Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sustainable Conflict and Believable Setbacks

I got a lot out of Michael Hauge’s two-day seminar last weekend. More than I’d gleaned four years ago when he visited WRW the first time. I think his presentation is better today than it was back in 2008. Well worth the money I spent. He’s refined his material and deepened the concepts.

One of the biggest points to hit home for me was that all story must elicit a positive emotional journey for the reader/viewer and that emotion flows out of conflict. If I think about the books I read and the movies I watch, this is definitely true. When I say positive, I don’t mean all happy-go-lucky. But a journey that strings me a long and draws me into sustainable conflicts and believable barriers and setbacks, as well as triumphs. I want to experience the highs and lows with the protagonist. And I want to experience her growth over the arc of the story.

Readers pick up books and movies for the emotional journey. They want to lose themselves in the stories of someone else for a little while. At the hands of skilled writers, we find ourselves laughing, cheering, cringing, and crying with the best of them. It’s the credible twists and turns, confrontations, conflict, and successes of a character that allow us to experience universal truths that resonate with us all and showcase what makes us human. In his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge says: “People do not go to movies so they can see the characters on screen laugh, cry, get frightened, or get turned on. They go to have those experiences themselves.”

I’d argue this is why we see certain movies and why we read certain books--because we enjoy the emotional journey that particular genre gives us. The tropes or reader/viewer expectations of that particular genre draw us like a magnet and speak to us in a satisfying way. I read books across the spectrum of genre fiction and enjoy them, however, I adore romance novels. And romance novels are the novels I choose to write.

No matter what the characters go through in a story, no matter what their personal arc, in a romance I know I will not get a tragic ending. While I know the ending will be happy, it’s the believable setback or the point where all hope is lost that makes me worry that these two characters won’t get their happy ending. Will the character be courageous enough to push through that final setback to find their happy ending? Or will they revert to their old life, the status-quo where they live a desperate life of mediocrity trapped by their fears? Isn’t it the secret hope we all cling to in life? That we’ll make a difference and that when adversity strikes that we’ll rise to the challenge and push through to find triumph?

The importance of getting this final setback right in a story and pinpointing an emotional journey directed at a particular audience hit me hard twice in the past two days. First, as I sat watching The Proposal with my youngest son and then as I sat watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II with my middle son. At the point of the final setback where all hope is lost for the protagonist, in each case, I heard my son sniffling.

These are two totally different movies. Drastically different stories. However, in each case, that final setback spoke to that teenager. So much so that the setback moved them to tears. In The Proposal when Margaret realizes she’s forgotten what it means to be part of a family and then admits to a roomful of people that she blackmailed Andrew into marrying her and then she runs back to New York, she sets off a whole series of events that show the other characters how much she truly loves Andrew to give him up and give him the life she believes he deserves. The audience is rooting for them. We know they’re perfect for each other. And when all hope is lost, we worry for them.

In the recent Harry Potter movie, the final setback where all hope is lost is where Harry realizes he’s the eighth horcrux and he must sacrifice himself--he must die--at Voldemort’s hand. J. K. Rowling is masterful. She makes us truly believe that all hope is lost--that Harry dies and all is lost. When I read the book for the first time, I sobbed uncontrollably at this point. The author builds a credible setback that rips our hearts out and makes us believe that this teenaged boy will not triumph.

And it’s this mastery of sustainable conflict and believable setbacks that prove the hallmark of a great writer--a writer who provides a satisfying emotional journey for her readers/viewers.

So what stories have worked for you on that emotional level? And tell us the genre.


  1. Great post! But you ought to put a SPOILER ALERT in there. lol ;-D

  2. LOL. Sorry, Meg. The Proposal has been out for years and I'd thought everyone in the world who wanted to read/see HP had done so by now. ;0)

  3. I agree, Candy, Michael Hauge's workshop was even better this time than in 2007. He's not the first speaker I've heard talk about the emotional experience, but he really digs into the idea.

    One of my problems, as a writer, is that when I first get the idea for a new book, that first kernel of "Oooh, what if . . ." I also know what emotional experience I want it to deliver. But once I start writing it, that kernel slips away. It gets lost in a tangle of motivations and conflicts and my own desperate trying to keep all the threads twined together. LOL. I lose sight of how it all started. I'm working on a book that's half-finished now, and I'm attempting to dig into it and make the emotional delivery more deliberate. Less seat of the pants and winging it.

    We'll see how that works out. :-)

  4. I also thought Michael Hauge was better this time than last time. He had fine tuned it a lot. There was so much information that day.

    I remember when he said that about the emotional experience, I saw a lot of people nodding and looking each other. If a story makes me feel something, I feel like I'm all in. I've forgotten about my world to immerse myself in their world. One story that does this for me every Christmas is "It's a Wonderful Life." When Jimmy Stewart breaks down in that bar and prays, I'm right there with him. I read somewhere that when he did that scene, the director wanted him to do it again because he wanted a closer camera angle. Jimmy told him he couldn't do it again - he'd given it his all in that take. The director ended up having to enlarge the film. I think that's what we as writers should do - give it everything. We should tired after a session of writing if we've engaged our emotions.

  5. Evie ~ I know exactly what you mean. It takes more than intention when it comes to actually writing that story. That's where a plot structure comes in handy. Good luck! I have no doubt you can do this. Your stories always have an emotional impact. It's second nature to you. Can't wait to see the rest of the story . . . ;0)

  6. Lisa ~ You're so right "It's a Wonderful Life" does whollop a mean emotional punch. I think that's why I can't watch that one often. Once was enough for me. Or I should say once in five years or so. LOL. But that's a great example of a movie most people have seen and can use to identify the final setback.

  7. What a wonderful synopsis of the workshop, Candy! I missed the first one presented by Michael Hauge and I'm so glad to hear that if I had to miss one, that was the one to miss. :-) I agree, I want a happy ending! No matter how many times I've seen "Sleepless in Seattle", and despite the fact that we were watching selected scenes in fits and starts, I *still* got weepy! And in that vein, my favorite emotional journey (okay, one of them) is "An Affair to Remember". I give myself a headache whenever I watch that. :-)

    Great post!

    -Kathy Altman :-)

  8. A romance that really does it for me is "Sweet Baby" by Sharon Sala. It's a tearjerker that always makes me smile while I'm crying. Talk about giving the reader an emotional positive experience, even as the author leads you into some very dark territory!

    Some of Elizabeth Lowell's earlier romances do that for me too - make me cry when all seems to be lost even though I know-I know-I know the lovers will unite in the end.

    Good stuff!!

  9. Such a great post, Candy, especially as so many writers look to their days off in and around the holidays to sneak in a little writing.

    Gotta say Harry Potter is the example that came to mind for me. He's the "Boy Who Lived" which made me dread (in a wonderful way) for books and books and pages and pages what he'd have to give up to win.

    I will say that lack of sustainable conflict is a sure fired way to have me drop a book in the "to the thrift shop" box in my basement. Unfortunately, I see that a lot in contest entries and even in some self e-pubbed books. Which is not to say self e-pub is bad! It's NOT! But it might just go to show sustainable conflict is key to selling lots of self e-pub titles and/or getting that traditional print contract as well.