Monday, November 28, 2011

Write Better with Four-Top Conflict.

By Donan Berg
Author of A Body To Bones
and The Bones Dance Foxtrot

            Conflict attracts and builds fiction readership. The concept is not a mystery, but challenges fiction writers with every story. How can authors master the task?

            Conflict as defined for writers is the clash of beliefs, values, and/or moral judgments. Conflict is not a left jab, right upper cut punch combination. Nor is it a hero defeating each opponent at every mile marker post on the interstate between journey start and finish.

            The author begins with a story hero, often called the protagonist. If he or she lives in an idealistic state with satiated desires and no worries, the hero may love it, but the reader will be bored. Life’s reality contains ups and downs; the reader expects novel conflict to surpass actuality with greater intensity and proportionality.

            In its simplest form, conflict for the hero involves one antagonist or a villain, as mystery writers will label the person or peril of nature. For illustration purposes the villain will be another human. To have the greatest conflict both the hero and villain must seek the identical goal. Both may crave the final say where there’s but one authority position. The hero desires to win the election to provide justice for residents. The villain desires to win the same election to fatten his or her bank account. A detective hero investigates to learn the killer’s identity. The villain uses every trick, lie, and false insinuation to avoid detection justifying the action as self-defense or biblical revenge.

            Hero versus villain is a straightforward back-and-forth contest. Like a tug of war, one can have the advantage, then the other, back to the first, the second resurges, and eventually the hero prevails, well most often, except in the tragedy. While this format presents an acceptable template for storytelling, the good versus evil conflict remains largely superficial without engaging character depth. The hero evokes no lasting emotional attachment in the reader’s mind.

            How can the author increase the conflict? And expand the emotional attractiveness of his or her characters. Try four-top conflict. Four-top is restaurant terminology for a table with four seats. Authors will have the hero at position one, the major villain at position two, nature’s peril or another adversary at position three, and the third adversary at position four. The potential for competing values is vertical, horizontal, and/or diagonal. The hero must not only face attacks from the major villain, but his or her weakness is exposed to positions three and four as well.

            Let’s consider a public safety mystery novel example. The detective hero must solve an accountant’s murder. The major villain must thwart the hero’s murder-solving goal so as not to jeopardize a personal real estate business scam. The major villain tries to pull political strings to have the detective’s boss reassign or not authorize the tools the detective needs. At position three is the actual killer. A winter storm traps and almost kills the hero at a desolate cabin in pursuit of a clue or the actual killer, a gun for hire. The killer becomes unhappy and threatens to expose the major villain unless he’s paid additional money. This pressure intensifies the major villain’s actions against the hero. The hero’s fourth position adversary can be a fellow detective who seeks promotion to the one departmental advancement vacancy. In acting for personal gain, the fellow detective intentionally misfiles evidence, doesn’t pass on evidence tips, and/or tells a potential witness that the witness would be better off not speaking to the hero.

            It’s easy to visualize the diagonal possibilities between the actual killer and the hero, often a simple clue detection tug of war. However, utilization of the four-top conflict model allows the major villain to complicate the perils the hero must overcome and aid the actual killer’s actions to prey upon the hero’s weaknesses. For example, unbeknownst to all others, the major villain plants a false clue that causes the hero to walk into a booby-trapped restaurant where the major villain had also induced the real killer and fellow detective to be spreading button on the same bread loaf. If the fellow detective avoids death, the fellow detective can challenge the major villain with exposure as he or she strives for personal promotional glory. The real killer may decide on revenge against the major villain.

The author’s illumination of how and why the hero acts and reacts to three, not one, adds depth to this main character. The same happens to other characters when the author shows how they are challenged or required to respond to the actions of others to attain desired goals.

Can the same four-top concept apply to subplots? Yes, for example, the home life of the hero can have tugs between a spouse, child, and mother-in-law. There are countless possibilities. Forget the mother-in-law and give the hero a serious addiction, your choice. Create the relationships between the hero and others or internally to show the hero with praiseworthy values and a personality flaw as a rounded character.

Don’t forget that the challenges to the hero’s beliefs, values, and moral judgments will change him or her in incremental stages to create a totally different personality when the story ends.

