"Flash - Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!"
Every story needs conflict; it's the petrol (or 'gasoline') that makes the car go. Without conflict your story is not a story, it's at best a setting or a character study. But there's more to putting conflict in your story than grabbing handfuls of brown stuff and lobbing it at the nearest fan.
Most of us, at some point, have read the kind of story where the awesome hero is approached by some random he's literally only just met, who says something along the lines of "Oh, please help me, brave hero - my partner/relative/magical kingdom is under a terrible threat from an evil whatchamacallit! If he is not stopped, my beloved thingy will surely perish and that will be the most terrible thing in the world, like, ever! Everyone else has died horribly trying to do this thing, so now I come to you, because you are my last hope!"
Sounds like the conflict's dialled up to eleven right out of the traps, yeah? Well... no actually. Because here's the thing: if the person who's approached our hero is a complete stranger, and this beloved thingy he's talking about is equally unknown to our hero... why should he give a flying monkeys about any of it? 'Because the hero is kind and selfless and lives to help those in distress' is the line usually offered as an explanation. Well, that's just fabulous... but he's being asked to risk life and limb to save some Macguffin he didn't even know existed until some random showed up and cried to him about it. He might be the nicest guy in the world - but an idiot as well? In the real world, those kind of 'heroes' don't last very long.
Sometimes these kind of stories take this a step further and have the random stranger also say something like "I'm afraid I am very poor, so all I can give you in return is my undying gratitude." Ahem - excuuuuuse me? Even professional hard-men, who aren't scared of having their body parts puréed any more because they've come to regard that stuff as just another day at the office, don't operate as a charity. If they're going to risk getting their asses whupped they want to know it's going to be worth it in the end - and "I'll wuv you forever and ever" don't pay the medical bills, chutney.
All of this means we need to look at our characters and make sure that conflict is specifically tailored to them. Their needs, their goals, their strengths - and their vices and weaknesses. If you're going to throw shit around, they gotta care about that shit. And if it aint messing with their goals, their relationships or their minds... well, it's just shit, and logic says they'd step around it and go on their merry way. That's why that hard-bitten cop who takes on that case of the missing kid for that random woman usually has a backstory involving his own kid that he hardly ever sees since the divorce, or the kid that died on his watch years ago because he didn't follow up the clues in time and he's blamed himself ever since... it works because it gives the character a reason to take on the problem. Personalise the conflict and you make it that much deeper.
This also holds true for screwing things up for your characters when they try to fix things. Sure, you could have the hero shoot the bad guy to stop him hitting the button that sets off the bomb that blows up the city. If he misses the shot, bad guy hits button and city goes kaboom... yeah, that's some heavy conflict there. But why not ramp it up? How about having the bad guy using the hero's girlfriend as a human shield while he hovers over that button, so that if the hero isn't super-accurate with that shot, he could end up injuring or even killing her? And if you're gonna chuck your hero into a pit of venomous snakes in Chapter Two, at least make sure you gave him a phobia of snakes in Chapter One, you twisted little author-monkey you...
Obviously I've used some clichéd examples to illustrate my point (with no shame whatsoever... well okay, maybe a little.) But they only became clichés in the first place because the theory behind them worked, and still works. So... how can we apply all of this to the story-experiment we're currently gestating?
We already have our Asperger's girl - who we'll call Aeryn. We already have a background conflict of her father's ex-wife leading a campaign to have her downgraded to Tier 2 because of her Aspergers (let's call her father Mikel and his ex-wife Tamira.) We also have Tamira's son with her new partner being Aeryn's best friend, which causes conflict between him and his mum (let's call him Ronin.) Is this in itself enough to drive a story? We decided previously that, no, it wasn't. It certainly isn't the worst thing that could happen to any of the people involved - and that's what we need to really kick this story into overdrive. So... what is the worst thing that could happen?
Well, something life-threatening is an obvious choice. And since they're all on a spaceship, heading for a new planet they've only ever seen through telescopes and unmanned probes, there's plenty of scope for that. What if the spaceship started to malfunction somehow? Hmmm, yeah... how and why though? Oooh... wait a second...
