I've been tootling away for the last couple of months, working on the opening scenes of my story, as I've talked about before. I was delighted to solve the mystery of where to start the bastard when I realised that throwing together my four major characters in one opening scene of everyday conflict would serve multiple purposes- introducing those characters and their relationships, and setting the reader on the path to the bigger conflicts of the book.
But something still hasn't been clicking, and I've been struggling to figure out what. I have my whole first chapter finished now, and my second one, and every time I read them they both fall very flat.
What have I been doing wrong, I wonder? Everything I planned happens in these scenes, everyone says what they're supposed to, but they just don't work.
I had a little epiphany this week about it, and this is the problem: my two main characters, Bill and Kit, in these opening scenes, suck.
Yep, that's about it. They're both 17/18 years old, they're both lovely people- kind, thoughtful, generous, loyal, brave- and they're madly in love with one another. They've had a delightful little romance since they met at the age of 12, and they're just made for each other. In the first scene, they shrug off a minor annoyance from Bill's nasty older brother Lionel, and they get engaged. Oh happy day! Then they go and tell Bill's dad their good news, and they all celebrate, except Lionel who's mad, just because he's that kind of asshole. He and Kit have a spirited argument about the war which has just broken out, and she kicks his butt, verbally speaking.
And later that night, after too much to drink, Lionel goes to Kit's room, and attacks her.
So, I have a situation where I've got two lovely perfect people whose lives are marvellous until nasty Lionel shows up and ruins it all.
Which is fine as far as story goes- but by the time the reader reaches the point where Lionel commits his shocking crime against poor innocent Kit, they'll probably have put the book down already and they'll be reading something else.
Why? Because there's no spark and no conflict in Bill and Kit's relationship at the beginning. They're too perfect. Those people in our lives who have absolutely everything, who never have to struggle or fight? We don't like them! We bitch about them behind their backs! And we have no reason to root for them, because they already have everything they want.
So, realising this, I know I need to add something to the story- something that is at the core of every single piece of fiction out there, and that's more conflict. Bill and Kit need to be fighting for their relationship before anything external happens to them, and that's going to make the reader want to fight for them, too.
I thought long and hard about this on Monday and Tuesday, the days I get a half hour commute home from work to think about writing and various other things. I considered a whole stack of ways I could up the conflict, from minor to extreme. What they all have in common is the following:
1. These characters need flaws. The flaws can't be too huge, or they're not going to be likeable people.
2. There needs to be some threat to them based on their relationship. That is, they need to be in this relationship, and they need to be in it in defiance of some kind of consequence. The consequence and the reason for it are the keys to the conflict.
These two factors alone are enough. We open the story in the exact same way, except it doesn't look like an Australian Sound of Music anymore, with happy little farmers skipping about, kissing their chaste and lovely girlfriends. Instead we bring in reasons why they're choosing each other, reasons that should tear them apart- reasons they're defying just by being together. Their love is so great they can overcome anything. They're plucky, they're spirited- and they're not always right. Their actions and their reasons are not necessarily perfect. But they have each other as an excuse for that.
Let me get off the obtuse and onto the specific- here's what I'm gonna do to up the conflict:
It's all about context.
This story is set in 1914, at the beginning of WWI, in country Western Australia- a time of strong morals, in which bright young things in love got married if they wanted to get in bed. And if they got in bed before they got married, then they were defying social convention in a majorly scandalous way, and they were liable to bring down all kinds of hell.
Especially, let's say, if the girl is the daughter of the local minister (Kit's dad Arthur is now dead before the story begins, but his influence is going to remain)- and her beloved brother (who's also the best friend of the male MC) is in training to become a priest himself. And let's say the girl is about to become the district schoolmistress- a job that was very much reliant on good character.
So, teenaged Bill and Kit have given in to their hormones, and they've started rolling in the hay together before they're old enough to get married. What's not to love about this? These guys are so in love, so attracted to each other, that they're willing to go against a very strong social convention to get it on. This, by the way, is all the flaw we need (for now) to make them real people- they're doing the wrong thing according to their society, but they're doing it for love.
Kit's position as schoolmistress and her brother Tom's future position as minister (not to mention his good opinion of her) are reliant on their little secret remaining just that.
And here's where the conflict comes in, and it sets everything else in the story up perfectly:
Bill's brother Lionel, who's already jealous of what they have, catches them at it.
Now he has ammunition to use against them. He threatens them with exposure- but it's no skin off their noses, because they're in love anyway. They get engaged, and that almost quashes the potential scandal. At that point, Lionel, relatively defeated and humiliated by Kit's ability to stamp all over him intellectually, gets drunk and decides to knock her down a peg or two- and takes it way too far.
Now we have realistic characters we can support, a conflict within a conflict (Len's attack on Kit sets up the major conflict of the story, but it's preceded by the mini-conflict of him threatening them), relationships and tensions that make perfect sense, and issues of major guilt and self-doubt that will contribute to the way things break down for Bill and Kit and all the others.
Happy sigh. *This* feels right to me. Just the right amount of conflict to pull the reader in from the very first paragraph, and to keep them reading until the big shocks start coming, one after the other...