Mark Terry

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Unleash Hell

March 10, 2009
At the beginning of the movie Gladiator, Russell Crow's character, about to lead the Roman army into battle against the Gauls, says, "At my command, unleash hell!"

It's a great line. Never mind that it seems to conflict with an earlier speech he gives to his soldiers telling them that if they wake up in a field of wheat they have moved on to the Elyssian Fields. Would a Roman soldier who believed the afterlife... oh, never mind.

My point is, at some point in your story, you need to unleash hell. Yes, that's a metaphor. If you're writing a romance novel, what you're creating is conflict.

One reason I'm thinking about that is I'm making edits and proofing the manuscript to my next novel, THE FALLEN (May 2010, Oceanview Publishing, let the BSP begin!). Now, this is a thriller so there's a lot of action pretty much from the first scene. It involves a terrorist attack at a resort where the G8 Summit is being held. I'm about up to page 100 in my edits and I realized that as much as there was a lot of action and plenty of interesting things going on in the first 100 pages of this manuscript, I had started to unleash hell in a different way right around page 100.

That's when everything starts to go wrong for the main character. 

And it's going to go progressively wrong for quite some time.

In my experience, unpublished novelists let their main characters off the hook. I'm not sure why. Do they feel sympathy for them?

Readers LOVE to read about main characters getting dumped on and then fighting back and rising to a happily-ever-after place. No matter what genre you're writing about.

The harder the conflict, the more satisfying the resolution.

And it doesn't have to be like poor Derek, discovered by the terrorists, beat up, handcuffed and dumped in a walk-in-freezer with three corpses.

Marjorie the timid secretary secretly in love with the new adventurous employee can make a fool of herself in front of the entire office, have her cat barf on her new blouse, run into her ex-husband or boyfriend, burn dinner or have a migraine on her first date in four years. (Think the movie "Hitch." First you kick her in the head and knock her into the Hudson River. Assuming she doesn't acquire hepatitis from the river, you then accidentally bring up a serial killer from her family's past. Then you have a date and have a food allergy and damn near go into anaphylactic shock. Then your job is outed, there's... you get the picture).

It's not really about world-shaking conflict unless you're writing that type of story. But it needs to be significant to the main character in the context of the story.

In fact, that's well worth repeating: the conflict must be significant to the main character in the context of the story.

Derek Stillwater's ex-Special Forces and an expert on terrorism. It's going to take a pretty bad thing to ruin his day.

But Marjorie lives in a different world than Derek and her traumas will likely be more mundane. But within the context of the story--within her world--they can be just as trying.

I mean, really, I don't need to be locked in a freezer with corpses to have a really shitty day. I can lose clients, get sick, have a death in the family, an argument with my wife, get an unexpected bill or have my car engine catch on fire. I can deal with them all, but if I were in a story and any of those things happened on a day when I was trying to accomplish something big--like if Marjorie was hoping to make a good impression on the new guy--then we've got conflict.

So: go unleash hell!



Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Why is this so much easier to see in someone else's work and not your own? I've been wracking my brain for two days trying to figure out why the scene isn't working. Duh, the sheriff is letting main character off the hook.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think it is something easier to see in other people's work. A friend had me read his manuscript a year or so ago and I told him there just wasn't enough conflict. Everyone got along too well.

11:52 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I'm obsessed with conflict. My saying, for a long time, was "Never write a word without conflict." A bit of an exaggeration, LOL, but I usually need at least two going on at the same time: inner, inter, outer, short-term, long-term. Whatever.

I have a very short attention span. I just can't write if I don't have a handle on the conflict. Writers would hate knowing how very much I skim. I fear me as a reader when I write!

12:57 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I have been honest that I have a hard time with this. Oddly enough, after d*cking around with a variety of new ideas, I am opening up my demon book and going back to page 1 and re-envisioning it as a thriller instead of romantic suspense. I didn't even REALIZE I had 250 pages of the darn thing written.

ANYHOO, so now I'm chucking a ton of it, rewriting, moving things. I have excised everyone who distracts from the central conflict. There's no back story. It's tighter than tight . . . and I most definitely realize this is going to be about unleashing hell.

I am having a BALL.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You may have put your finger on your demon's motivation!

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading THE KILLING FLOOR by Lee Child, and he's a master at unleashing hell. In barely 150 pages, his protagonist has had to deal with a big, old pile of nasty stuff. Just when we catch our breath, he gets another two-by-four in the face. I started laughing during one scene, tickled by how fearless Child is.

I think we do get attached to our characters and don't want them to feel too much pain. But that's what makes a story so great.

4:20 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

ROFLMAO... ohmigosh, Erica, when you said "demon book," I instantly thought of your Demon Baby book. So I cracked up when you said you were re-imagining it as a thriller!

5:13 PM  
Blogger B. Nagel said...

I swear you've used the Marjorie example before. Maybe your subconscious is prompting you to write a Marjorie the Secretary series.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I use Marjorie the timid secretary all the time because she's about as far from Derek Stillwater as you can get. :)

4:25 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I really like that movie, Gladiator. He's offered reprieve after reprieve, but he consistently chooses the difficult road because that is who he is. It's very character driven.

4:47 PM  

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