I had a grand epiphany the other day about the problem with the book I’ve been working on: I’ve been getting bogged down in trying to add conflict to stuff that’s not critical to the story. I struggle with having enough conflict in stories, so I make a conscious effort to be sure there’s conflict in each scene and that nobody gets anything easily. But sometimes you just need to move your characters into a place where things can happen.
The best analogy for what I’ve been doing is the movie Legally Blonde — the one about the California sorority girl who applies to Harvard Law School when her law school-bound boyfriend dumps her because she’s not “serious” enough. The movie is a culture clash/fish out of water story about this bubbly blonde who dresses in pink at Harvard Law, where she shakes things up and applies her skills and knowledge to be a great lawyer while also realizing that she doesn’t actually need her boyfriend.
But what if the writers of that movie got sidetracked and bogged down in the process of her getting in to law school? In the actual movie, that’s handled in a montage that shows her studying, acing the LSAT, going through the interview process, and then getting in so the story can really get going. If they had written it like what I’ve been doing, they’d have thrown conflict into that part of the story, like having some of her sorority sisters be against this plan and trying to sabotage her and her parents not approving so that she had to prove to them she could do it. There would even be obstacles that aren’t even really conflict, like her not being able to find a parking space when she went to take the LSAT so that she ended up having to run in heels from a remote spot to get to the test on time. Then during the interview process we’d see that some of the admissions committee was against her, and the other applicants were sabotaging her. If they’d done that, she wouldn’t have made it to law school until an hour and a half into a two-hour movie.
It would be a perfectly valid story to show the challenges of a formerly shallow sorority girl overcoming stereotypes and getting in to law school, with the acceptance being the happy ending, but that’s not what this story was about, so they only needed to show enough of the process for it to look at all feasible (she already had good grades and lots of extracurriculars, so she just had to prep for the LSAT and nail the interviews) and hurry along to get her to the place where the story can happen. There doesn’t need to be conflict in that part. If the movie is called Legally Blonde, we know she’s going to get in to law school, so all the conflict and tension is just stalling.
And that’s what I’ve realized I was doing. I was trying to show the full process of how it all works and what the heroine was up against while also adding conflict when the story isn’t about her getting into a certain position. It’s about what happens after she does. There are some actual issues that have to be set up, and getting into the position isn’t easy, so this isn’t entirely stuff that can happen in one chapter, but I don’t have to delve too deeply into it. I’ve cut more than 20,000 words so far. Some words may get added to the earlier chapters because there’s a subplot I have to deal with that will merge with the main plot, but still, that gets things going a lot more quickly.
I’ll mostly have to deal with it next week, since this weekend is the Nebula Awards conference. I’ve got two panels, one early Saturday and one early Sunday, and then I’ll be attending a bunch of other stuff. It’s a virtual conference, so I’ll be attending from my desk. I’ve bought snacks so I can do a proper con suite for myself and replicate the conference experience.