frame it in a way that makes themselves look better:

Character 5: Go ahead and leave – you’ll never make it on your own! (If you leave, I’ll feel like a failure as a parent)

Character 6: If I stay here, I’ll kill myself! Is that what you want? (I need to leave so I can prove to you – and myself – I’m competent and independent)

 

  1. Try this: whatever the character says, make it the opposite of that they really feel.

Instead of a straight back and forth like this:

Character 7: I’m so attracted to you, despite many reasons I shouldn’t be!

Character 8: You disgust me, but I want to help you!

 

It could go like this:

Character 7: Get out of here and leave me alone! (I want you to stay, but I’m afraid my attraction will become too strong and you’ll see I actually love you)

Character 8: As soon as you’re done throwing up, I will! (Drunkenness disgusts me but I couldn’t live with myself if you came to harm because I abandoned you)

 

  1. This is not so much a rule, but it’s a handy tool: Characters generally won’t say what they really, desperately want or need until the climax of the story. It doesn’t have to be a speech, it doesn’t have to be that articulate – but at the climax is where they will be most honest about what they say. If that means they can’t say anything, that’s fine, too. But I generally don’t think the climax is the point at which they will be flip or indifferent – it’s cards-on-the-table time. So when the conflict of the story comes to a head, try to find a way for the characters to declare, or defend, what they love and prize more than anything else. It can be as simple as a single word, like “No.”

 

If you use any of the above strategies throughout the story leading up to the climax —showing what your characters desperately want but won’t come out and say —having them finally be open about it in the climax can be very powerful.

For examples, think of your favourite books, stories, movies or plays, where the climax was truly electrifying. Consider why that is, and whether the characters are finally revealing something about themselves. I’d bet that very often, that revelation or all-pretenses-abandoned sense of the climactic scene is what gives it its power.

There are other strategies for writing dialogue, but the above approaches are ones I find most useful when throwing characters with different agendas together in a scene.

About David Jón Fuller: 100819 David Fuller 0002
David Jón Fuller is a writer whose fiction has appeared in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History; Tesseracts 18: Wrestling With Gods; Kneeling in the Silver Light: Stories From the Great War; and in the upcoming anthology Accessing The Future. He lives in Winnipeg, and as time allows, blogs at www.davidjonfuller.com.