Conflict Motivation


One of the changes that I’m making to Perceval in this rewrite is to bring back the prologue I’d written for earlier drafts.  I no longer care what the publishing industry thinks about prologues to novels.  My initial impulse to write it was correct.  It is my “Sing, Muse” introduction to all the big conflicts that thread through the series.  It introduces a social conflict that plays out on a personal level for Evan and becomes a matter of life or death for him.  So, it’ll be back in but it needs an overhaul.

The first thing I realized: not enough tension.  A few days later, as I was sitting on a city bus on my way home after a full day of work at the day-job, I started to see the problem in terms of point of view.  I think I’ve begun with the wrong point of view, although I’ll need to shift to Randall Quinn’s (Evan’s father) for a while then back to the Lieutenant’s.  I need also to heighten the conflict between them.  They’ve known each other for years, their sons are around the same age and were in the same schools, they lived in the same neighborhood until the Lieutenant received a promotion and big bump in pay.  Their sons have a history, too, but one the father’s aren’t really aware of.  The fathers look at each other, standing in Randall’s study, and know only one thing: they hate each other.

Why?  To answer this question, I need to shift from one point of view to another to show what each man is thinking in this situation.  That’s when I realized that I need to begin with the “bad guy’s” view, his thoughts, his attitude toward Randall, his disgust.  I need to show his lack of empathy.  What does he want?  He wants to kill Randall himself.  What does Randall want?

Randall is a dissident, a leader of the Underground movement that the government has labeled domestic terrorists.  Randall wants to protect his people, his networks, everything he’s worked for in protest of the dystopia America has become.  At the same time, he wants to kill the Lieutenant, the leader of the group of Internal Security Services agents who have pushed their way into Randall’s study in the wee hours of the morning to arrest him.

What are the Lieutenant’s orders?  Does Randall have a weapon?  What will the other agents do if Randall full-on attacks the Lieutenant?  I realized that if Randall were to do that, it would give the Lieutenant a reason to shoot him, and I wanted something else.  I wanted the Lieutenant’s action to be wrong, illegal, personal.  It must not be something that could be officially sanctioned so it would need to be covered up.

In the original draft, the other agents bring up Evan and taunt Randall with threats to Evan’s life.  Suddenly, Randall’s motivation changes.  Now he wants to protect his son.  The dynamic changes as a result.  It’s at this point that I need to shift to Randall’s point of view, I think.  How does Randall feel about his son?  What does he know about Evan?  There needs to be tension within Randall’s thoughts also — he’s aware that he may not really know his son.  But the one thing he does know is that Evan is a dedicated musician and conductor and would do nothing to jeopardize his music career.  At this point, I need to slide back into the Lieutenant’s point of view and show his thoughts in juxtaposition to what his agents are saying.  He knows this will not end well for the family Quinn.

Each character’s motivation must be clear and in conflict in order to create tension and suspense.  The stakes need to be high.  Now I just need to write the scene….

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6 responses to “Conflict Motivation

  1. Interesting to find someone who thinks with the same mechanisms that I have.
    As for prologues, the project I’m working on is set into ‘parts’, with the first part being a single chapter. Technically it is a prologue, but it is titled Chapter 1.. separating it but keeping it with the main story may overcome the bias against prologues… I hope.

    This is my first look at your blog, so I have nothing to say about your ‘work-through’ you have here. It all looks sound, though, from the perspective of a lay spectator.

    • Thanks, Aaron, and welcome! Your idea to divide the novel into “Parts” is similar to something I’d been considering but hadn’t figured out to do it — separate sections. I thought of doing it by time, i.e. each section representing a month. Then I thought of doing it according to location, which I think would work better. I then thought of dividing the book into sections according to what’s going on with the main character. Since I’m slowly getting into the rewrite, I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this dilemma.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I just finished Field Grey, a novel set in Germany, the US, France, Russia and Poland in 1931, 1938, 1940, 1942, 1944, & 1952. There is one unifying character throughout the story; the story consists of his recollections in ’52 looking back on his adult life.

