CONFLICT MAKES THE PLOT GO ‘ROUND

More on Writing for Children

PLOTS:

The plots in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Biplane Evermore are almost identical: someone is made fun of/neglected because they’re odd/old-fashioned.  But then a circumstance arises where their “handicap” fills a dire need.  As a result they are accepted & honoured.

This plot can repeat itself in a zillion ways.  Tom is handicapped (let’s say he’s blind) and left out because he can’t play ball like the others.  But his hearing is so acute that he hears the flames crackling before anyone else realizes the fire has gotten out of hand.  Tom gets a medal for preventing a catastrophe.  In the Bible account we have David, the shepherd boy with a sling, standing up to giant Goliath.

Anyone who has heard the story of the three little pigs can tell you that shoddy workmanship doesn’t pay.  Let’s do another situation where this theme comes through.  Let’s say Brady wants to win the soap box derby, but being an impulsive sort, he whacks together a soap box, cutting corners to save time.  In the middle of the race his soapbox falls apart.

But this ending won’t satisfy children; they want their hero to win.  So let’s make this the fate of the opponent, whereas Tim, the protagonist, HAS taken the time to build his soapbox well and wins the derby.  Brady, the show-off and maybe even the bully, loses.  (After all, our story does need some conflict.)

Now let’s thicken the plot with a bit of economic conflict.  Tim’s mother is a penniless widow. (Circa 1935–don’t try this today.)  He wants to build a soapbox, but he hasn’t got the financial resources Brady has.  But Tim helps an old man paint his fence, and in return the man gives him some leftover paint and screws.  The old man tells him, “These will hold your soapbox together better than just plain nails.”

Maybe Tim must take other odd jobs to buy all the supplies he needs, but then he almost runs out of time.  (Another type of conflict.)  He puts in the last screws just before the race.  When he’s done his soapbox he has the satisfaction of something he’s worked for, whether he wins the race or not.  (One lesson learned.)  It has a nice paint job at least.  But of course he does win.

Brady’s soapbox loses a few nails and finally rattles to pieces en route.  The readers will absorb the “pride goeth before a fall” lesson as they observe his disappointment.

CONFLICTS:

Circumstances.  Complications.  Opposition.  Villains.  Feelings.  These all conspire to hinder the protagonist from accomplishing the goal.  He or she must make choices, must draw on inner strength and courage to overcome the obstacles.

Rudolph would have liked to be popular with the other reindeer, but he had this incurably shiny red nose.  Evermore was small and outdated.  Two of the three little pigs had poor work ethics; all three had an opponent.

Cinderella had a wicked step-mother who was determined to keep her from meeting the handsome prince and generally made life miserable for her.  Like Oliver Twist, some main characters are being kept from their rightful inheritance.  Scuffy the Tugboat has this drive to see the world.  The Little Engine needs to climb a high hill.  The tortoise needed to put the conceited hare in his place.

The problem with some of these is that the main character is doing nothing to improve their lot.  Editors today are firm believers in working out your own salvation.  They want to see the protagonist struggling to overcome, not wimping around waiting for God or fate or a fairy godmother to advance their cause.  If Rudolph were in a tale today, he’d be working to afford plastic surgery.

Biplane Evermore took his chance when it was offered and bravely went forth.  You may have to give your protagonist a few breaks like that, a few chances to show his stuff.  Otherwise he’ll have to shove his way in.  A pushy protagonist may not go over; most of us don’t identify with self-confident mover-and-shaker types.  (Those people tend not to be readers, either.  They are too busy getting stuff done.)

Conflict has to be realistic.  I’ve read stories where the conflict was over-dramatized to the point of SO phoney.  I’ve read books where the antagonist was so nasty and generally obnoxious that I wondered who would actually go to the bother of being this miserable.  (So if he/she is, the writer had better make their motives fairly clear.)

Well-written conflict makes readers hold their breath.  Sympathy for the protagonist keeps them turning pages.  Readers need to care if Tim earns enough to buy the materials for his soapbox.  An element of suspense is essential.  Will he finish his soapbox in time for the derby?  Will his soapbox hold up until the end of the race or will it fall apart because he skimped on screws?  Will Tim win — or will that rich kid, Brady, be gloating ever after?

The conclusion needs to give indications of positive change or growth, too.  For example, when Tim does win, how does he treat Brady?  Will they continue to antagonize each other, or will Tim find some way of offering the needed olive branch?  Will there be some sign that Brady accepts it?

What DOESN’T work is for the villain to suddenly turn over a new leaf and be sweet and kind.  Readers want a fairly clean ending, but not one that’s been slapped together like Brady’s soapbox.  In some books it seems like the writer comes to the last pages and quickly ties all the knots.  Everyone feels different, kind, understanding.  The main character is proven right and they now want to get along with him/her.

If you haven’t laid the foundation for this before the last chapter, it might be better to have the antagonist suddenly move to Timbuktu.

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