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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

by Christine Kohler


When I moved to a different high school mid-11th grade, I was short one semester of physical education to be able to graduate. My first day the gym teacher told me to get on a trampoline. I told her I had never been on a trampoline. It became obvious that she thought I was lying.


"Jump higher!" the gym teacher yelled at me. "Higher!" Then she instructed me to do a somersault, or flip, or some contortion I had never done in my life. Not one to disobey, I threw my body in the air, twisted…and landed an inch of cracking my skull on the outer metal bar.


"Get off!" the gym teacher shouted. She never said a word to me the rest of the semester. I passed the class, though I don't remember what grade she gave me.   


In fact, I don't remember anything about that gym class, except getting to swim with a Polish exchange student later in the semester. I don't remember any of the sophomores in the class. Not what we wore.  Not even group showers or the locker room. But I remember every detail of what happened that day on the trampoline. That is the story I tell—the disaster story.




It's like that for most of us. What sticks in our memories are the stressful, the terrifying, the suspenseful, the horrifying…the conflict-filled, confrontation, heart-in-the-throat stories.

Why, then, do we writers back off from confrontation and conflict?


I have a theory about women writers reared in time periods and cultures where we were taught to behave lady-like, to be peace-makers, to acquiesce to others for the sake of avoiding conflict and arguments. What happens is that these life lessons water down our fiction and we write too quiet. Often it comes out in the main character observing more than being in the thicket of the conflict and action. This type of writer can succumb to having adults lecture to the main character as the resolution, then the main character acquiesces to please the adult.




The only thing you can do about how you were reared is to be introspective, and acknowledge it. (My dad reared me to be polite, lady-like, to not talk back, to exhibit good manners, and respect authority. Not saying there is anything wrong with these qualities, but I didn't learn to stand up for myself, or deal with conflict or confrontation.) However, as a writer I have had to be bold in print, put my main character in a royal mess, and escalate conflict.




First and foremost, write the first draft. This is the finger-painting stage. If you get too caught up in psycho-analyzing everything, you can get stymied and stuck. So, just write the story you want to tell.

After the first draft is written, do a reverse outline. A reverse outline is a chapter-by-chapter synoptic outline of what is already on the page. Don't add or subtract. Be honest and stay true to what you have already written in that early draft. You are going to use this outline to see if your first draft has full story and character arcs. The reverse outline will show you if your story is missing plot points. It's also a good way to check the subplot and an overlay of the character's emotional arc and growth change.  




Ask yourself these questions:

Is the main character in the mess, or observing someone else's mess?

Is the main character avoiding conflict or confrontation?   

Does the conflict escalate?

Does the main character resolve his or her own problem?


Note: Lectures do not work. Every parent can testify that if lectures worked then they would have perfect children after each lecture.   




Look at conflict differently. Instead of focusing on the unpleasant aspect of the conflict itself, look beyond the conflict and confrontation to the change it brings about. Change for your character. Change for your character's situation. Confrontation can empower a person. The alternative is for the person (your character) to constantly acquiesce and swallow her anger. To avoid conflict is to go along with the status quo. Let me repeat that vital point: Conflict and confrontation lead to mature growth in your character and change in his or her circumstances.


Just as you cannot help a butterfly break out of its cocoon prematurely, or break the shell for a bird or turtle, you shouldn't make it easy for your character to overcome adversity, avoid conflict, or back down from confrontation. It would make the character—and story—weak. Instead, in revision, have the main character stand up to the bully or overcome the obstacle bravely and boldly. Hit the conflict and confrontation head-on, and, by doing so, you empower the readers who identify with your character.     



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