Many years ago, I was fortunate to have been given a scholarship to The Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. When the teaching year was over, we packed up the hard-top tent trailer and drove from Missouri, first to Gimli, Manitoba, then to MontAreal, and then to Vermont. The Bread Loaf Inn and surrounding buildings make up the site of the conference. Since I had my wife and children with me, we stayed at the foot of the mountain in a trailer park.
The program had writing workshops, lectures and one-on-one mentorship. The instructors were all successful, nationally recognized writers. There were readings and literary events. My time there was packed with opportunities to learn. Editors and agents joined in.
But with my good luck, and good luck, according to the Vikings, was an essential part of success, was that my assigned mentor was Issac Asimov. How lucky can a young, just starting out writer get?
I was working on the stories for my second book. Bloodflowers had been published to good reviews. But as hard as book 1 is, book 2 is harder because now there are expectations. Book 2 is often a flop. I was working on the story that would become the title story of the second collection, God Is Not A Fish Inspector.
In the draft I showed to Asimov and that we discussed over whiskey, our feet propped up on a rail by the front porch, Fusi Bergman, his adult daughter, Emma, and her husband, were in conflict over Fusi is daughter wants him to go into the local nursing home. He lives in a town modelled on Gimli, Manitoba and Emma and her husband live in Winnipeg. They come down on the weekends.
The first thing Asimov said to me was that anyone can put up with an intrusion into his life for the weekend. I needed to move the daughter and her husband into the house. The house had to become a pressure cooker, within it a conflict from which none of them could escape. They would be in conflict every day.
I learned two things. One, that conflict, external or internal, drives stories forward, causes events to happen, creates plot. Two, that the protagonist and antagonist must stay engaged, must continue the conflict, subtle or overt. If they are separated, they must be preparing for the next round, otherwise, the story loses its tension.
Think of conflict as a game of tennis. The protagonist hits the ball over the net, the antagonist hits it back. They battle fiercely, one set after another before there is a conclusion to the game. This conflict, and I cannot emphasize this too much, can be very subtle. Most conflict in life isn’t overt. Our daily lives are filled with conflict: in the family, at work, in the organizations to which we belong, in the community. Daily conflict is found in words, gestures, small acts, a look.
Nor should there only be one kind of conflict. There can, in the same narrative, be conflict between people, between the protagonist and the setting (landscape), within him or herself.
For external conflict, watch any action movie. Each time there is a conflict, stop the film and write down how the conflict was carried out. A physical fight between X and Y. Write down the outcome. Work your way through the film. See how the writer of the script brings the protagonist and antagonist together, separates them, then sets up the next conflict.
Then watch a subtler movie, take your pick. There are thousands to choose from.
When you are watching movies to learn from, it’s best to watch on a system that allows you to stop and start, to go back and re-watch a scene. Watching to learn is not the same as watching to be entertained. It takes no effort to be entertained. It takes no more than a few dollars to be a consumer. To be a producer of drama takes a great deal of effort, learning and practice.
I got lucky with my mentors. John Juliani, Don Kowalchuk (CBC), Issac Asimov, Benevudo Santos (Iowa) and a number of others. That’s what workshops are good for, what conferences are good for, what various courses are good for. The people leading them, teaching, usually have a wealth of knowledge and are willing to share it.