Thursday, April 1

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, April 01, 2010 6 comments

I use the term "negotiation" the way Sandra Scofield does in The Scene Book. She describes it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart." Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

In an earlier post, I analyzed a negotiation in process to give you an idea of how it looked in practice. Today, let's look more broadly at power play.

How characters relate
Power in relationships can be about hierarchy. Private to sergeant. Novice to expert. Citizen to leader. Subject to king. Within hierarchical relationships, certain rules govern how the more powerful can exert his power. Power plays in these relationships will often revolve around these rules to uphold what is just and good.

Other relationships are based on equity and intimacy--friends, colleagues, partners, lovers. These, too, will at times become out of balance because of something internal or external to the relationship. A lover grows bored. A friend becomes popular and hip. A colleague cheats. A partner gets lazy. One party will often try to take the upper hand and exert power temporarily in order to restore or create balance and intimacy in the relationship.

Somewhere in between are relationships that are both hierarchical and intimate: parent and child, mentor and protege, teacher and student, older and younger sibling. In these relationships, restoring intimacy will at times trump restoring justice, or vice versa.

Keep this in mind as you build character conflict: is the relationship hierarchical, equitable or mixed? It will make all the difference in how the characters will wield power.

How one wields power
The tools of exchange in a negotiation will vary among relationships and temperaments. Some exchanges will use mostly negative tools, others mostly positive. The most compelling exchanges will use a mix of both.

Negative tools
clam up
compare to enemy
exert authority
remind of past failure
twist truth

Positive tools
call in a favor
compare to hero
expose inner self
remind of goal or dream
remind of past triumph
request help

What are your common approaches to conflict? Which type of relationship in conflict do you most enjoy writing? Least enjoy or struggle with?


  1. Excellent post! I'm working with a character right now (in my head yet, only a few notes on paper) who is going to have to deal with a hierarchical type of issue. This a timely post for me. (Must be a good sign!)

  2. Wow, great post! Thanks for sharing and for helping me keep all these things in mind!

  3. Bish: glad it was timely and helpful. In my other post, where I analyze a conversation, it's interesting to see how the less powerful Bilbo uses more negative tools, and the more powerful Gandalf uses mostly positive tools.

    Talli: Thanks. There are probably other ways folks try to get their way in interactions as well. So think of it as a jumping-off point.

  4. Excellent post!!!

    I enjoy writing inner conflicts, I don't mind any of them but watching my MC struggle with a decision only she is capable is are my favorite, it allows you to learn more about them!

  5. It's the manipulator that is the hardest to deal with. He uses strategies from both columns and until you see him for who he truly is and what he's trying to do, you believe his lies. My MC needs to see the truth.

  6. Jen: thanks. I like a good inner conflict too. The outer conflicts--when two complex personalities wrangle--is a much bigger challenge to write, I think.

    Mary: so many negotiations are mixed, but you're so right that manipulation is always a complex use of negative force plus "positive" cajoling.