Elf Ahearn is part of an anthology released on Valentine’s day 2017 titled Her Perfect Gentleman. Today she offers valuable insight and advice on using conflict to develop unforgettable stories. But first, let’s meet is amazing, creative and talented author…
Name/Pen name: Elf Ahearn
General location: New York
- When did you first know you wanted to writer?
When I saw Francis the Talking Mule movies as a kid, my best friend Georgette and I wrote a sequel. She illustrated it—she was inspired with a pencil.
- What inspired you to write?
Francis. Who can resist a talking mule?
- Are you a planner or pantster?
Kinda both. I write out a loose outline, and then I ignore it.
- Which of your works is your favorite? Why?
The book I’m working on now is really fun because the heroine is resisting growing up. She’s constantly getting into trouble because she can’t drag herself away from potential adventure.
- Would you say your stories are plot or character driven?
I always start with a plot that intrigues me and then struggle to create interesting characters, so I’m gonna say plot.
- What do you take with you on vacation?
Absolutely nothing of interest, but I do have a friend who would always pack a ball gown just in case.
- What’s your motto as a writer?
“Regency romance with a Gothic twist.” Is that a motto?
- What’s your next project or what is in your future?
This year, it’s my ambition to rewrite the third novel, A Duke in the Rough, then get it published. And finally, I’d like to finish the rough draft of the forth novel, which I’m about half way through. Wish me luck!
Any information you would like to share about yourself?
Elf is my real name—my parents thought it up without any assistance from me. I was a horse when I was a kid—I galloped on my hands and knees, grazed on lemon grass and violets when they were in season, and carried my sister on my back. Ah, those were the days!
Connect with Elf
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And now for her blog…
“Conflict,” Debra Dixon, author of Goal, Motivation & Conflict, says, “is the obstacle or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his goal. Conflict is not an optional element. Conflict is required…”
In other words, smooth sailing in fiction is the fastest way to lose readers. Conflict doesn’t have to be big and violent, in fact it can be so quiet and internal the protagonist is scarcely aware of its existence, but it must be there.
When George and Lennie, the heroes of John Steinbeck’s seminal novel Of Mice and Men enter a beautiful riverside landscape in the opening pages, George does not say, “Oh, this is lovely. We’ll lay down our bindles and spend the night because I know you’ll be safe here, Lennie.” No, the character steps nervously to his goliath pal’s side and barks, “Lennie, for God’ sakes don’t drink so much.” Lennie continued to snort into the pool. The small man leaned over and shook him by the shoulder. “Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was last night.” Blammo, conflict.
Here’s another example using Of Mice and Men:
“The boss said suddenly, “Listen, Small!” Lennie raised his head. “What can you do?”
In a panic, Lennie looked at George for help. “He can do anything you tell him,” said George. “He’s a good skinner. He can rassle gain bags, drive a cultivator. He can do anything. Just give him a try.”
The boss turned on George. “Then why don’t you let him answer? What you trying to put over?”
George broke in loudly, “Oh! I ain’t saying he’s bright. He ain’t. But I say he’s a God damn good worker. He can put up a four hundred pound bale.”
The boss deliberately put the little book in his pocket. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and squinted one eye nearly closed. “Say—what you sellin’?”
These two men need a job. They have no money and can’t afford to move on, so this conflict, though minor, sets an urgent tone. That George has to struggle to get the ranch job, makes the scene more interesting—it adds suspense.
Example #2 Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees:
Naturally the third man felt obliged to say something, so he looked at Rosaleen sashaying along unperturbed, holding her white-lady fan, and he said, “Where’d you get that fan, nigger?”
“Stole it from a church,” she said. Just like that.
I had gone once in a raft down the Chattooga River with my church group, and the same feeling came to me now—of being lifted by currents, by a swirl of events I couldn’t reverse.
Coming alongside the men, Rosaleen lifted her snuff jug, which was filled with black spit, and calmly poured it across the tops of the men’s shoes, moving her hand in little loops like she was writing her name—Rosaleen Daise—just the way she’d practiced.
This conflict hasn’t come to blows, yet, but we know it’s going to do something really damaging to Rosaleen’s goal of registering to vote. In fact, this bit of conflict is the inciting incident in the novel. According to the blog, Scribe Meets World, “Inciting comes from the Latin word incitare which means ‘to put into rapid motion, urge, encourage, and stimulate.’ And that’s exactly what your inciting incident is: it’s an event that catalyzes your hero to ‘go into motion’ and take action.” External conflict is usually the catalyst for the inciting incident.
According to the late, great film and stage director Mike Nichols, “There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation.” I’m not sure if his philosophy is 100 percent correct, but it’s something to keep in mind because conflict is implicit in each scenario—something is always chaffing the skin of the characters, forcing them to work harder to achieve their goal.
The examples above illustrate exterior conflicts. Now we’re going to address internal conflicts.
The characters in Of Mice and Men are often credited with the success of the novel, but that’s not because Steinbeck paired a smart guy and a super strong dumb guy, it’s because of the internal conflict George grapples with: Lennie drives him crazy, yet the big galoot fulfills his essence as a caregiver. If the protagonist of this novel were a mellow guy who took Lennie and everyone else’s behavior in stride, you’d read the first three pages and close the cover. For good.
“You keep me in hot water all the time.” [George] took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are mimicking one another. “Jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress—jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse— Well, how the hell did she know you jus’ wanted to feel her dress? She jerks back and you hold on like it was a mouse. She yells and we got to hide in a irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us, and we got to sneak out in the dark and get outta the country. All the time somethin’ like that—all the time. I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million mice an’ let you have fun.” His anger left him suddenly. He looked across the fire at Lennie’s anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.
Protagonists need to itch. They need to be in conflict with themselves (identity vs. essence), with the people around them and, at times, with the environment. However, this does not mean they have to argue constantly. George does, but, for example, Lily in The Secret Life of Bees, does not vocalize her internal agony to other characters, only to readers.
- Ray, her father, tells Lily, “Your sorry mother ran off and left you. The day she died, she’d come back to get her things, that’s all.”
…I looked down at the bee jar still clutched in my hand and saw a teaspoon of teardrops floating in the bottom. I unfastened the window screen and poured it out. The wind lifted it on her skirt tails and shook it over the blistered grass. How could she have left me? I stood there several minutes looking out on the world, trying to understand.
And here’s the opening paragraph of a brilliant short story by Lesley Nneka Arimah, titled “Who Will Greet You at Home,” which was printed Oct. 26, 2015 in The New Yorker.
“The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fibre, and she pulled the string the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed. If she was to mother a child, to mute and subdue and fold away parts of herself, the child had to be perfect.”
In each of these examples you can feel the itch of longing, of unhappiness, of wanting to be or do something different. These stories are rife with conflict: small internal ones, little tiffs with other characters, big arguments, physical obstructions, and larger more devastating conflicts until the climax explodes.
John Barth, the bestselling author of Giles Goat-Boy, calls this “incremental perturbation.” “So how many perturbatory increments does a story need?” he wrote, “Just enough: Too few leads to unconvincing climax, faked orgasm; too many is beating a dead horse, or broken camel. And how many are just enough?” He suggests the larger bumps in the road on the protagonist’s journey toward their goal should come in uneven numbers, 3, 5 ,7, etc. I went through Of Mice and Men, and honestly, the number of conflicts varied per chapter. The key, though, is that, except for brief scenes of peace following a major dust up, conflict was always there.
Her Perfect Gentleman