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Jennifer Crusie: Conflict analysis
By Patricia Sargeant-Matthews

This article first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Write from the Heart, the newsletter of the Romance Writers of America Inc.®'s Central Ohio Fiction Writers chapter.

"The core of a book is conflict," says Jennifer Crusie. Jenny, a Loveswept, Harlequin Temptation and St. Martin's Press author, discussed conflict analysis and plotting during the June 2001 Central Ohio Fiction Writers meeting.

Setting the goals
"You can have marvelous characters," Jenny says. "But without a plot, it's just a character study, not a story."

Protagonist: The protagonist is the person who owns the book. In romance novels, this character is usually the heroine. The writer must determine the protagonist's internal and external goals. These goals have to be concrete and achievable.

Antagonist: "The antagonist is not a bad guy, necessarily," Jenny explains. "The antagonist is the person who pushes back." Just like the protagonist, the antagonist must have a full life of his or her own with internal and external goals.

"The antagonist is not out to get the protagonist," Jenny says. That type of plot is too thin.

Internal and external personal goals for your characters provide a stronger, more complex plot. The conflict is a life or death struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist's goal must cause a problem for the antagonist's goal and vice versa. Neither character can resign from the fight.

For example, let's say we're writing a book and our protagonist is a member of a wildlife conservancy group and our antagonist is a family farmer. We decide our protagonist's goal is to save an endangered species whose natural habitat is somewhere on the farmer's property. However, our antagonist's farm is failing and his only recourse to save his family is to sell his property to a developer.

In this plot set-up, our protagonist and our antagonist definitely have conflicting goals. The plot diagram, as designed by screenwriter Michael Hauge, creates a crucible. The diagram allows you to clearly see that the protagonist and antagonist are directly in conflict with each other; that they "push back" against each other.

Beginning at the beginning
"What everyone is looking for on the first page (of a book) is someone to attach to," Jenny says.

Therefore, she suggests writers introduce the protagonist on the first page of the book. She goes further and encourages writers to start the book with the protagonist in trouble.

"The protagonist has to be introduced in trouble on the first page," she says. "The beginning is where the trouble starts."

As Jenny explains, Michael Hague notes the reader's central question is, "Will your protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve his or her goal?"

"The book begins when the reader asks this (central) question," Jenny says. "The book ends when the reader has the answer."

To quote Aristotle, "The plot has a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning is the part in which nothing important happens before. The end is the part in which nothing important happens after."

Standard plot outline:

    * Exposition: story opens with a stable situation
    * Rising action: something bad happens; story rises to conflict or climax
    * Climax: the point of no return
    * Falling action: denouement
    * Resolution: things become stable again; but this is not the same stability as        exposition, Jenny cautions.

She suggests writers who have trouble plotting use a screenplay structure, which is typically four acts, to help outline the plot.

"Don't write in chapters. Write in acts then split the acts into chapters," she recommends.

Acts are made up of scenes, Jenny explains. The scenes start where the trouble starts. Each scene is like a mini chapter or a mini act. It has a protagonist and an antagonist. Each scene should have its own conflict making it a tiny, little story all to itself.

At the end of each scene, you should have a turning point. The turning point of a scene in a scene sequence is the place where the trouble starts in the next scene. As the book progresses, your acts and scenes should move closer together to make the pacing quicker.

Standard screenplay structure
Act 1 - Writer's goal: Establish
Introduce the protagonist and establish the reader's relationship with her or him. Is she sympathetic? Funny? Kind? Smart? Skilled? At this point, the heroine is in trouble, but she has a plan. However, by the end of the act, the stakes have increased and she now should be thinking, "I was not expecting this. I have a lot more to lose." She puts all of her energy into finding a solution to the conflict. The turning point should be life altering.

Act 2 - Writer's goal: Build
Create new and unexpected problems or complications to increase the heroine's stakes. Force her to take greater and greater actions in pursuit of her goal.

"(The stakes have) to be so great that she can't just give up," Jenny explains. "From this point on, life as she knows it is over."

Act 3 - Writer's goal: Intense Build
Increase the heroine's problems, complications and reversals. At this point, the stakes are enormous. She should hit a dark moment. Make the reader believe she could lose everything. Build the conflict steadily to the final confrontation.

Act 4 - Writer's goal: Resolve
At the beginning of this act, the protagonist is defeated. "She's on her knees crawling toward the finish line," Jenny describes. Before the end of the act, she comes face to face with the antagonist.

"It's not a rule," Jenny says. "But it's the ending that's the most satisfying to the reader."

Resolve any and all subplots introduced in the first act. The ending must be unambiguous and one the reader accepts. Show the heroine in a new, stable situation.

"Readers will pull pieces of your story into a reserve and if the pieces don't come together at the end, it won't be considered a complete book," Jenny warns.

"The reason the people will love the book is what happens in the last half dozen pages," Jenny says. "That's what they'll remember."

Don't look down
"Write the first draft the way you need to write it," Jenny encourages. "Then you can go back and find the turning points. You don't write them, you find them."

Jenny calls this mode of writing the Wyle E. Coyote or "Don't Look Down" draft.

"You'll never again capture that wildness that you have when writing the first draft," she says. "A lot of stuff will be in there. The one thing I know about writing is, whatever works is good. Never say, 'Boy, that's stupid.' Nothing's stupid."

Jenny also suggests writers not target their manuscripts. "The thing to do is find an editor who likes your work and who can market it," she says.

Find out who edits books that are similar in style to your own writing. Tell that editor about your book - in about two sentences. If the editor seems interested and enthusiastic about your book, ask if you can send him or her your story.

"You want an editor who's a cheerleader," Jenny states. "At that point, you start working on an relationship together."

Jenny recommends reading Linda Seger's Making a Good Script Great and Robert
McKee's Story for additional information on plotting and conflict development. She also recommends attending one of Michael Hauge's screenwriting workshops and/or listening his workshop tapes.

Jennifer Crusie's latest novel, DON'T LOOK DOWN, a collaboration with Bob Mayer, is an April 2006 release. Visit Jenny at www.jennycrusie.com.


Text and photos copyright 2006 by Patricia Sargeant-Matthews

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