    Sections run with several chapters in the same time & mostly the same place, where in other places the adjacent chapters bounce around. At least the time is the same throughout each chapter. It became distracting toward the end of the book where it started flipping around more and more. However, the very last chapters were completely bouncing around plot-wise, even if it stayed in the same place & time. It kept me from really being engulfed by the plot because I was trying to keep track of the conclusion’s twists. In retrospect, I think less bouncing around would have made the convolutions more effective.

    The Preface is better when it is self-contained and obviously separate from the primary story, yet critical to your reader receiving the whole of your presentation. I recall reading novels where the prologue explained part of the history behind the primary story and none of the characters appear in the rest of the book: it’s the consequences of their actions which appear. Perhaps one could see the consequences as a character. On the other hand, I’ve read books where there’s a lot of ‘obviously extra’ information in Chapter 1 to make sure I understand the background, which can be seen as a disjointed piece stuck in, rather than a part of, the main story where I know it’s ‘just’ background information. I, if I was writing, would be afraid of putting in too much background info into a Chapter 1, where it would prevent the main story from truly flowing start to finish – I wouldn’t want this ‘extra’ info to become speed bumps in reading.

    So, I guess the decision to write a Prologue depends on why one is writing it and how it is supposed to benefit the reader. If it’s to make sure the reader has enough information beforehand, going into the primary story, and that information
    is best told as a narrative,
    can be self-contained, and
    is easily separated from the Main Event
    … it ought to be a prologue.

    I wish I could recall specific examples, but I’ve also read books with two different stories intertwined (common enough), but the inserted parts really would have made a better prologue. Adding them throughout the main story was *really* like a speed bump, because they were really short, rather than devoting a whole chapter to the other information, e.g. Dragon in Amber by D. Gabaldon, has two stories which start together, separate, and gradually recombine. One could have placed them as beginning, then all of person 1, then all of person 2, then conclusion. The gradual recombination provided a partial sense of both dramatic tension (is it really going to come together?) as well as denouement (the combined story gradually bringing the conclusion). The chapters were long enough to really let the reader get into each person’s story.

    Ultimately, as a reader, I want to be able to be engulfed by the story. If a Prologue lets me do it, then I want one.

    • Hmmmmm…. Thanks for these musings. They’ve helped me see the chapter more clearly as a true prologue. It has characters in it that won’t be appearing in the rest of the story, except for one character in flashbacks, and the mention of two characters who do appear in the story. The setting also will not appear again in the story. The time is actually about a month before the story begins but what happens in the chapter is totally relevant to the story on many levels. So I may just break the novel into sections according to Evan’s psychological place in the story but make the first chapter a prologue that’s separated by time and place.

  3. Think of a prologue like a symphony orchestra. The musicians arrive, pick up their instruments, they tune and then there is a pause of complete silence before the Story begins. As I sit and listen, there is a build up of excitement, because I learn who is playing, who is conducting, what the instrument mix is. All of this is critical to being able to appreciate the performance [at least according to some musicians I know]. Perhaps this might be useful analogy for you, since the Percival story revolves around a conductor?

    • An interesting thought. Although the notion of preparation is valid, I was thinking more in terms of a “Sing, Muse” chapter, i.e. as in Homer’s The Illiad, a section that summarizes in some way the entire story before proceeding to laying out the story. The first chapter now shows the seeds of the conflicts in Evan’s life, and sets him up as a target which introduces the element of suspense. So the chapter is chockfull of action which doesn’t mesh with the notion of preparation. My issue is how to present that chapter — as a prologue, a first chapter, a separate section? I’m leaning toward calling it chapter 1 and breaking the novel into sections, making that first chapter the first section. But I haven’t figured out HOW to break the novel into sections…..(smile)

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