“It’s the conflict in every scene that throws me for a loop. What about romance? Yes, there needs to be conflict or it’s boring, but if it’s all conflict, I can’t buy them having a HEA. Doesn’t there need to be some parts where they are in accord? What about after the Big Bad Thing has happened? I would think the character needs to react, to process the loss, before he/she can think what to do next, especially if it is a major loss. And if the scene begins when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict stops, when does the reader get a breather?
“I understand the definition of conflict, but … Man, I can’t even come up with a coherent question. How about – How do you use conflict? Especially the more subtle ways.”
Conflict in general is pretty simple. Conflict in romance plots is not. So let’s start with conflict in general.
Your protagonist (let’s call her “she” for this discussion) has a concrete physical goal she must attain or she will die a literal or figurative death, cease to be the person she wants to be.
Your antagonist (let’s call him “he” for this discussion) has a concrete physical goal he must attain or he will die a literal or figurative death, cease to be the person he wants to be.
The pursuit of these goals brings your protagonist and antagonist into direct conflict because neither can achieve his or her goal without blocking and thus defeating the other.
That blocking and reblocking each other makes the tension rise as each has to fight harder and stronger to win, culminating in a satisfying conclusion in which one completely defeats the other, destroying the loser either literally or figuratively, and giving the reader catharsis after the intense build of the plot.
And then there’s the romance plot (not conflict, we’ll get to that next):
The romance plot has a protagonist and an antagonist (or vice versa) who are drawn together and who, during the course of their story, move through the physical and emotional stages of falling in love, foreshadowing that their love is not just infatuation but is in fact, a deep, true, mature love that will last through time. Over the course of the story, they change as people so they can connect, learning to compromise and forming a bond at the end that will keep them together, safe and supportive of each other, forever.
Now comes the hard part, taking the romance plot and giving it conflict, because the two plots are antithetical to each other.
That is, a good conflict has the protagonist destroying the antagonist completely (or vice versa). A good romance plot ends in compromise with both protagonist and antagonist safe, happy, and bonded. Trying to navigate the space in between causes most of the problems in romance writing, including the big two, the Big Misunderstanding and the Soft Climax. The Big Misunderstanding happens when the conflict between the two lovers is a mistake (“Oh, she’s your sister? And I was so jealous!”) so it can be solved by one honest conversation. The Big Misunderstanding is a Huge Mistake in writing romance because it means that the lovers have lousy communication skills and that one or both of them is dumb as a rock, neither of which bodes well for long term relationship success. The Soft Climax is exactly what all of you with dirty minds is thinking: there’s no big payoff at the end because there’s no absolute defeat and victory. It’s the reason romance writing often gets slammed as having lousy plotting; it’s not the plotting, it’s the weak endings (especially the weak endings that are followed by epilogues that shows the hero and heroine have reproduced, thereby cementing their love because everybody knows that children make a relationship easier and are a true indicator of mature love, and oh my god, don’t ever do that).
So the problem becomes how to get the lovers’ growth and compromise in a story with a satisfying climax. I have two suggestions, although there are probably other solutions.
1. Marry the romance plot to a conflict plot that has the big climax, defeating a Big Bad. Don’t run the plots parallel to each other, interweave them so that the romance fuels the conflict plot, and the conflict plot fuels the romance. That is, make the romance something that complicates life for the antagonist, making it harder for him to reach his goals. Then make the backlash from the antagonist something that endangers the romance, creating stress which spurs adrenalin which makes it easier for people to fall in love. So the love story drives the conflict story, and the conflict story drives the love story and you can’t separate the two of them. Almost all of romantic suspense takes this approach, although some are more successful than others at integrating the two plots. How to Steal a Milion is a romance with a caper subplot, but Red is a suspense plot with a romantic subplot. That is, the romance between Nicole and Simon in How to Steal A Million is primary, complicated and driven by their attempts to steal the statue, but the romance between Sarah and Frank in Red is a complication in the main plot to bring down the mastermind behind the killings. Both stories need both plots; the emphasis of the story determines which plot will be the main plot and which will be the complication. Fairly often in this kind of plot, the two are almost equal in importance. It doesn’t matter, the key is that you get both the compromise and bonding of the love story with the catharsis of total victory and defeat in climax of the conflict plot.