I once wrote a short story, told in diary form about a scientist who had joined a bunch of gung-ho astronauts on a mission to terraform a distant planet, where they were all being mysteriously killed, one by one. My main character scientist insisted she had seen strange shadows outside, and was convinced the planet was occupied with lifeforms who were angry that they were damaging the environment and so were trying to kill them all off. The others just laughed at her, but the deaths kept on coming until the scientist was the only one left - at which point the twist came that she had been hallucinating the 'aliens' because she'd gone mad, and so it had been her killing off the others all along. I didn't really do anything with it, because it needed a lot more work (as was probably obvious) - but maybe we could use some elements of that to add into this story. (This is why it's a good idea to keep everything you write - even the stuff you ultimately decide you can't do anything with.)
So.... perhaps the people on our spaceship start getting sick. The air recycling system goes faulty, causing people to start getting respiratory illnesses, and the food preservation technology fails, so that people come down with food poisoning. The elder generation are going to be more vulnerable, so they'll succumb the quickest, leaving them dead or too weak to be of much use, meaning the young adults will have to figure out how to solve the problems. But they've all been implanted with chips that block prejudicial attitudes - how might that affect their ability to find the causes of the malfunctions? Especially if... it starts to look like sabotage?
The implanted generation wouldn't be able to think 'suspiciously,' so their chances of finding the culprit would be reduced. And at the other end of the scale, the un-implanted older generation are all sick, which might make them more paranoid than normal, so they'd be pointing fingers at everyone... Someone needs to be a kind of 'voice of reason' in all of this. Someone who doesn't think like everyone else...
Bingo - Aeryn, our girl with Aspergers! What if the elders uncover evidence that one of the implantees has a broken chip in their head that no longer works as it should - but they don't know which one? (Perhaps the ship has technology that simply picks up signals from each chip, enabling it to 'count' how many implantees are on board at any time, and that number has suddenly dropped by one, even though there are still the same number of implantees aboard.) And this person with the broken chip is presumed to be the 'saboteur?'
Obviously certain people will accuse Aeryn of being that person (Tamira, for example) while others, like her father, will feel that not only is she the least likely suspect, but also that she is the ideal person to work out who it really is. And as time goes on, and more and more things start going wrong, it becomes a race against time to work out a) who the 'saboteur' is (if indeed there is one) and b) how to fix the problems before the ship deteriorates to the point where they all die.
You may have noticed I'm putting saboteur in quotes. This is because having one of the implantees fill that role could be good, but so could having it be one of the elders instead. Or maybe even that there is no saboteur at all. Perhaps the elders have just started becoming so paranoid about there being one that they're all doing things that are actually putting everyone at risk, in their attempts to outwit their 'secret enemy,' without realising it? The un-implanted have simply been driven mad by either their sickness or the stress of their mission, while the implanted have been rendered naive and stripped of the ability to think in a 'Darwinian' way (i.e. survival of the fittest.)
Having done a little preliminary research into female Aspergers symptoms, it seems that, while there would be areas where Aeryn would find uncovering the 'saboteur' more of a challenge than her peers, there would be others where she would be at an advantage. She'd struggle with working out when people were lying to her, for example - but she would also have no problems with asking 'inappropriate' questions or behaving in a way other might consider 'socially unacceptable.' Ooh - and here's an added twist we could put in! What if, in her efforts to discover who the person is with the broken chip, she discovers it's her? Then we have the added conflict level of 'does she tell anyone else, or does she keep it to herself?' This also has the added bonus of realistically making her the only one who can save everyone; the elders are all too sick and paranoid to be of any use, and she's the only one of the younger generation not bound by the mind-censoring technology of the chip.
This is starting to take shape as a potential story now; we've certainly got a good deal of stuff we can develop further. Not bad, from a starting-point of a half-baked idea that looked like it couldn't go anywhere. But there's one more rinse I think it could go through, to make it shine just that little bit more. And we'll look at that in the next post.
In the meantime, if you have any further ideas to chuck into the pot, or comments about the process so far, feel free to add them in the comments box below.
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