(Comments? Author Donan Berg may be contacted via e-mail at A Body To Bones mystery novelLatest E-book novel, Baby Bones.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why Trekkies Come Home for Thanksgiving. It's not the turkey

This week brings the annual Thanksgiving trek for sons and daughters to the parental home. In the United States families are torn apart and harsh words linger for months if the respectful journey is not made. Of course there could be exceptions like medical or alternating years for married siblings. Not overlooked is late November storms, especially in the northern states.

Thanksgiving became important when the original colonists wished to thank God and native Americans for help in a bountiful harvest necessary to ward of disease and hunger to a dwindling encampment. Thus Thanksgiving became aptly named.

The holiday became inwardly focused unlike Christmas, which looks to religious deity, Easter, again religious, and then the other days that celebrate Presidents, national unity or individuals like sweethearts, Moms and Dads. These later ones are for personal recognition, not geared to the family unit.

Thanksgiving stands alone as the family reunion holiday. In the United States it's the societal tribute to the family unit. Even when family units multiply in structure not dominated by one man, one woman, and kids, the family as a unit remains the underlying bedrock.

Sons and daughters who plan to start and continue with their own family units adhere to the annual trek home to be infused with the annual tradition. The food can be an attraction for some, but not all. The first Thanksgiving focus overcome by a highlight on family unity.

Thus, wherever you are this Thanksgiving, may it be a Happy Thanksgiving.

Abbey Burning Love  Baby Bones available in MP3 for that drive to and from the turkey or tofu feast.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Body To Bones Reading Guide

When reading Author Donan Berg’s A Body To Bones, consider the following:

1.  The story begins in a church confessional ten years before Chapter One. What kind of emotional tone does this establish? Does the tone, in perhaps a different context, reappear? Is it engaging, neutral or off-putting?

2.  Are there any visual descriptions that leave a physical impression, either on what just happened, what may be in store, or that cleanse the reader’s palate? As to a cleansing pause, consider James Joyce in “The Dead” where he ends one scene with the following before beginning a subsequent dramatic scene:

            “The morning was still dark. A dull yellow light brooded over
            the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending.
            It was slushy underfoot; and only streaks and patches of snow
            lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.”

3.  In all mysteries a reader should expect clues, red herrings, and suspense. Did you find any or all? Is there a pace consistent with the action?

4.  The story is told in the present tense with several point-of-view character shifts (i.e., the character whose head the reader is inside). Does either tense or point-of-view character shift accentuate or detract from the story narration? What about tense or point-of-view in gaining an understanding of the novel’s characters?

5.  Are there any symbols that are important? E.g., a dove represents peace.

6.  Sarah, the leading character, has what positive character traits, flaws? Could she represent a broad spectrum? Midnight Assassin commented on isolation of midwestern women at the turn of the 20th century. What 1963 book contemporaneous to and mentioned in A Body To Bones has similar theme?

7.  Does the author present a theme as distinct from an action plot or subplot?

8.  Does the author inject social criticism? If so, what? How is it treated?

     (Please note there are no correct or wrong answers to any of the questions.
      No test nor penalty for ignoring these and thinking of your own.)

The above utilized for a book discussion group. A Body To Bones novel available here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Murder by Souffle