2. Merge the conflict plot and the romance plot by making the total defeat of one of the lovers a victory for both. The gold standard in this one is Moonstruck, one of the most brilliant romance plots ever written. Our protagonist is Loretta, a practical woman whose goal is a safe secure life with a man she understands completely but does not love, Johnny. Our antagonist is Ronny, Johnny’s brother, a bitter and broken man who meets Loretta when she comes to tell him that she’s marrying his brother, has a screaming argument with her, and is transformed in the moment to a man desperately in love. Loretta’s goal is a safe life with Johnny and she’s sticking to it; Ronny’s goal is a passionate future with Loretta and he’s not giving up. There is no Big Misunderstanding, they each know exactly what’s going on. The conflict comes in that Loretta can’t get the future she wants if she falls in love with Ronny, and Ronny can’t get the future he needs if Loretta stays practical and marries his brother. One of them has to completely defeat the other. In the end, Ronny destroys Loretta entirely, transforming her into a free and passionate woman who is crazy in love with a man who’s crazy in love with her. Because we love Loretta so much, we’re rooting for Ronny to destroy the safe shell she’s built around herself. So we get Loretta emerging from a closet at the end, reborn and happy because she’s lost everything. That’s great romance plotting. It’s also hard as hell to write but hey, nobody forced you to take this gig. (For an example of an absolute failure of this plot, see You’ve Got Mail; I am convinced that Kathleen woke up one morning, realized what Joe had done to her dreams, and smothered him with her pillow.)
If you’re talking about conflict at the scene level, remember that conflict doesn’t mean that every scene is a huge fight. Conflict is a struggle; you can have conflict in a calm, rational discussion about where to have dinner. Since the courtship phase of a romance is all about negotiation, learning to understand each other’s wants, needs, flaws, fears, and joys and then finding a safe ground on which to meet in the middle, your negotiation scenes will have conflict because it’s about two people starting from different places. The scenes you want to avoid are scenes where people just exchange information, the dreaded Chat, or scenes where the characters do something that causes no change in plot or character, like the Great Sex scene where the earth moves but the plot doesn’t. Those are going to be the parts people skip.
Conflict in romance is tricky to bring off, you have to be smart about it, but since it’s inherent in the negotiations people need to make to bond, and since stress is a big adrenalin booster, conflict can intensify the romance and make it more believable while moving the story events along. Embrace the problem; it’ll make your story stronger.
ETA: The conflict we’re talking about is external. External conflict is the only kind of conflict that moves plot. Internal conflict can demonstrate character growth but very rarely causes it. Forget internal conflict for now, think event on the page or screen, not sittin’ and thinkin’.
Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.
59 thoughts on “Questionable: Conflict in Romance”
Dear heaven, The Chat. I hate those scenes. I just finished the new Krentz, and she has a solid ten pages of info-dump at the end where everyone explains to each other exactly how all the dead bodies got dead. I’ve noticed that in almost all her contemporary romantic suspense. The killer kidnaps the heroine at gunpoint and then proceeds to explain in extraordinary detail why and how they did it (instead of just killing her). And then there’s a wrap-up with the rest of the cast that fills in whatever miniscule plot blanks are left.
Ugh. Hit submit by accident. It’s strange, I think she spends the bulk of the book building the romance, which is always good – that’s why I keep reading these, but because she’s so focused on that part, she doesn’t release the information for the mystery until she hits the climax and we have to find out who the killer is. Then there’s an overload of detail to compensate. It’s jarring because it’s the only part of the book that stalls. The killer holding this woman I really like hostage and threatening to kill her should not feel like it takes forever. Sorry, this feels like it ended up only semi-related to the topic, but I just finished reading about ten minutes ago, and I needed to get it out of my system.
