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Exercise: My way or the highway

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 5 Dec 2004

This is a rewrite of an exercise we did in December 2001 - unfortunately, the original version of the exercise has been lost.

At the center of story, there is conflict. There are several types of conflict: internal, between individuals, against nature, and so on. This exercise deals with conflict between characters, and, therefore, with the motivations of those characters.

First, note that conflict is with us every day, from the war in Iraq to a teen arguing against a curfew. So let us think about the conflicts we face or see. One thing to note is that in a conflict, each side is convinced they are right.

There was a news story in the local paper a few years ago. A blind man went to the convenience store to buy milk; the Muslim store manager refused to let the man's guide dog into the store (Muslims consider dogs to be impure animals.) The manager was not trying to be mean, in fact he even offered to serve the blind man at the door; the blind man, however, wanted to be treated like any other customer and do his shopping normally.

Now, both men were well-intentioned, but they had conflicting views of what the dog represented: for one the dog was a dirty animal to be left outside, to the other the dog was an essential aid to self-sufficiency.

Some conflicts arise without there even being a real difference of opinion; rather this is a perceived difference or gap. Think of the stereotypical argument between a husband and wife, based not on real conflict but on unstated expectations and perceived faults.

Now, apply this to story-telling (and not just to fiction - much of news reporting is really about exposing the roots of conflict, isn't it?) Why are the hero and protagonist fighting? Why do characters with a common goal wind up disagreeing about how to achieve that goal? Remember: each character must act for valid reasons, based on valid motivations. The villain can't be a villain just because the story calls for that behaviour, but must have his or her own goals, aspirations, fears.

So, the exercise: in 300 to 500 words, put two (or more) characters in a position of conflict. It should be reasonably clear to the reader (at least to some extent) what motivates each character - of course, avoid outright exposition (just telling us directly) as much as possible.

It is not necessary to resolve the conflict; submissions here are not meant to be full stories. And it doesn't have to be a major conflict; it could be a minor conflict that interferes with some bigger goal.

When critiquing, pay attention to the character motivations - are they credible? Too obvious, or too subtle? Remember - a good critique is specific, not general!

Have fun!


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.