     Drive-weary Irene Kraft leaned on the kitchen doorframe, the 2011 soufflé recipe award in her right hand definitely superfluous. A steel mallet would’ve tenderized chicken breasts the way thumping Cranberry Falls, WA, EMTs pounded the woman’s chest—and with equal life-saving result. Tugging wrinkles from a casual red pullover above blue jeans and sneakers, Irene guessed the blue-purplish grotesquely distorted face on the stretched prone body to be Ellen, the newspaper-reader-voted recipe award recipient for the greater Puget Sound area.
     Ellen, in the entry’s biographical data, touted her culinary sisterhood as a soufflé that never collapsed. Five twenty-something women, first meeting at a township chocolate tasting, fast became inseparable enjoying fluffy desserts and aromatic specialty breads. After two decades, maternity ward visits, Lamaze coach stand-ins, and now calorie counting waist watchers, they’d bonded for life.
     From the five’s 2009 soufflé cookbook cover, Irene recognized the three in the kitchen. Kerchief-wearing Ruth, slumped in a chair, dabbed a napkin to swollen eyes and morphed into irrational blubbering protoplasm. Gertrude squeezed past Irene to clasp Ruth’s hand. After the kitchen door slammed a minute ago, Thelma’s chest heaved in and out behind a monogrammed yellow apron as she leaned backward against the kitchen’s center island. Right hand yellow-tipped fingers grasped white cotton gloves.
     “What happened?” Thelma asked. “Sarah and I stepped outside for a few puffs. Warned Ellen last week thirty pounds way too much for her to lose in two months.”
     “Why? Sarah dropped forty this summer, and smokes,” Ruth muttered aloud.
     Irene scanned the huge kitchen, nothing seemed out of place. No blood drops or splatter. No plausible murder weapon discernible or visible. “She been sick?” Irene asked.
     “Not recently,” Gertrude replied. “Suddenly confused, collapsed. When she didn’t respond, I punched 9-1-1 on cell phone. Maybe five minutes ago.”
     Strutting into the kitchen, color faded quickly from Sarah’s face. A sun-tanned Gertrude dropped Ruth’s hand to rush to her strudel-eating friend. The crouching, stocky EMT dipped head to avoid Gertrude’s swinging arm. After a shrug, the EMT assisted a colleague in raising the gurney with straps belted across a still Ellen, discarded oxygen mask dangling to head cushion’s side. Gurney wheels clunked past Irene before two EMTs lifted Ellen and gurney into an awaiting ambulance. Irene noticed no lip blisters or redness nor pressure marks on distended neck veins. Thelma began to soak a dishtowel under foamy suds in the kitchen sink. “Don’t wet anything,” Irene called out. Ruth shuddered as if attacked by the sound waves.
     “We ain’t gonna cook no more. Can’t leave Ellen’s kitchen like this.”
     Among the bowls, utensils, and baking paraphernalia, Irene spotted ten or more fluted white porcelain ramekin dishes, contents partially eaten, dotting the island, kitchen counter, and stovetop. “Stop,” she yelled at Gertrude tossing silver and wooden spoons into dishwasher. “You’ll destroy evidence left by Ellen’s killer.” As the newspaper’s food critic, Irene carried no official power, although two years ago Seattle police credited her insight with exposing a soda jerk killer with the research help of a medical examiner boyfriend who’d chased off bystanders and chastised police officers for not protecting death scene integrity.
     Sarah’s knees buckled; her limp torso caught in the arms of a pivoting Gertrude.
     “Did Sarah eat the same as Ellen?” Gertrude, hugging Sarah erect, asked of no one in particular.
     “Didn’t we all?” Thelma replied.
     Irene stepped to Gertrude in case she needed help with Sarah and to ask questions. Gertrude explained: Shared ingredient use rare. Constant baking surveillance, never. The five swore a culinary sisterhood oath on family spatulas never to divulge either ingredients or methodology unless agreed or published. An uneasy truce most often adhered to with a wink and a nod. Tasting forbidden except with permission. Only a peculiar phobia of Sarah’s had her don latex gloves to mix or knead instead of using floured hands as the other four did.
     A recomposed Sarah allowed Gertrude to answer the telephone. Gertrude, jiggling like a hooked fish suspended on a raised line, let the receiver slip from left hand and dangle above the floor. Thelma and Sarah rushed to Gertrude’s side. Ruth, helped by a hand on the island, staggered to join them as Irene heard Gertrude mumble,  “Ellen’s mother notified her daughter passed.”
     Irene, respectful of the moment, waited to step forward. “Which dish did Ellen eat from?”
     “This one.” Gertrude’s right forefinger pointed left to the counter next to the stovetop.
     “So what was in this?” Irene bent forward to eyeball a ramekin, soufflé partially eaten.
     “Egg yokes and beaten egg whites combined with sugar and selected ingredients. We were testing soufflé recipes for a second cookbook,” Gertrude said. “We all, except Sarah, won county blue ribbons. In fact, Ellen garnered the most by a two-to-one margin.”
     Blue ribbon disparity among friends for twenty-plus years represented a weak motive for murder, Irene thought. “Ellen married?” She remembered Ellen’s initially dropping left arm and hand’s ring finger circular paleness, not created by flour whiteness.
     “Was. There’s restraining order. Her ex gets really violent.”
     “Anyone here this afternoon besides you four?”
     “Ellen spoke to Rev. Randolph, Thelma’s husband, in the dining room. He left half-hour ago. Thelma tried to eavesdrop.”
     “Did not,” Thelma muttered. Unmoving eyes above hand shielding mouth glared at Gertrude.
     “Reverend held Ellen’s hands at church,” Ruth said. Gertrude’s head shook sideways.
     “Any recent confrontations not involving the husband?”
     “Ruth argued with Ellen last week,” Thelma spit out.
     Ruth with brows tight and lips compressed slowly raised a fist to Thelma as the latter shoved gloves into apron pocket. “She claimed I gave her the wrong sweet soufflé sugar blend. I didn’t.”
     “Now, ladies,” Gertrude interjected. “Ruth’s right and Ellen apologized.”
     “What about Sarah’s complaint at the Spokane contest?” Thelma continued. “Ellen was furious. Failed to dial down an oven and burned first soufflé ever.”
     “Stick a fork in it, Thelma,” Sarah blurted out, eyes squinting, lips compressed. “That oven overheated because Ellen got distracted answering the telephone for your UPS sugar delivery.”
     “You’re making up tales,” Thelma retorted. “Ellen didn’t need to pick up the phone.”
     “Not so quick you two.” Gertrude stepped between them, fixed eyes on Thelma. “Don’t say you don’t use special sugar?”
     Thelma twirled and stopped short. “Never.”
     “What about your Boy Scout cookie recipe with its secret sugar/spice mixture?” Ruth asked. “You wouldn’t let any of us sample the package you had.”
     “Why you battering me,” Thelma replied. “I needed that. We all help community charities.”
     Irene asked, “Where’s your sugar, Thelma?”
     “Why?” Thelma planted both feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips.
     “Look in the green plastic bag under the dining room table,” Gertrude suggested.
     Irene lifted the re-taped white and blue sugar package from the green bag and returned to the island to slit the clear plastic inside. She pressed two left hand fingers into the white powder, licked fingertips. “Taste isn’t sugar. Thelma, don’t leave.”
     Gertrude, after calling police, cornered Irene. “What made you suspect?”
     “Sudden disorientation. Soufflés. Sugar. Drug taste like cocaine. Had to be one of you since neither ex-husband nor minister present close to the collapse. As to motive, a jealous Thelma misinterpreting why Ellen befriended Randolph, while not conclusive, seemed most logical. Collapse either natural causes or induced. If induced, drugs likely used and it’s easy to substitute cocaine for sugar to overdose. And, no pun intended, but finger pointed to Thelma clutching white cotton gloves, you said you four never wore baking.”
     Author Donan Berg can be contacted at . His latest full-length fiction novel is entitled Baby Bones. Click title to order e-book or mp3. Happy Veteran's Day Friday 11/11/2011.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Oops, Writing Too Tight