Man, I finally just had to make myself stop reading Krentz and her other aliases. Lord, they’re just not at all that good. I should not only be reading a series to find out what the dust bunnies are up to.
I’ve never read her Arcane Society books or any of the futuristic stuff. I really like All Night Long, the plotting was much stronger and the info-dump was minimal (I think she paced the clue-dropping better in that one). I mostly enjoy the Amanda Quick stuff, but I’ve been careful to check Publishers Weekly reviews before picking those up; that helps. I really like her characters, and that goes a long way for me. But I won’t be re-reading this last one.
All Night Long is my very favorite Krentz book. I reread it a lot. I like the little scenes of conflict, such as when Luke shows up at her cabin to move his stuff in and she balks at first, surprised. He then feels he’s made a mistake and is about to leave when she realizes he’s taken a big step and made himself vulnerable to her, so she lets him in. It’s a nice scene.
I love JAK’s characters, so much so that I’m willing to put up with some imperfection in craft. Having said that, I agree that my favorites of hers are some of the earlier books; All Night Long, Falling Awake, Flash… I’m afraid she’s losing her edge a bit she’s written enough books for any 3 normal authors, and I think she’s running out of new ideas. Sad, because her best is very good. At this point, we’re getting second best, which is still pretty good.
I like the Arcane idea. But JAK (and all her aliases) need to freaking finish up the ongoing story lines and stop starting new spinoffs.
Amen on You’ve Got Mail – what a horrible romance. I hated the Tom Hanks character with the heat of a thousand fiery suns.
So, writing in first person, or third limited but in deep POV, the conflict could arise from the heroine or hero’s inner struggle. Saying or doing one thing on the surface, but thinking differently, or silently questioning own actions. The reader gets that push/pull that creates tension, because the reader knows things that the H/H haven’t realized/admitted yet. But, it has to be done with a deft hand or you get that sitting and thinking stuff you always say not to do. *grin*
Nope. Internal conflict can help describe character arc but it can’t move story. External conflict moves story. Internal conflict is just a character staring into space, thinking hard.
Drat. So, I’m still just sittin and thinkin. External conflict. Maybe if I say it three times it will sink in. : )
Think Romancing the Stone did an interesting job of weaving the plots. Haven’t seen it in a long while so don’t remember details, but I remember being taken by the build in the “getting to know you” phase. Of course, it helped that the couple was placed in danger & their behaviour heightened by survivor mode.
Not sure about the “one of them destroyed” bit, though. Jack did come around a bit more in the end, but both were changed by their experience AND by their interactions/relationship.
It is harder to pull this off in a straight romance or romantic comedy with no major action/mystery plot. Agree about Moonstruck and also Two Weeks Notice comes to mind as one that introduces external conflict but also draws a lot of its steam from internal conflict–all the while showing these two “opposites” learning about each other, bonding, and really knowing each other and being comfortable together despite whatever differences they had at the start.
But think pacing is so important in conflict. And the need to vary the nature of it some so there’s a bit of a roller coaster effect & readers/viewers get a break–otherwise, at least for me, it becomes a one-note-story and loses my interest.
Good question, Carol. And fab explanation, Jenny:)
He absolutely destroys her in Romancing the Stone. She goes back to NYC reborn. It starts right after they first meet when he chops the heels off her shoes; she says, “Those were Italian!” He says, “Now, they’re practical.” She changes him, too, but not the way he transforms her. One point: He’s her antagonist in the romance plot, but they have the colonel or whoever he is as a common antagonist in the conflict plot.
Be careful of internal conflict. It’s important but it does not move story. Both Two Weeks Notice and Romancing the Stone keep the external conflict moving all the time.
Lol. Totally forgot the shoe scene in RTS. That’s fab.
And thanks for expanding on the destroying bit:)
Also agreed re internal conflict not moving story. But it can move the audience and add depth & caring to a story. What I meant re TWN is that I think of it as a good example of internal conflict feeding the external conflict and giving it steam. But definitely, it’s the external that ultimately moves story.
