Many years ago, in one of my English classes, we read Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. After finishing it, I was annoyed, because -- in my opinion, anyway -- Hardy cheated. He skipped one of the key scenes, in which (spoiler alert!) Tess kills someone. Hardy showed what happened before, and he showed what happened afterwards, but he did not show the murder itself. Instead he only told us by showing the reactions of people to the murder afterwards. Perhaps some will say that the murder itself was not important, but that's not what matters here. The fact is, I felt gypped.
I believe that we authors generally owe our readers to show the major confrontations instead of telling about them later. These are the scenes in which monsters are slain, shootouts happens, or lovers fight or finally reconcile. Frequently the climax of the story is a confrontation, but other scenes can also be confrontational. You might not want your story to consist entirely of confrontations, as that can be emotionally exhausting (although some thrillers attempt it). Confrontations are the emotional payoff for the conflict that you have created in your story.
According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first two definitions of confrontations are (1) "face-to-face meetings" and (2) "clashes of either forces or ideas." Now let's review the elements that you will find in most confrontations.
Conflict is generally the basis for confrontation. Before you create your confrontation, your story should have some reason for it, in the conflict(s) you have set up in your story.
Intense Emotion. The emotions should be intense: both for your characters who are enduring the confrontation, and hopefully for your readers as they read it. The first test is if you, as the author, also experience these emotions while reading it. You could be scared; you could be deliriously happy; you could be relieved; you could be exhausted. If you do not feel the emotions as you write and rewrite a confrontational scene, you cannot expect it of your readers.
Great Dialogue. Generally your confrontations will contain conversation. Will there be misunderstandings? Will things go wrong or fail? These things are very likely if your confrontations occur near the beginning or in the middle of the book. In most books with happy endings, confrontations close to the end lead to less confusion, and in these cases information and motives may be revealed.
Physical Action. Not all stories lend themselves to physical action, but the ones that do, such as thrillers and adventure stories, tend to have physical action as an integral part of their confrontations, such as Harry Potter and his magical duels with Lord Voldemort.
Fantastic Setting. If possible, place your confrontations in great settings. What makes settings great? Well, it depends on your story. If you are writing a romance, you may want your big romantic scenes to complement your confrontations. Perhaps love scenes occur on beautiful balconies, as in "Romeo and Juliet;" perhaps quarreling scenes occur in sewers. Or perhaps you decide to have your settings clash with the confrontation, so that the declarations of love occur in sewers and the misunderstandings happen on balconies.
In creating your setting, especially if there is action that involves the setting, make sure that your readers understand what they need to about the logistics. Perhaps you are placing a confrontational battle scene on a trireme (a type of boat used by the ancient Greeks and Romans). You may want to help your readers understand triremes before the confrontation, so that they don't become confused when the excitement surges. For example, in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the final big battle of the book takes place in a special section of the Ministry of Magic. Rowling makes a point of writing about this section of the Ministry of Magic before the battle.
Increase Tension With a Ticking Clock. By having some sort of deadline, known to the reader if not to the characters, you can increase the urgency.
Surprises and Twists. You should do your best to create these in your earlier confrontations, as these will propel your plot along. Creating surprises and twists in confrontations near the end of your story may be a little difficult, because at this point your characters and their motives should already be known to your readers. Nevertheless, your readers will enjoy it if you can surprise them. Will you be cheating the readers if you throw out something new? One way to get around this is to hint at the twist earlier.
If you have written a good story and you have captured your readers, you can expect that some of your readers will read your most confrontational scenes over and over. Because of this it is a good idea to give them more than your usual amount of attention and to polish them thoroughly.
One of my favorite confrontational scenes is in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is at the fiery crack of Mount Doom (spoilers follow). The setting is fabulous: they are in the heart of enemy country, near the top of a mountain, inside an ancient room with essentially a sea of lava below. (I always wondered why Mount Doom had no orcs guarding it, but we'll gloss over that problem.) The scene has violent, thrilling action: one character is knocked out, a second is mutilated, and a third dies.
What happens is extremely important to the story. The readers have accompanied Frodo and his companions from the Shire to this point, in order to watch him throw the ring into the river of fire. The readers want and deserve to witness the ring being destroyed. That's what Tolkien has promised and has worked towards throughout the trilogy.
The scene contains several confrontations. The first involves violence, in which Sméagol attacks Sam and knocks him out. It is important to take Sam out of commission so that Sam cannot participate and assist, but only watch and witness after he wakes up (as well as Sam can watch the scene, given that the ring conveys not just power, but invisibility, on its wearer). Frodo confronts his inner demon, and instead of overcoming it, Tolkien surprises us. Frodo, instead of tossing the ring into the river fire, puts on the ring of power. But by the unexpected action of another character, Sméagol, Frodo's mission is fulfilled anyway. Goodness prevails, thanks to an earlier act of mercy performed by Frodo (Frodo's past good deeds catch up with him). Sam then shows his love for Frodo by assisting his wounded friend to get away from the worst fires of the mountain.
Despite all this, there are sometimes reasons to skip confrontational scenes. Some reasons may be good, and some may be bad. Here are the ones I can think of:
You Have Nothing New to Say. Occasionally the "confrontation" between two characters involves one of them learning what the readers already know, and so instead of showing the scene in which this information is learned, you only show the reaction to the information's being learned.
You Don't Feel That You Can Do It Justice. If this is the case, ask yourself why you can't do it justice. Is the problem that you, as a person, tend to avoid conflict and therefore you don't want to write it? In that case, I recommend that you attempt to get over your feelings and write it anyway.
Is the problem that it is out of character? In this case I recommend that you either tweak the character or you tweak the conflict and the confrontation.
Are the characters too hard to create in a manner that does them justice? It is challenging to show beings that are supposed to be absolutely good, such as Almighty God, or thoroughly evil, such as the Devil. Usually the writers don't show them, or only let them make cameo appearances, although generally writers seem to find it easier to depict devils than to depict God. An example of not showing the most absolutely evil being is in The Lord of the Rings, in which we never actually see Sauron, but only the effect the evil being has on others.
The Confrontation Would Be Too Graphic for Your Audience. For example, in cozy mysteries, even though they generally focus on solving murders, the killings themselves are usually glossed over instead of being shown in gory detail.
You're Saving The Confrontation for a Later Volume in Your Series. This can be hard on your readers, but is done all the time and is a way to get them to buy the next book (assuming they don't feel too gypped). My only request is that you do show the confrontation in a later volume.
The Confrontation Is Not Central to Your Story. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo never actually confronts Sauron, although he does feel Sauron's influence. One reason may be that that it was difficult for Tolkien to create a convincing on-stage version of Sauron. However, a more important reason is that Frodo's goal is not to become all-powerful by mastering evil; Frodo's goal is to destroy evil. The greatest temptation with respect to evil is the temptation within ourselves, and this is the central conflict that Frodo faces. If we all conquered the evil temptations within ourselves, the world would be a much better place.
It has been many years since I argued with my English professor about Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and during that time my opinion has evolved. I still believe that one reason that Hardy skipped the murder scene was because it was so out of character for Tess that it would have been difficult to write. However, I now realize Hardy was not interested in the conflict between Tess and the man who she killed; Hardy's story focused on the conflict between Tess and Angel, the husband who rejected her. Hardy could rebut that he did show the key confrontations, the ones that mattered to his story.
Decide which confrontations matter to your story, and then give them all you've got. Until next time!
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.