I was speaking to my literary agent the other day on the telephone and as we were discussing the plot of my book Nerd Girls Book II: The Return of the Nerd Herd, he said something really that really caught my ear. It was something that I think I always knew, but I’m not sure if I always really consciously knew I knew it.
He was speaking about conflict in the text of a novel and about how I should attempt to more deeply explore a few of the vibrant, confrontational interactions between the characters. And then he hit me with this small but very simple – and certainly spot on – gem.
“Conflict is better when it occurs between two people who are close with one another. The hero battling an enemy that they don’t personally know is good, but a father battling a son is always better.”
–Albert Zuckerman, Founder Writers House Literary Agency, New York, New York
It was one of those “click” moments for me. Like I said, I think I always knew on some level that conflict between people who are close – fights between parents and kids, siblings, best friends – is better than conflict with people the protagonist does not intimately know in the first place. And this small, almost offhand comment, really helped me see where I could get more thrust out of the text.
Now, since Nerd Girls Book II was already fully written when he mentioned this to me, it wasn’t one of those moments where I thought, “Oh my goodness, I need to go back and rewrite the whole darn thing.” I already had a good amount of “stuff” going on between all the principals in the book. But for my next pass at the text (after a first draft is done, it goes to my agent and my editor to read – where I will do at least 5 more passes of the book, some more extensive than others but usually I get about 85% of it right on the first go. That last 15%, however, makes an IMMENSE difference, like night and day, and I wouldn’t pass up the chance to do my re-writes for the world) I saw where I could find more energy and dynamism in the story. It was kind of like eating crab for dinner, where you work and work and work to crack the shell, and peel away the stuff and then BOOM! you discover one of those nuggets of crab meat that just makes the whole really good meal you’ve been eating that much better.
Funny, but when we hung up, I instantly thought about the movie Star Wars. I mean Star Wars is literally as big as big gets in the world of story. After all, it’s blazed into the collective experience of an entire generation, if not two, and its commercial success is practically unparalleled. And yet, what is the most iconic line in the entire franchise?
“Luke, I am your father.”
I mean that’s the moment when suddenly, things get so deep for our hero that we realize, I’m not sure if I can handle this right now. I mean holy macaroni, you’re telling me that the Prince of Darkness, the most feared villain in the galaxy, the most heartless, soulless, terrifying entity in all the realm is the hero’s father? How in the world is good supposed to fight against evil when good’s father is evil incarnate?
And then I learn that this evil father used to be good… before he became wise in the ways of the world and discovered the power of the dark side of the force and now, our hero, the good guy, hero is being tempted to do the very same thing and cross over to the dark side right at this very instant.
If Darth Vader was merely an evil overlord, I am not sure Star Wars becomes the mutli-generational phenomenon it’s become. But when Darth Vader turns out to be the hero’s dad – the father versus son theme of which my agent spoke earlier – that kind of conflict resonates at the deepest level possible in the world of writing and story.
Who is the antagonist? Can you make them “closer” to the hero in some way?
Where is the harmony in the protagonist’s intimate relationships within the text? Where can you bring out more disharmony? After all, it’s way more interesting to watch people fight than it is to watch them get along.
Think about it… you can’t really be betrayed by someone you don’t know. However, if your best friend sells you out and turns out to be a backstabbing liar and suddenly you and that person are forced to interact once again… that’s when things get interesting.
Brother vs. Brother. There is a reason its such an enduring storyline from The Civil War.
It should be noted that I also began to question why this kind of conflict with your intimates seems to resonate so well with audiences. The answer I came up with was fairly simple: it’s because we all fight with our families. I mean who doesn’t know what it’s like to have their mother drive them crazy? Who doens;t know what it’s like to be deeply angry at your dad?
No one can hurt you like your family. They know all your secrets, they know how to push your buttons and when they fight, they rarely seem to fight fair, always going for that one spot which lives inside of you which you wish no one would ever touch.
Well, in the real world, you hate having it touched. But in the world of fiction, you LOVE seeing it touched in the lives of the characters about whom you deeply care.
Touch that note, that hurt, that place which can only be accessed in your characters by people with whom they are close. That’s when stories get juicy.