Now thinking of rewatching RTS but have had a hard time finding it…
It’s one of the (many) moments that I really love in Welcome to Temptation, when Phinn realises that Sophie has destroyed the life he’s built, and that that’s a good thing because it was a wasteland that needed to be destroyed.
In a way, I see part of the conflict in a romance as also within each character. It’s like each must destroy themselves and be reborn to be the person they can be, who also is the person best suited to the relationship. In WTT, both Sophie and Phin had to destroy long-held beliefs and what they wanted from their futures in order to be together.
Yes, BUT internal conflict does not move story. It can’t even cause character growth. It can illustrate character growth but thinking does not change anything. We like to think that it does, but it’s the events in our external lives that spur the decisions, and what happens after we make those decisions that causes change; we don’t change just by thinking.
Oh, I needed to hear that. You answered a question I didn’t even know I had.:) Now I just need to figure out how to use it…
Still laughing at the bit about “You’ve Got Mail.” So true!
Here’s a possible question for a Questionable post: How do you decide which events deserve full scenes, as opposed to narrative summary?
This is so helpful. Please write a craft how-to book for us. Even if you just took all of the times you’ve discussed craft on the blog and put it in an e-book, it would be so much help.
I’m trying to figure out how to do it the most useful way right now. The world doesn’t need another writing book with chapters on how to write, there are a lot of good ones out there already. So I’m cogitating on how I want to do it. I’m pretty sure I’d do it in two sections, the first one on writing fiction in general and the second part on writing romance in specific. And I know I want to break up the way the information is presented. I just need to think it through.
Thanks for the vote of confidence!
Oh gods, YES PLEASE. Just look at all the writing aspects you’ve addressed on the blog and in workshops, and you’ve got the most spectacular writing book ever written. (Also, it’s by you, so that’s a plus. Witty and interesting, vs. dry and snooooorrrreeee…sorry, er, many of the other writing books I’ve attempted to read in the past.)
And completely off topic–did you see this week’s Sherlock? (I forget the title, but it had the number three in it.) Completely redeemed last week’s Empty Hearse debacle. Whew.
I always intended to, I just have to figure out how I want to do it. McDaniel has been a huge help there, and I owe my students a lot.
Yep, I saw The Sign of the Three. Didn’t redeem it for me, but we can argue about it next Sunday.
Forgot to say “Thank you” for the writing book support. Thank you.
Very interesting insights.
I write very little ‘navel-gazing’ for my characters and tend to throw them into external situations that test them. The characters learn a lot about each other in these moments, and I find that to be a more interesting way to define them than having them do a lot of self-analysis, or having a secondary character do that analysis for them.
That approach is definitely a feature of my own personality and approach to life. I’d rather be doing something, anything, than quietly reflecting on what makes ‘me’, ‘me’.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! That’s it exactly – conflict is simple, but romance makes it complicated. You made it so clear, and gave me lots to think about. You are a fabulous teacher, Jenny.
Fabulous post, very helpful. I love your little lessons on craft. Thanks, Jenny.
Okay, so in Crazy for You, what’s going on with the conflict there? Because if I had to pick an antagonist, it would be Change, sort of? Or stagnation? I don’t want to default to Bill because I feel like he’s just a loser in the Change conflict.
Antagonists are people. It’s Quinn vs. Bill, with the romantic subplot Quinn vs. Nick.
So, in writing terms (I’m lit/library, not writing, so I have some gaps), what would change be there? A theme? A motif?
Character change is character arc; it’s like a plot for a single character. How different is the place/mindset where a character starts from the place/mindset where a character ends?
Character change is caused by the plot; if the plot doesn’t have enough impact to change the major characters, it doesn’t have enough impact, period. Sometimes one of the characters doesn’t change, and that makes him or her vulnerable because in the upheaval of the plot events, everything else has changed, so that character is living in a world that no longer exists. That usually leads to some bad decisions that bring about defeat.
