More Conflict, Please
By Victor DiGenti
“Why are you so cruel to your cats?” Dr. Bob asked while peering into Duke’s left ear.
“Are you kidding me,” I retorted, giving him my best Dick Vitale imitation. “I wish someone treated me the way we treat these cats. They have everything they want, including our bed. Don’t you dare accuse me of cruelty.”
Dr. Bob released his hold on Duke’s head and put down his otoscope. Duke whipped his head wildly to his left and right, obviously searching for an escape route, but Lucy, Dr. Bob’s technician, had a firm grasp on my marmalade tabby.
“Before you blow a mitral valve, DiGenti, I wasn’t talking about Duke or any of your real cats—by the way, how many do you have now?”
“I’m not sure, my wife keeps sneaking them in while I’m off doing my book signings. I do know we have four litter boxes and I buy a 25-pound sack of Science Diet every week or two.”
Dr. Bob canted his head to one side and sucked air between the gap in his teeth. “Well, good for you, but back to my initial question. I was talking about the cats in your books, especially that Windtalker character.”
“Oh, you mean Windrusher? He’s the hero of my three award-winning adventure/fantasy novels.”
(Author’s note: Notice that I never hesitate to slip in a little blatant self-promotion, even in a fictional conversation)
“Yeah, I read the first one and I can’t believe what you put that poor kitty through. I’m surprised you haven’t been charged with animal abuse.”
“Me, too,” I agreed. “But that’s the point of a story, isn’t it? You do realize that it’s fiction and no cats or other living beings were harmed in the telling of it?”
Dr. Bob patted Duke on the head and nodded to Lucy, “You can put him back in his carrier.”
“He’s in good shape. I can’t see any signs of animal abuse, so I won’t report you.” Dr. Bob winked at me, picking up the otoscope and scratching the back of his head with it. “But back to Windrusher. First off, the family moves to Florida, abandoning their cat.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said. “They didn’t abandon him, they left him with another family member because he had issues being cooped up in a carrier and riding in cars.”
“Sure, but that’s kind of lame isn’t it? If they brought him to me, I’d prescribe a mild tranquilizer. Problem solved.”
“No problem except there would be no story would there? The reason to write a book is to offer readers an entertaining story. What kind of story would there be without a goal for the main character, and opposition to that goal?”
“Sure, I understand that, but you carry it to extremes. Not only is the cat left behind, but he’s chased by dogs, almost gets run down by cars, is stalked by a killer cat. Every time he overcomes one terrible predicament, along comes another.”
I saw Lucy watching the back-and-forth conversation with extreme interest. “Before you give the entire story away and ruin it for Lucy, let me give you a brief lesson in novel construction.”
“You do realize that I have eight years of advanced education?”
“Yeah, I saw your degrees hanging on the wall. Georgia, right? I wouldn’t brag about that.”
Dr. Bob shook his head. “You Gators need to learn a little humility, but go ahead with your lesson. I’ll just add it to your bill.”
I ignored him and continued. “First of all, a good story begins with someone, or a cat in this case, reacting to change, specifically what the writing teacher Dwight Swain has called a “character-testing conflict.” I paused to make sure he was paying attention and was surprised to see Lucy taking notes.
“Most of us spend our lives avoiding conflict, but conflict and tension are at the very heart of a good book. The more conflict you throw in your protagonist’s path, the better it is for the reader. After the initial change, the character usually establishes a goal and tries desperately to reach it over the course of the book. This is his mission. In each of my Windrusher novels, for example, my heroic feline has a definite goal that he pursues throughout the book.”
I was in full professorial mode now, but before I could continue, Lucy jumped in.
“That’s right. In your first book, Windrusher is trying to find his human family who moved from Connecticut to Florida. In Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-hoth, he’s trying to escape from that nasty Karl von Rothmann, and in Trail of Fire—”
“Whoa, girl,” I cut in before she gave away everything to Dr. Bob since I was hoping to sell him a few books. “Don’t spoil it for Dr. Bob, although I love to meet enthusiastic readers.”
Dr. Bob seemed to appraise Lucy with new eyes.
“As I was saying, once the goal is obvious to the reader, a good writer will throw as many obstacles in the character’s path before he finally overcomes them all and achieves his goal. A story is built with scenes, and each scene moves the character and the story forward. The character has to struggle through the scenes, taking a step forward and two back. Reacting to conflicts and occasional disasters until the ultimate climax.”
I paused and took a breath. Dr. Bob took that opportunity to speak up.
“Sure, but sometimes these things are so far-fetched.”
“They certainly can be, but a good writer knows how to keep the story moving, and how to keep the reader turning pages. It’s a form of manipulation, but in the end, the reader wants to find out if the hero or heroine has what it takes to achieve their goal. And it’s the writer’s job to keep the protagonist jumping through hoops and landing in hot water.”
“Hopefully, without all the clichés,” Dr. Bob said, arching an eyebrow.
“Sorry about that, but the more tension built in to the story, the more close calls for the hero, the more the reader will cling to every word until she realizes she should have been in bed hours ago.”
“Speaking of time, I have a lot of patients waiting for me to give them some of my time. But I do appreciate the insights.”
As I was leaving, Lucy stopped me. In her hand was a familiar book. I smiled, realizing she probably wanted me to autograph it for her.
She held the book up and said, “I really enjoyed reading your books, Mr. D, and thanks for telling us how conflict adds to the story. I’m writing a book, and I’ll be sure to add more conflict to the plot.”
“Thank you, and good luck with your writing.” I wasn’t surprised she was writing a book since everyone else seems to be doing the same thing. I pointed at the worn copy of Windrusher in her hand. “Did you want me to sign this for you?”
She shook her head. “No, but if you’re going by the library, would you mind dropping it off for me. It’s due back today.”
This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.