Friday, March 28, 2014

Creative Writing: Conflict Problem in My Fiction and Solution

The following may get too technical, dear Readers, but my key point in all of this is that Conflict is essential in storytelling. Conflict makes the work sparkle; it makes the characters move and talk in a dynamic way.  Conflict can be internal or external pressures on the characters. A "happy" character will not do very much for you; but a character with problems will.

I'm using my own work to illustrate what I'm talking about. Don't be too concerned if you can't figure out the story. It's from my novel-in-progress, so it's long and complicated. All you need to know is that Jose is afraid of Borja. Now read on about the problem I had in writing my draft and what I did:

 Here are my notes from my Notebook, as well as excerpts of my drafts:

March 26:
I'm working on the part where Jose goes to Culyo Leper Colony and it went flat. The characters started yakking just to talk. What happened?
- No real tension
- Contrived
- No thread tying this with his "mission"

Remember that Jose is there for a reason and that is to make amends with the leper woman. That is the thread. When you veer from this, the work goes flat.

So, start over: he is in the boat; he talks to the boat's captain about rats, the leper colony, AND ABOUT BORJA. Borja was there to talk to the old leper priest about the dead priest. (Note from Cecilia: Borja is the Chief of Police investigating the murder of a priest.)
The next day I rewrote the chapter, and here are my notes that evening:

March 27:
The chapter improved when the boat's captain mentions that Borja visited Culyo. It brought back tension. Suddenly Jose has a pointed mission, and the readers are also reminded of the murder.


Here's an excerpt of the first draft when it was lacking tension. Note how "contented" the character Jose is in this version and how flat the piece is; it actually gets worse later in the first draft as he is simply moving and talking like a cardboard character:

This Saturday, Jose repeated under his breath what Dr. McAllister once said, “Leprosy wasn’t that contagious.” Instead of hiding in the far corner away from people, he sat near the captain, a short round man, quite good natured, with his pet monkey beside him. The monkey was leashed and sitting on a wooden crate. He was busy eating a papaya. The children crowded around the monkey, but if a child got too close, the monkey would make an ugly face and growl. The captain would then pull the leash and scold his pet, and he would assure the children the monkey didn’t bite. “He has no teeth,” he told the children.
“But what are those?” the children insisted, pointing at the monkey’s pointed canines.
“Nothing,” he told the children, but to the adults he told the story of how his monkey got into a fight with a huge rat, and the monkey had killed it. The captain was able to turn in the rat tail to the Rat Eradication people and he got some money.
He went on to talk about the German doctors who were just in Culyo. “The doctors come here to learn. Culyo is the largest leper colony in the world,” he said proudly.
This was a revelation to Jose. Culyo, to him, had been primarily a repository for the diseased — a revolting place. At some point, Jose had even disapproved at how cruel the Americans had been in forcibly taking lepers away from their homes to bring them to Culyo. The Spaniards had done no such thing; the Franciscan friars had built shelters for lepers near their churches, where they gave lepers assistance; the lepers could come and go as they pleased. Now he thought that the Americans may have had a point after all, in creating Culyo Leper Colony.

Jose wiped off the beads of perspiration dripping down the sides of his forehead. He looked out at the sea and saw that the green water sparkled. The sky was startling blue; and a salty breeze would blow now and then, making some women sigh with relief. Most of the people in the boat held baskets of food on their laps for their relatives in the colony They spoke excitedly about seeing them; they were actually happy. And later, before they docked, a passenger offered him a boiled plantain banana. In the past, he would have wondered how clean it was, but today, he accepted and ate it, enjoying the starchy consistency of the banana.

This is the rewritten version, with increased tension. Note how Jose now thinks more freely about his problem. The difference primarily is the fact that I introduced Borja's presence and Jose is afraid:

This Saturday, instead of working himself into a frenzy, he hung on to what Dr. McAllister often said, “Leprosy isn’t that contagious.” The doctor had explained that only five percent of people exposed to the bacillus got infected. “It is easier to catch a cold,” the doctor said.
He sat near the captain, a talkative man, short and round, with his pet monkey beside him. The children crowded around the monkey who was busy eating a papaya. Now and then if a child got too close, the monkey made an ugly face and growled. The captain would pull the leash and scold his pet, and he would assure the children the monkey had no teeth.
“But what are those?” The children pointed at the monkey’s pointed canines.
“Nothing,” he said, to silence them.
The captain was a chatterbox: To the adults he related how his pet got into a fight with a huge rat, and his monkey had killed it. The captain had turned in the rat tail to the public health people for some money. He went on to boast about the European doctors who visited Culyo because it’s the largest leper colony in the world. And later he added that Chief of Police Borja had also been in Culyo.
The pit of Jose’s stomach quivered. Had he heard right? The man’s prattling had made his mind wander and he had stopped listening to him after he lied to the children.
“The chief showed up soon after the priest’s body was found,” the captain added.
Jose’s earlier optimism faded. He cleared his mind and focused. Borja’s visit to Culyo had to be related to his investigation of the murder of Father Zafra. It was as simple as that. But what information would Borja get in Culyo? Jose took a deep breath to calm himself down. To encourage the captain to talk, he said, “I can see why doctors would visit Culyo, but why Borja?”
“I wondered the same thing, so I asked him, ‘Chief, what brings you here?’ He said he wanted to see the old friar. He meant the Spanish priest who’s been around since the time of Mampur. He’s not a leper; he just wants to serve them. People call him a saint. You can’t imagine the number of people who come here to confess to him.”
“So the Chief of Police came here to confess?” Jose asked.
 “Not him. The once who confess come regularly. He didn’t say anything but common sense says he was here because of the body found. It was in the newspapers — the priest’s.”
“What’s his name? The holy priest who lives here,” Jose asked. His voice sounded tense, brittle, and he added in a joking way, “Who knows I may confess to him?”
“Father Francisco. Be careful because he knows when you’re lying, and he shouts at people.”
“I see,” Jose said and became quiet as he pondered on why Borja talked to Father Francisco. More importantly, he worried if any information Borja may have gotten would lead him to Jose.
Jose felt as if he were one of those rats, hunted by people so they could get bounty for their tails. He wondered if he should turn around and catch the next boat to Ubec, once they docked. If he did that, however, he would call attention to himself. The same talkative captain who told him about Borja would tell everyone about him. He wondered if the captain knew his name. He didn’t think so, but it would be easy to figure out who he was from the guards at the gate. They knew him from his past visits to Dr. McAllister.

He looked out at the sea, which had turned choppy. He decided to stay calm and proceed with his plan of seeing the leper woman. Afterwards, he would find the priest. But what would he say to him? How could he find out what Borja and he talked about?
Read also

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  • Leonard Bercovici Legacy "Get into the Head of Your Character"
  • Make a Date with the Muse
  • Creative Writing: The Importance of Sensual Writing

  • Creative Writing: Journal Writing and my Pink Lock and Key Diary
  • Creative Writing: Your Writing Work Space (In My Case, Where My Cats Hang Out)
  • Creative Writing: Two Important Rules
  • Creative Writing: Explosion and Drawing as Writing Exercises
  • How to Write a Novel #1

  • How to Write a Novel #2

  • This is all for now,

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