Using Destruction to Build Something Beautiful
(The art of conflict, subplot, and backstory)
by Lee Thompson
Silly me, I realize as I begin to write this that I could dedicate five pages to conflict, five to subplot, and five to backstory, and a final five to how they all connect. But that’s just not going to work on a blog. Lol. So, I’ll do my best to keep it shortish by writing some lines that you can chew on.
Three writers who I believe excel at writing conflict, subplot and backstory are Peter Straub, Greg Gifune and Tom Piccirilli. These things live and breathe in their books. They’re masters and if you sat down with one of their books and a highlighter to mark all the passages each presents in their work you’d be a busy bastard.
When we’re presented with a character we care about we hurt to see him suffer and love to see him win. He faces conflicts from the past and present, internal and external. They’re building blocks to give the story legs and help our man grow or die. There are conflicts of the heart, of the mind, and of the soul. Some stories stick to mostly present and external conflict. They can be fast, fun reads. Others delve deeply into internal and past/present troubles. The best marriages, and most rounded fiction I’ve read (again, by people like Straub, Gifune and Piccirilli) make the searing of internal/external, past/present conflict seem nearly effortless.
Life is full of a thousand daily sorrows and aggravations. Those conflicts add depth to fiction on top of the main story line conflict: being late, being yelled at, letting ourselves down, noisy children, a lack of focus, distractions, self-doubt, a yearning for a better future than the life we had in the past.
But getting what we want is seldom easy, and that in itself creates more conflict.
Backstory goes hand in hand with conflict, creates it even, as characters hang on to wrongs done to them, words spoken in anger, old jobs they compare their new job to, old relationships they compare with present ones. There is a lot to be said about a character’s childhood and what formed them into the complicated creature they are now. Backstory feeds coals to what was once thought dormant fires. Backstory is dynamic. When it’s not, we know it: our eyes glaze over, our pulse weakens, and the seconds crawl by. When I lived on the streets I met people who had despicable, sad, and horrible backstories. But they weren’t boring. Their histories helped defined them whether they liked it or not. It informed their choices whether they were aware or oblivious. A run-of-the-mill backstory is safe, sure, people can relate to it, but secrets add spice. I’ve got secrets I’ll never share—things I’m ashamed of, scares that made me question reality and the fancy colorful box it dwells in.
Subplots also create extra depth. Like conflict and backstory they connect characters’ lives. While our main character is fighting his main battle, internally and externally, he has things from everyday life he’s still dealing with on some level. And, to boot, our minor characters’ lives aren’t static. They’re moving in the background, living their lives, some of them making choices that knowingly or unknowingly can have an impact on our lead character’s story.
Thanks for the read! And thanks, Blu, for having me!