Sunday, May 18, 2008

Action vs. conflict

I’ve read a certain opening in some works-in-progress posted for critique. It’s written along these lines.

John wheeled, just in time to parry a slash from the taller of the two attackers. The force of the block knocked the man’s blade aside for a moment. Ignoring the pain that sang along his arms, John stabbed forward at the man’s belly, fast and hard. From the corner of his eye, he saw the shorter man dart at him and he pivoted, lashing out with one heel.

Is it gripping? To some extent, yes. It’s certainly better than, say, John watching butterflies in a sunny meadow. But it’s got certain problems, and if an author doesn’t take these into consideration, the opening of the story will look as though action has been mistaken for conflict.

Conflict occurs when a character is prevented from having something he or she wants very much. It’s the backbone of fiction; there aren’t many stories without conflict, except perhaps in ultra-literary works where the style and characterization take center stage instead. It can do very well without action, but the reverse rarely applies. If action is the sizzle, conflict is the steak.

Is there conflict in the paragraph I wrote? Well, I’m guessing that John wants to protect himself from the two attackers, who want to kill him. But I have no idea who he is, why he’s fighting these men, who they are, and what’s at stake if he loses (the only clue I have that John is the protagonist is that he’s named and the story is from his point of view). The potential for conflict is lost, because the story opts for action instead. This can be very vivid in a movie, but it leaves something to be desired in a novel.

Another reason I wouldn’t start with a scene like this in a short story is because the reader will never be in any doubt that the viewpoint character will survive the fight. Towards the end, the reader might be more concerned; after all, some authors do kill off their main characters or have otherwise bad things happen to them. Towards the end, especially when you’ve shown the forces confronting the protagonist, the reader will have a you-never-can-tell feeling that allows him to be genuinely afraid for the main character.

But at the start? Unless this is the prologue to a fantasy, where viewpoint characters often do get killed off, the reader isn’t going to worry.

Sometimes the story or novel begins with a practise fight or training sequence, but this has the same problem. There may be plenty of action, but unless there’s real tension, it won’t be fun to read. That’s one reason the Pai Mei scene in Kill Bill was delightful – Pai Mei hated women, Americans and Japanese, but he had to train an American woman who spoke Japanese and who thought she was good enough to defeat him. Most training-the-protagonist scenes don’t go this far. Instead, the protagonist gets a mentor who likes him and doesn’t really want to hurt him, so there goes any fear the reader might have felt on his behalf.

To be continued…


colbymarshall said...

You speak the truth- opening scene makes me know that John is going to kick tail not matter what, which leaves something to be desired. I like to at least be worried...even though I'm usually not!

Luc2 said...

Unless this is the prologue to a fantasy, where viewpoint characters often do get killed off, the reader isn’t going to worry. Heh, i just read such an opening. You're starting to get invested in the character, he dies, and you're pissed because you realized you just read a prologue. But i guess that's something for another post?

Marian Perera said...

I wonder if any other genre uses the kill-off-viewpoint-character plot device. What do you think? Mysteries or suspense or thrillers, maybe?

Angela Ackerman said...

This is definitely a case where the action is high but there are low stakes. Logic states that the main character/hero must survive for there to *be* a story, so we aren't invested in the fight because we know the outcome.

Of course, I suppose the MC could die and that's the point of the fight scene right out the gate and the twist. But unless the rest of the story takes place in the afterlife, I'd be putting the book down anyway.

Good post!