Blogoff: The ‘Daffy Duck Principle’ of conflict
Being a ‘seat of the pants’ writer, my favourite part of putting stories together is conflict. Because I have no end in sight, I’m right there with my characters as the conflict is introduced and I have no idea how I’m going to solve it. With my last book, I had introduced so much conflict, I spent three weeks believing I had written myself into a corner and there was no way out. For the first time, I was seriously considering breaking my own rule of never looking back until the first draft is complete. Unless I made a decision soon, I would have to go back and rewrite some of my earlier scenes and simplify them.
In my head, my characters were saying “No, don’t do it. We can solve this. Just give us a little time.” Another three weeks went by with barely a word written and myself in a constant daze, believing there was no way out. When the answer finally came to me, I knew what had to be done and realised why I had been avoiding it. It meant killing off one of my main characters. For any author, this is never done lightly, and when I did write that scene, I was emotionally exhausted. My daughter was visiting at the time and gave me a hug when she saw what an emotional mess I was. She reminded me of one of the principles I had shared with her about writing over the years. “Just like you’ve always said, Mum, the Daffy Duck principle must rule.”
Now, I know at this stage, you probably think I’ve lost my marbles, so allow me to explain. For those of us old enough to have thrived on the Bugs Bunny Show as children, Daffy Duck was always my favourite. In one cartoon, “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” Daffy, tired of being type cast, pitches to a Warner Brother’s exec about an exciting film he has written and intends to star in. We get to see his blockbuster as he tells the story, and the exec is getting more excited by the minute. “Yes, yes… and then what happened?” Daffy is buried in the pages of his long script, getting more and more exhausted as the conflict builds. A storm comes, the dam breaks, a volcano erupts and still it is not enough for the exec. “Is that it?” he scathingly asks. Poor Daffy is defeated and comes up with the only solution that will solve the dilemma. Now I won’t mention here the ending, but basically, as I had told my daughter, “Someone has to die.”
Daffy gives us a very basic model about how the conflict must build continually, right up until the end. As authors, I believe we need that ‘edge of the seat’ feeling within our stories, making the reader eagerly wanting to turn the page. We need tempo to give our readers a breather and relax, but not for too long. With my latest book being 260,000 words (745 pages) long, I had the challenge of keeping that up and it wasn’t easy.
Having well defined characters is essential. Each of them must be true to their nature and approach the conflict as only their character would do. Readers will feel cheated if the character does something out of character to solve the problem. This is why I believe in the importance of an author knowing their characters inside and out. One main character from my own books is a bit of a train wreck, immature and not easily liked. She continually acts impulsively and makes bad decisions. Her reactions to conflict often have the readers tearing their hair out, but my duty as an author is to be faithful to who she is. I can’t allow her to have a sudden change of heart and act responsibly. This isn’t who she is, but over the course of the story, she learns as we all do in life. By the end of the story she isn’t an angel by any means, but she has grown from her experiences and we have hope that she might just survive.
A story must have one enduring conflict right through, which is what the story is about, but there needs to be many more that are stopping the protagonist from achieving their ultimate goal. It can be quite the challenge for the author to come up with unique and difficult problems. A few easily solved ones don’t hurt, but you need those overwhelming odds to come up to really test the mettle of your character, especially at the climax of the story. If it’s getting too easy to solve, it’s time for that volcano to erupt and see what they’re made of.
“The Scarlet Pumpernickel” can be viewed here: The Scarlet Pumpernickel