Cramming old magazines into shopping bags, buying an extra flashdrive, saving everything because one never knows when it will come in useful are hoarding traits we can practice or relate to, at least in a limited degree. Writers attempting to cram big thoughts into few words is a gargantuan task. I know. Been there; done that.

When newspaper copy editors do a wonderful job we seldom pause to admire, however, the reverse is a horse of a different color. After many years I can still recall trying to create a headline for a short story about Richard M. Nixon on vacation playing golf on several consecutive days. I came up with: Nixon Teed Off Fourth Day In Row. Of course, it was self-censored and not printed. Nevertheless, the task of headline writing has stuck all these many years.

All writers, journalists, fiction novelists, and jingle creators at times need to hone the craft. What is a headline if not the title of a book?

It's a serious undertaking and, if not done properly, the fodder for late night TV. Thus, headlines can be humorous, give the reader a chuckle in a bland boring day. So stop and think at the following examples. They give a hint at how singular words can have multiple meanings.

-- Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers      (What will happen on Election Day?)

-- Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over    (Guess more than his heart is in the right place.)

-- If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile  (Dah)

-- Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures  (Wasn't the hand close enough to the sun?)

-- Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half  (What the Dickens? Or, was Alice scared?)

-- Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors  (Did somebody step on somebody's toes?)

-- Miners Refuse to Work After Death   (No dedication?)

Attributes to the guilty have been left off. One has to have some compassion for other writers even in a time of whimsy. If you're writing anything short, inspect it at all angles and delve deep to expose all intended and unintended meanings. However, if the words sell your book, disregard all changes. And remember, when you're bending down to place that tee in the soft earth, it's not improper to say a prayer that you'll send the ball off into the distance, maybe 300 yards.

A Body To Bones - Donan Berg novel  Thanks to the shelving of A Body To Bones by Barton Library, El Dorado, Arkansas, and Seminole County Public Library System, Casselberry, FL.