One of my most favourite things to write is emotionally powerful scenes. They hit the reader square in the heart (or head), shed a tear or share a laugh, and perhaps allow them to make discoveries they hadn’t realized previously. But actually creating those moments is more than just a romantic kiss beneath a full moon or an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the little moments that build up to the climax that the reader will appreciate in the end.
If you are a writer or have ever dabbled in it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” phrase before. But for penning a scene that is supposed to drive into your reader’s heart, you can only talk about ‘the slow flow of water leaking from his eyes,’ and ‘her heart beating wildly in her chest’ so much. When I am writing out this special moment for the first time, I get everything out - all the character movements, bad jokes, small nuances and subtleties: fingertips touching, a shift in body language, batted eyelashes. When the word well runs empty, that’s when the magic begins.
While reading over the verbal vomit I’ve thrown onto your page, imagine it as a movie scene. We all have ‘that one part in that one movie’ where we were enthralled with everything that was happening: the music, the words, the setting all seemed to flow in perfect harmony. I want to have that same effect on the reader, and so I play it out as such in words. For example, if you have a pair of friends that find out they’re related to one another when they thought they had no family left, tell us about how excited they are, about the small jig they dance around each other. Show us the choked up voices, the small hope growing over the disbelief, the laughter of relief that they aren’t alone anymore. Make them more human in that window of time than they have been in the entire story, and they will breathe life into everything else that happens, regardless if it’s related or not.
On the flip side of this ‘show and tell,’ try not to use words that you’re not familiar with. If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to explain that word to them, and you’re not really sure how it might be best to leave it out or find an alternative. Googling ‘100 of the most beautiful words’ may bring about inspiration, but who would know what moiety meant without looking it up? Being poetic and having creative license as a writer allows us to literally make up things that have their own meaning, one you would presumably remember better than something you pulled off of a website. Take the time to scout inspiration, but don’t forget that this is your story, not the internet’s.
Ashley J. Gallaher-Pollard
When Ashley was in elementary school, she fell heavily in love with reading, mostly mythology and fiction. At eleven, she penned her first story about a fearless princess and a tyrant king. Now, she's writing about gifted women and the power of family. She has written numerous poems, a handful of them published through Young Writers of Canada and the contests they hold, and several flash fictions on personal characters that she has developed over the years. Her favourite things to read and write are fantasy adventure and science fiction, and sometimes she dabbles in romance. Her current project is War Wine (working title), a mature high fantasy novel that covers familial bonds, love of all kinds, and friendship.
Would you read a book where the heroine had nothing to do all day, but get along with all of her friends, have a civil conversation with the antagonist and snap her fingers to turn the world into a utopia? Neither would I. It’s boring and flat has little potential for character development.
Conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s what causes (and forces) a character to grow, regress, or in some cases stay the same but watch those around them change in profound ways.
These are psychological and emotional struggles that the heroine faces, internal obstacles that prevent her from reaching her external goals. Let’s say the heroine has to confront a bully boss to get the recommendation needed for a promotion. She’s endured years of his verbal abuse and as a result, now has low self-esteem. But she also wants the promotion (external goal).
To regain her self-esteem, the heroine works through the verbal abuse of her boss. In one chapter she rallies her courage to enter into the boss’ office and then fails to ask for the recommendation. The next section, she confides in her friend that he didn’t succeed, and the friend gives her a morale boost. Throughout the book, the heroine is exposed to all sorts of people/situations that she internalises. Some of these events provide insight that change and alter the heroine until the moment of truth at the end where she asks for the recommendation (a happy ending), or she doesn’t and returns to her work station (a tragedy).
The heroine receives advice from her best friend, her mother, and a professional career coach. All three offer different strategies for dealing with the bully boss and the heroine can’t implement all three strategies at once. Her decision is also an internal conflict because if she doesn’t select her best friend’s or mother’s advice, she’ll hurt them and if she doesn’t take the career coach’s help, she’ll lose credibility in the eyes of the coach.
External conflicts are obstacles outside of the heroine that prevent her from reaching her goal. The bully boss (antagonist) is an external obstacle to her promotion. The three colleagues (supporters of the antagonist) that suck up to the bully boss and turn on the heroine are also obstacles. These characters actively work to suppress and deny the heroine in her mission.
Other external conflicts aren’t necessarily related to the antagonist. Suppose a new job position has opened up and three other colleagues have applied for it. They are in conflict with one another because they all want the same thing and not everyone can get it. There’s only one job opening.
Then there is the cast of characters that the heroine interacts with outside of work. She speaks with her mother about the situation at work, and her mother offers her a different approach/strategy to resolve the matter. The heroine doesn’t like the idea her mother proposes and is in conflict with the mother. The mother wants the heroine to take on the bully head-on, march down to human resources and report the boss. The heroine knows that the human resources manager is the husband of the boss and reporting on the boss will bring on a world of trouble. The mother says she should still report the bully boss.
Strong characters have layers of internal and external conflicts. If you feel that you’re stuck in your story, add two internal conflicts and two external conflicts. Play around with the conflicts and see how they internal conflicts influence the external ones. You’ll have more complex and interesting characters as a result.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.