Change in a story is a factor in a lot of things–plot development, character arc, even the course of a motif over time in the plot.
I wrote about conflict a few weeks ago on Eight Ladies Writing in the New Year, New Writer segment (two posts…I had an epiphany after writing the first one). In the first one, I summed up conflict like this:
–Conflict is when one character’s action blocks another character’s goal
–Trouble is not conflict. Did she simply get a tear in her dress (trouble), or did someone else tear it to prevent her from going to the ball (conflict)?
–Conflict is not an argument or misunderstanding. It’s not something that can be resolved if two people stopped being obtuse and talked it out.
–Conflict cannot be against something that can’t react (time, a thing, a situation).
–Conflict must be in every scene. It must escalate throughout your book.
I think what I need to add based on what you’ve said is that conflict can’t be internal. I guess I imply that in the second-to-last bullet, but perhaps it needs to be its own line item. Right?
My second post was about what I termed “mini-conflict,” (scene-level conflict) because not every scene can be filled with BIG, HUGE conflict that affects the book-level goals and motivations, but you can’t have nothing happening either. I tend to think of scene-level conflict as containing mini-goals and mini-motivations, too, and it may help move the romance (or another) subplot along or something, but it’s separate from the characters’ overarching book-level goals. Does that sound right?
That sounds right.
There is internal conflict, it’s just not the stuff that powers a plot. It’s more a demonstration of character growth. Loretta has internal conflict because she’s determined to marry safe Johnny but she’s in love with wild Ronny, so she’s torn. However, if all she does is struggle internally, there’s no story. The plot in Moonstruck happens because of Ronny.
I think a lot of people, especially romance writers, get confused between a character who’s “conflicted” or “in conflict” about an issue versus a character who’s experiencing the kind of conflict that’s necessary for plot. Then, the author tends to respond to comments about lack of story conflict with “oh, but the protagonist is angsting over such-and-such, and that’s the conflict.”
Conflict is such a difficult issue for so many struggling authors. We need new terminology, something that focuses on the external struggle, without implying fistfights, and separating out the mental/emotional struggles that are going on at the same time.
And I wish someone would permanently lay to rest the old saying about conflict falling into certain categories, i.e., man versus man, versus society, versus self or versus nature. I think I picked up from Jenny (but it may have been elsewhere) that those tags are really more the sort of thing that’s useful for a CRITIC of a story, than for a writer, and I think that’s true. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve suggested in a critique that the story has no conflict, no struggle at all, no inciting event, no actions, just navel-gazing, and get the response, “Oh, it’s a man v. self story. The conflict is all in his head.” That’s fine for a critic to say — look at how this character is struggling to change himself — which extrapolates from the concrete conflict in the story to summarize the theme or moral of the story, but in the WRITING of the story, in the actual plot, there was an external doppelganger, making the conflict man v. man, not man v. self.
I’m rambling. But I’d love to see that “types of conflict” thing erased from every writer’s memory and reserved for critics only.
And I think it’s still taught in schools which makes me crazy. You’re right, it does nothing to illuminate basic conflict. At this point, I’m not even sure it does anything for critics.
Even though I can see what you’re saying about action & plot & external events making things in a story move, I still feel there’s an awful lot to be said for deeply understanding the internal conflicts that make your characters more evolved & interesting. To me, your books have grown more interesting over the years, and one reason seems to be that you’re playing with some of those classic writing truths and tropes, and ending up with way more interesting characters. Like Andie, who certainly has a lot of external action going on, but you’ve given her a boatload of characters who kind of play out her inner conflicts as she goes back and forth between ghosts v. not-ghosts, new guy v. old guy, depth v. superficiality, and so on.
Or in Wild Ride, where you have a whole class of antagonists, a big inner change that has to happen to your protagonist before she can figure out what the basic rules of the game around her actually are, and a romantic interest who doesn’t even show up until eons after everyone else is fully engaged and running around playing their parts.
