Editor’s Note: Sarah Hoyt’s 13 Weeks Novel Writing series will now be appearing on Saturdays alongside Charlie Martin’s original 13 Weeks series, my 13 Weeks Radical Reading Regimen, and additional upcoming 13 Week experiments. It’ll be a self-improvement-themed saturday with numerous writers exploring techniques to better themselves. -DMS
You’d think the title of the post would refer to my relationship with the book this week. Though mostly what kept me from engaging it too closely mano-a-keyboard was the fact that my eczema decided this was an excellent week to engage in a revival ALL over my palms and the tips of my fingers. I must find out if Dragon Naturally Speaking will work for me in its latest incarnation. Last time I tried was several versions ago and it couldn’t cope with the accent, even after training.
There are a number of my colleagues who do use Dragon, and I might have to try again, if my hands continue their current path of rapid disintegration. You too might consider it if you find yourself blocking hard. Sometimes just changing the way you work jiggles the block loose.
At any rate, despite the slow progress on the book and my fight with my body’s issues, the “duel” I’d like to discuss refers to “conflict” in the book.
My first introduction to some people’s concept of what conflict should be came in my first writing group, where a gentleman objected to the chapter I’d submitted because “there’s no conflict.”
In fact, there was a young man rapidly clearing out of the home he’d been living in for close on to twelve years, because he had come to the conclusion those who were hunting him had found his location. I explained that there was conflict, not just potentially between the character’s desire to get away and the certain objection of those hunting him, but also between the character’s need to escape and the desire of his patrons to protect him. Then there was the conflict inside the man himself, between his wish to stay in the only stable home he’d ever known, and his fear of bringing death on his adopted family.
The writers’ group member blinked at me stupidly, (I use the word advisedly) and said “But you know, conflict. Like fist fights. Arguments. He has to argue with someone.”
While I will agree that chapters are better for a bit of dialogue — these days when I have a character alone for a few chapters I have him mutter to himself, talk to a pet, plant or ghost of dead friend if I can at all contrive it without making him sound completely insane – and while I will concede that arguing (and fist fights!) are conflict, they are more the external expression of conflict than the real thing.
Confused? Don’t be.
Dwight Swain – and just about everyone who ever advised writers, but I first came across the concept, explicitly, in Swain – says you should have a conflict in every scene (for me scenes are roughly covalent to chapters because I was trained in classical literature. But there is no right or wrong for that. You might have several scenes per chapter or several chapters per scene.) It could be internal of the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go or external of the I-wanna-go-but-can’t. It can even be fist fights if you have a great need to externalize it and are good at writing them (a lot of people aren’t. It’s a craft.) But you should have a conflict in there that gets solved by the end of the scene at which point, if you are smart, you will have introduced the conflict for the next scene.
Now I’m telling you that ideally this should lead up to the big climax confrontation.
For an example, I’m going to use the movie Prince of Egypt, mostly because I was re-watching it yesterday while cleaning my desk (yes, it’s horrible history, and I gather horrible Biblical scholarship too, but it’s a good story.)
I prefer using movies for this type of explanation because there’s a higher likelihood we’ve all watched the same movie (or can cue it up on Amazon prime or YouTube) than that we’ve all read the same book. Also novel plots are, by nature, more complex. Movie plots tag at about a short story level, which makes it easier to see the bones of the story.
For those who haven’t seen it, the movie relates the familiar story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.
The very first scene sets up the overarching massive conflict and sets the pointers for the duel. However, if this were an unfamiliar story, you might not be aware of that. It might seem like the prologue or scene setting for the “story” which will only properly start when Moses appears as a self-sufficient actor.
After establishing shots to set up the idea of slavery we see Moses’ mother put him in the river and see him being found by the pharaoh’s wife.
Again, if we didn’t know the story, it would seem to start when Moses appears as a self-willed actor, in the next scene in which he and his “brother” Ramses have a chariot race all over the building area for the pyramids.
Is this “conflict”? You bet it is. Over the next few scenes, despite the fact that the writers manage to convey a deep and brotherly affection between Ramses and Moses, we get the feeling of a deep sibling rivalry, of the sort you’d get when the older son is expected to be sober and responsible, but the younger one is allowed to be a scape grace. (In other words, what happens in any society where power and wealth tend to devolve on the older son.)
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This rivalry and the pressures on Ramses to live up to his father’s legacy mount through a series of scenes, and then, of course, Moses discovers his true origin, which sets the stage for his killing an overseer, fleeing to the desert, finding himself and returning to free his people.
