Friday, May 25, 2012

25. Conflict and emotion: the heart and soul of fiction.

I think that writers and actors have a lot in common. I believe many of us are very private, even introverted, souls who must nevertheless put something very personal on display in our work. Back when I was writing soap operas , I once took a beginning acting class to see if it would give me any insights into the actors I was writing for.


The class turned out to be valuable, but more for what it taught me about ME. In presenting a scene, I was downgraded because I was unable to put myself into it 100%—I simply could not overcome my self-consciousness. I believe that kind of self-consciousness often holds writers back as well. As a writer colleague once put it, it’s so hard to do emotional scenes "so the effect hits the reader, rather than paralyzing the writer."

Here are some ways I’ve found to handle strong emotion and conflict in fiction.

1. Put yourself in the character’s shoes. Here is where the acting lessons helped. . My acting teacher had told me to imagine a similar situation in the past to the situation I was trying to portray in front of the acting class. Although I was unable to project strong emotion on the stage, it turned out I could do it on the page

In my Pandora's novels, I have violent and even deadly arguments and fights among alpha males and between alpha men and women.  I know from reader feedback that the scenes were for the most part, successful.  How did I do it?

For many of these scenes, I imagined myself as the point of view character, imagined that I was in that scene, and imagined what would happen, based on something similar in my own life.  For example, in the big confrontation scene in Pandora's Genes at the end of the book, where Will learns that Zach has betrayed him, I imagined how I would have felt if my beloved sister had returned from the dead and I found that she had betrayed me.  I was able to use the resulting churning and painful emotions, filtered through Will's already established personality, to depict his reaction.

2. Go with your discomfort.  If you are reluctant to approach an emotional scene, examine the reasons for your reluctance.  For example, many writers are uncomfortable about writing sex scenes.  A good way to handle that is to examine the feelings the sex scene arouses in you and put those feelings in the head of the point of view character.  If what you are feeling is aversion, let us see the aversion.

I used this technique when writing The Ptorrigan Lode, which has several scenes of graphic physical and mental torture. In real life, I am a person who will not see a movie with any hint of violence, yet here I was orchestrating the worst kind of brutality. It made me intensely uncomfortable, yet somehow that discomfort, once I recognized it for what it was, helped me to make the scenes realistic for readers without (I hope) sending them screaming into the next room.

3. Seek help.  In the fight scenes in the Pandora’s books, I asked a couple of friends who had been in combat how to handle various physical situations, such as carrying an inert body through a smoke-filled room. I asked these same friends how they felt at such times, and used their answers. The one I remember most vividly was the scene in Pandora’s Children in which Zach singlehandedly attacks several armed Traders. My friend told me that Zach must make himself BELIEVE he is stronger and a better fighter than his foes, and to begin the attack with the loudest scream he can manage, putting his whole body and soul into it. I put myself into Zach’s head, tried it, and it worked!

Tomorrow: less is more


  1. More GREAT advice and insights. This is a fascinating run of posts. Until revealed, I had no idea how intricate the production of a piece of good fiction really was.

  2. Thanks, gh. It's definitely not as easy as it looks.