Plus, all kudos to the co-author, who is a Plotmeister, but his very active couple was all plot, but psychologically boring as all get out, whereas your old guardia & the various mother figures/ravens helped to bring about the inner transformation that really made your heroine an interesting figure for me. She and Andie , for me at least, are both excellently re-readable, whereas with some of your earlier books I have to wait until some of the plot has dimmed in my memory before I can go back to enjoy them over again.
You absolutely need the internal conflict for character growth; what I’m saying is that character growth doesn’t move plot and generally doesn’t happen because people think they should change, the internal conflict happens because something happens externally that makes them think, otherwise they just continue to think the way they have before. I’m thinking maybe I need to do a post on internal and external conflict. (And thank you for compliments, too.)
The realisation, “This is wrong with my life”, or “Oh, I need to change” doesn’t mean anything until you get off your butt and do something about it, but the realisation is the starting point for acting. And you often need cataclysm in the world around you to push you to first realise what’s wrong, and then push you hard enough to act on it.
Exactly. An event happens, action, and it blasts you out of your perceptions of yourself and others, makes you take a second look. But the change isn’t complete until you do something, the second event, the second actions. The realization is character growth, but the event and the action is what moves plot.
The easiest example:
If you stop there, nothing changes. But if you go on to
Then your life, your plot, changes.
External conflict: what happens in a story.
Internal conflict: how what just happened in the story affects the character’s next choice.
There’s an absolutely fabulous set of columns written by Terry Rosio (Pirates of the Carribbean, etc.) — but the eighth one titled “Impressive Failure” is a great one to read on how external conflict drives a story. (Even though there are giant plot holes in the example he uses, it’s still a terrific analysis.) (www.wordplayer.com/columns)
A lot of those columns apply to screenwriting and that world, but there are some useful nuggets there for novelists, too.
I’ve been trying to think of an example where the hero is destroyed by the heroine and I’ve come up with Dain in Lord of Scoundrels but I’m not sure if it really works.
Yep, that’s one. She doesn’t really change, but she destroys all the walls he’s built, not just against her but against his son, too.
Interesting. I’ve never loved LoS as much as others seem to, and it’s because their relationship felt uneven to me – Jess gives Dain so much, basically transforms his life, and what does he give her in return? His love and some earth-shattering orgasms? It didn’t seem even to me. But now I kind of get it – he gives her himself and his commitment to her – he gives his naked, vulnerable self, and that’s actually all she wants.
I think books where the hero did have strong, specific reasons not to marry the heroine even after realizing he loved her (eg because he thinks he needs to marry someone else to achieve certain goals, as in both Julie Ann Long’s “To Love a Thief” and “How the Marquees Was One”) but she gets him to do otherwise may be destroyed-hero ones.
I wish there was some way to print all this! In my high school lit classes, I’ve always struggled to explain conflict. The problem, of course, is that I’ve never had a handle on it myself. This discussion is hugely helpful! Does it work to say conflict is what moves the plot forward? I’ve always used the old line, “No conflict, no plot,” which is true, but not really helpful.
In, for instance, “To Light a Fire,” [I hate this, but teenaged boys tend to like it, so we read it] is the antagonist Nature? Can it be a force, or does it have to be a person? If so, where is the antagonist in that story?
I knew somebody would bring up “To Light A Fire.” (I’ve thought about it a lot in the last two weeks as I’ve tried to heat this cottage with a fireplace.) As I remember he’s fighting the cold and trying to keep from freezing to death, right? And the dog dies? I’ve blocked most of it from memory because of the dog, but yep, that’s man vs. nature. I hate that story on so many levels, so the fact that it’s man vs. nature is not a selling point for me as a good conflict.
Here’s my rationale on that. You want conflict to escalate, but if it just escalates because the weather gets worse, you have no interaction between the protagonist and the antagonist (weather). That is, the weather doesn’t get worse in reaction or retaliation for something the protagonist has done, it just gets worse. So instead of ending up with a life or death struggle between two entities, you end up with a story about the weather killing a dog. I’ll pass. (I can’t even remember if the guy makes it, I just remember that dog.)