That is when you get the absolutely magnificent scene of the plagues. This is The Duel of the movie. There’s more of the movie afterwards, but the climax of emotion hits at this scene.
Why do I say it is magnificent? Because as the movie sets it up, it is just about perfect. It’s a strong enough narrative architecture that I forgive the movie every sin against history and biblical accuracy.
What you have in that scene, where Moses reluctantly calls down plagues on the home he still loves and on the brother he can’t help admiring, is the culmination of all of it: the sibling rivalry set up on the very first scene where they appear together; the love that is obvious between them; Moses’ origins; the situation of an enslaved people and of their (fearful) enslavers.
All of the movie, through serious scenes, silly scenes and funny ones, builds up to this duel where two honorable men, living up the best they can to their sense of mission and honor are pitted against each other in an inexorable battle, despite the deep and abiding brotherly love between them.
Ideally the duel in a book is like that. It has been built up to, step by step, by each scene in the book, even those that only glancingly touch either antagonist or protagonist. If the conflict between them is not present on the page, then the conflict that is there must build towards that greater duel. What I mean is, say the sibling rivalry affects also how Ramses takes up the mantel of his father’s responsibilities, even though he’d much rather be acting like a goofball. It affects how Moses reacts when he finds his true origins. And that in turn makes him become who he is supposed to be– Ramses formidable antagonist. Each of the minor conflicts pushes the men towards the inevitable duel.
Of course your protagonist and antagonist are covalent in power and strength. Godzilla versus Bambi is a short, pathetic story.
Most successful novels and even short stories manage to at least balance the opponents in strength. What is far rarer is balancing them in honor and duty and purity of intentions. That raises the duel in Prince of Egypt to a whole other level, because neither protagonist nor antagonist can act in any way but how they’re acting. The only one who even could back out is the protagonist, and of course he can’t.
Must you do this in your novel?
Well, no. I haven’t managed it. (I almost typed that “even I” then realized how ridiculous that sounds. I’m certainly not some kind of wonder of writing, but merely a willing apprentice.) For one I don’t usually spend enough time in the antagonist’s head to establish him as full of duty and honor. The closest I came was Jarl in Darkship Renegades, and he’s surely not the main antagonist. The main antagonist might have very good reasons, but we don’t hear him enough to establish them.
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However, as you write towards your duel scene, keep in mind that ideal from Prince of Egypt. If you find a way to make your antagonist and protagonist not only equal in power but in honor and purity of intentions as well, do so. And if you can manage to make them not want to fight at all but boxed in by circumstances, it can be heartbreaking. (Just remember they still have to be fully conscious actors.)
What you need to have in place, though, is all the scenes pointing towards the eventual duel. If you don’t have that… make a note on one of your note pads (or postit notes. Or napkin. Or novel diary. Or whatever you use to keep track of) to revisit it in re-write. You’ll probably find just a little tweaking will do to point to the inevitable clash.
Also, if you can – sometimes one can’t – stay away from clichés in establishing the motives of your villain. It’s not as important with your main character, weirdly.
“But Sarah, you just said the sibling rivalry between Moses and Ramses is a cliché. And you said it was a good setup.”
It’s not quite a cliché. It is a pattern that is found again and again whenever a society gives disproportionate power and responsibility to the older son. (That is most societies until recently.) It rings true that way.
The clichés I’m talking about are more the ones which act as a cop-out and make the villain less than a full actor. Stuff like “he was hurt as a child, so he—” or “He was bit by a dog as a child, and so he wants to kill all the dog-people of Tryffar.” Real people are not like that and are not that simple. Viewing slaves as a patrimony of your race? Sure, it’s been done. Desiring to exterminate all slaves because one looked at you cross-eyed when you were two? That’s not just poor storytelling, it’s poor psychology, the sort of discount-rate Freudianism even Freud didn’t believe in.
You can make your character as traumatized and abused as you wish, only remember to make him a fully conscious actor, despite and through it. His upbringing and his sense of duty might be boxing him, but he still can choose to follow through with it as a fully conscious and sane individual. And if possible make his worst actions come from his loftiest intentions, because in real life, they so often do. Overreaching often leads one to have to “cut moral corners” and brings about the type of situation where one convinces oneself the end justify the means.
It hardly ever does.
So, keep that in mind as you near your duel point. And if you feel you already botched it, take heart. You can always clean it up in revision or, as a video making friend of mine says “you can fix it in post.”
Now, on your mark, set, get ready for the duel.
Get Caught up on Previous Installments of Sarah’s Developing Novel Writing Program:
Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing