Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fiction Lessons from Diego

My two year-old-son's favorite show is Go Diego Go!. For those of you familiar with Dora the Explorer, Diego is Dora's cousin and he's an animal rescuer. The Diego frenzy has gotten so out of hand that we gave my son's bedroom a Diego theme (see before and after pics here). In watching a multitude of Diego episodes, I've discovered a pattern I can apply to my fiction writing.

To demonstrate, here's a summary of one of my son's favorite episodes:
- Diego is at the rescue center and hears an animal in trouble calling out for help. Diego and his sister, Alicia, figure out that the animal is a chinchilla named Chinta. Chinta is stuck on a tree branch over the water and can't swim.
- Diego heads out to save Chinta and arrives at the waterfall. He has to figure out a way to get down the waterfall in order to reach Chinta.
- Diego uses his rescue pack as a hang glider, and on his way down, the Bobo monkeys are on the same tree as Chinta, causing trouble and scaring Chinta in the process. Diego uses his classic line, "Freeze Bobos", and gets the monkeys to leave.
- Chinta's tree branch starts to break, and Diego swoops down on his hang glider and catches her.
- Once they get to dry ground, Chinta is hungry, finds leaves to eat, and misses her Mami and Papi. Diego promises to take her back to her family.
- They set off but can't find chinchilla mountain. Diego uses his spotting scope to find it.
- Puma comes up behind them and scares Chinta. Diego and Chinta hop over cactus plants to escape.
- They arrive at a dark cave and must go through it if they'll get to the mountain. There are multiple paths in the cave, and Chinta uses her good hearing skills to choose the right path. They make it out of the cave and see the mountain again.
- The mountain is too rocky for them to walk up, so they hop up like chinchillas.
- They reach the top of the mountain and reunite Chinta with her family.

Did you figure out the pattern? With every victory Diego achieves, a new challenge instantly presents itself. The writers of Go Diego Go! have figured out how to harness a toddler's attention (and it works, believe me!). They never let the viewer rest or get too comfortable until the very end.

Sometimes the attention span of adult readers isn't much longer than a toddler's. I've read advice in books and blogs about keeping conflict high in fiction. In Camy Tang's Story Sensei blog, she goes so far as to ask whether you have conflict in every page, or even every paragraph. If we take this advice to heart in our novels, we just might capture and retain the reader's attention from start to finish (and maybe they'll even redecorate their room into the theme of your book). :-)

Do you prefer to read a novel with high conflict or low conflict? Do you find it easy or hard to infiltrate tension into each page of your novel? How do you keep it from feeling contrived?


  1. Sarah: Great post, and a good reminder to all of us. Sometimes it seems natural to avoid conflict in our stories because we try to avoid it in real life.

  2. I've read a lot of manuscripts for publishers and some agents. Even in "low action" stories, there is a LOT of conflict. You have to have internal and external conflicts, otherwise people quit reading. So this is a great post to point out that even simple stories (used with toddlers!) need that tension.

    And even children can see through contrived action and conflict.

    When you read the kind of book you wish to write (genre,) make notes where you see the conflict, where tension is put in. That helps you to be aware of it. The more you read stories where this is done well, the better you can do it, too, is my opinion.

    Great stuff, Sarah, and good questions--even to just ask yourself.

  3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a top-notch example of a story with conflict/tension on every page. I could not put it down, and so far have not met anyone who could. It is such a perfect model that it enabled me to understand the "how" and start infusing tension onto every page in my book.

    I've noticed there are two types of conflict (both good). One is like Diego, where it's episodic--a series of roadblocks that are overcome one by one but are relentless until the story ends. The other is just one roadblock, but it gets higher and wider and more impossible as the story progresses, and is not overcome until the story ends. I like both.

    I lenjoy stories with either high or low tension, as long as it's there. Otherwise, I don't keep reading.

  4. Kenny - I'm one of the biggest conflict-avoiders in real life. Maybe that's why I became a writer...I can make other people squirm, but I know how it turns out in the end. :-)

    Crystal - Thanks for the sharing the great advice! I never thought about making notes about effective tension points while I read.

    Steph - Interesting observation about the two types of conflict. Within the past year, I realized I don't HAVE to finish every book I start, and inevitably the ones that get tossed aside have little to no conflict.

  5. I appreciate conflict in a story--but one that contains it in every paragraph gets to me after a few chapters. I often read for relaxation as well as entertainment. Do we enjoy real people who experience conflict every moment? I don't think so.

    Of course, this depends on the genre of a book and certainly, on the reader. Is there anyone else out there who enjoys a few serene scenes that don't shoot our blood pressures up thirty points?

  6. Rachael - You raise a good point!

    I think Camy's not necessarily saying we should have our reader's blood pressure spiking in every paragraph but there should at least be some sort of underlying angst in the page somewhere. I'm thinking of a romance book where the heroine is enjoying a movie night with her girlfriends, is comfy on the couch, and they talk about how much the hero is driving her crazy...or something along those lines. It's a mental break, but the underlying tension is still there.

    I'm far from a conflict expert, but that's how I interpreted Camy's advice. :-)