Ah. This might be part of it — people vs. people give us a plot full of caring (we either love both protagonist and antagonist, or we love one and hate the other), and it’s . . . well, it’s easier to care about the ending.
Cujo was an excellent book — and I say that only because it remains in my memory after almost 30 years — but it was horrifying and I don’t know if I’ll ever read it again. It isn’t a comfort book for me. (IIRC, the conflict was between a mother protecting her son, and a dog with rabies, which would be man against nature.) And, again, I’m working with leaky memories, but I think a time-lock helped escalate the conflict.
The reason why I’m working through this here is that I have a short story that I love that basically winds up to be woman vs. herself/a mountain. There are people conflicts too, but what really attracts me to the story in my head is her, climbing the mountain in order to make the money to get home.
I think the other conflicts can work, but they are tougher to work with and it’s harder to make people care and make people feel happy about it — especially in a longer form like a novel.
Cujo isn’t nature; he’s an animal who can react to what the mother is doing. He’s a character, not a setting.
The big problem with Man against Nature is that Nature can’t push back. It just is. It’s the setting. What Man doesn’t can’t make Nature react (except in the long term, but even then that’s Man doing something to Nature, not in conflict with it). So your arc in the Woman against the Mountain is going to be difficult because the Mountain doesn’t change. Her character will probably arc as things get more difficult for her, but then you have to figure out why they get more difficult. She encounters a mountain lion; that’s a random happening, nothing that she created. A storm comes up; that’s an act of nature, nothing that she created. It’s not that you can’t write it, The Perfect Storm is Man Against Nature,it’s that you’ll have to figure out a way to engage reader sympathy (she knew it was a mountain when she began to climb it). By making the setting the antagonist, you’ve eliminated almost everything an antagonist brings to the story.
Huh. I was going to argue, you can’t reason with a mad dog . . . but you can’t reason with a mad scientist (of a certain type) either. Both of them have specific goals that they think are absolutely right, and the protagonist must destroy them or be destroyed.
Reader’s Digest has some really nice true-life stories about people who are fighting mountains and storms at sea, and I tend to enjoy those survival tales. But I’m not sure how to categorize them as conflicts. I don’t think the person against nature is intrinsically interesting — I think it’s how the person overcomes his/her lazier self in order to survive.
It may be all moot — I do have some human conflict in the story, and it might actually be driving the plot — it’s just that I don’t have the analysis skills to recognize it’s doing wht it’s supposed to be doing.
This might be even worse than Man against Nature, but I thought “To Make a Fire” was Man against Himself. The character gets in trouble because of his own ignorance and incompetence; he’s new to the territory and doesn’t realize just how life threateningly cold it can get.
“He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”
The dog at the end doesn’t die; it smells death on the man and runs back to camp, and all along its instinct tells it better than the man’s intelligence tells him.
“The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing-point is thirty-two above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost obtained. The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man’s brain. But the brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.”
As long as the dog doesn’t die . . .
The dog dies, the man dies… Winter remains triumphant. I don’t even want to think about that. I feel like I’m stuck in the part Of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before the good stuff starts happening — always winter and never Christmas here in North Western Ontario this year.
Then there’s the other teenaged boys’ favorite What’s-his-name [Leningen?] and the Ants, in which Nature is a bit more pro-active. No dogs die, but I think there’s a deer who does so gruesomely.
Also a high-school teacher, and I actually love “To Build A Fire”! Actually, the dog doesn’t die. The man tries to kill the dog to use its pelt for warmth after his hands go numb, but he can’t kill it (…because his hands are numb… He is not the smartest dude) and after he dies, it smells death on him, howls, and heads to the camp. (So I suppose the dog might die later, but it’s pretty heavily implied that it is fine; it’s stated that the dog knows its way to the camp.
It’s emphasized that along with his hubris (not listening to the old-timer’s advice) the man also hasn’t earned the dog’s loyalty, because he was cruel to it before this incident. So the man, cruel, ignorant, and a stranger to the land, fails to take precautions and dies; his last words are “you was right, old timer,” so at least he learns something?
London originally wrote the story for Boy’s Life Magazine, and in that version, the man survives and vows never to behave so foolishly again. I think the classic version (where he dies) works better as a warning and as a narrative, because there is so much tension in the reader who assumes that OF COURSE the man will be ok, he’s the MAIN CHARACTER, and when he actually does die, my students are blown away. We read it as part of a study of American Naturalism (“the world is a cruel place, and does not care about you, puny human!”) and my teen boys usually love it, too.
Tl;dr – the dog is fine! He can go find a new Man, who will love him and give him treats, up at the camp!
There you go. It’s been years since I read it. I remember not giving a damn about the man but worrying like hell about the dog. I also remember never teaching it because I didn’t like it.
The problem with man against nature for me is that the central problem is almost always “Man underestimates Nature.” “To Build A Fire” is a perfect example of that. Those stories are basically Literary Darwin Awards: Man does something stupid (goes out into a snowstorm, climbs a mountain, sails into a hurricane) and gets in trouble/Nature watches/man struggles to escape his own stupidity/Nature watches/Man dies/Nature watches. It’s not a great protagonist/antagonist escalating struggle. When it happens in real life, it’s heartbreaking, but fiction is supposed to better than real life. I also wonder what the underlying statement about the human condition, aka theme, is. I exempt things like The Perfect Storm because it’s non-fiction and its purpose was to write about the storm; the story of the people involved is there to provide emotional involvement and scale, not theme. And, as you’ve pointed out, in “Fire,” the protagonist is stupid, arrogant, and mean to dogs. Nobody much cares when he dies aside from the shock value of a protagonist who loses.
Of course, it’s a classic, so I could be wrong. But there are a lot of really bad classics out there.
You know, I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 41. Before that, I was a teacher and a critic, so I came at literature from a critic’s point of view. Once I started writing, my criticism changed dramatically because I was doing it from the inside. One of my profs at my general exams was the first to point it out (he’d been reading my essays for about six years by then). Before that, I’d been doing feminist analysis, new criticism, mostly structure and political stuff. After I started to write, I was fixated on how the writers did what they did and the impact on the reader. That may be when I first looked at lot of the Naturalism/Realism stuff and thought, “Uh, no.” The “Life is hell and then you die” themes repelled me, and the underlying thread of Social Darwinism made it worse. Still a huge fan of the Romantics, though.
You may be overthinking this, Jenny, on the craft book. I’ve read books where the author took articles he’d written on craft and compiled them in a book. Why couldn’t you do yor blog posts on craft in the form of a journal? If you felt you wanted to expand on a topic, you could add commentary. I’ve read literally hundresds of craft books, and your approach is unique, a composite of your study over the years. I think I’ve read almost every word you’ve published on craft, printing out copies of certain posts. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’d love to have your perspective on craft in one tome.
Thank you, Dre.
If people want the posts and the articles, they’re right here, labeled and everything. What I’d like to do is figure out how to break things up to make them easier to understand. People learn in different ways, plus at different times you want access to information in different ways. The feedback I get here, the comments on the craft posts, really help me figure that out, and McDaniel has been crucial in that respect. So I’m getting there.
Such an excellent post — I agree with the others that you should put these together into a book (two books? Give the romance writing a whole book, because while it’s not a different animal, it has bigger considerations that other genres such as the literary might not even think of).
(-: And the first option you gave helps me reframe my story — I was kind of/sort of hoping the romance would bitch my antagonist’s plans to hell. The other side of the equation — the antagonist screwing up the romance (or at least trying to) gives me a whole new world of options. Very exciting! I see by your next post that February is creativity month. I must not waste a single day!
(Also, can’t wait for the chance to try Option Number Two.)
And, I too would love to see a post about internal conflict — defining it and telling us what it is good for.
what is the theme of the novel “crazy for you” by jennifer crusie
Change and risk lead to freedom.
Or something like that.
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