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Abandonment as Conflict

When someone we care about goes missing, there is conflict. It could be a mysterious disappearance, a runaway, a kidnapping, or a death.

A parent that abandons a child, or dies, leaves a psychological wound that influences the child’s entire life. A parent who simply disappears creates an anxiety-riddled need to understand why and how. The child often blames himself. Send a character on a journey to find out why and you have a story problem.

Abandonment wounds can lower Jane's self-esteem. It can color how she interacts with the world. It can make her more sensitive to someone’s absence. A child whose parent is absent or abandons them can become clingy. It can make Jane a suffocating friend or lover. It can make Sally an overprotective parent. It could make Dick assume that everyone leaves so why try to connect? On the flip side, it can inspire Jane to be a better parent, friend, or lover to compensate for what she didn't have.

Abandonment strikes a person all the way to the core. It is a trigger that, even if dealt with, remains. It doesn't take much to set it off. If Jane's father abandoned her, she won't be able to view fathers and daughters on television or out in the park without feeling a twinge of loss. Jane might be jealous of a step-sibling who has a father but doesn't appreciate it. She might be jealous of a friend's relationship with their father. In a thriller or paranormal tale, it can inspire Jane to usurp the friend's place. Jane may avoid relationships because she can't handle the possibility of being left again. She may avoid having children. Her husband or boyfriend might not understand. Mother hunger works the same way.

What if Jane found the parent that gave her away only to learn the parent was a serial killer? It would make a terrific suspense thriller. Jane could find out that the parent was simply an ordinary broken person who lacked the ability to love another in a healthy way and she was better off without the parent. This would make a touching literary tale with a down ending.

If Jane disappears, Dick will take steps to find her and won’t keep hoping or trying until he is successful. Dick will go to any lengths to regain someone he has lost. It can be a friend, lover, child or parent. The more personal the connection, the higher the stakes become. Each layer of separation from the protagonist and the stakes become diluted, unless the person they have to find can save the world. Add a ticking clock and you are at thriller level. The obstacles are in trying to get them back.

Getting them back can create new conflicts. Dick can get Jane back and it all ends happily. He can get Jane back and find she has changed. Dick can find out Jane didn’t want to be found. You can twist this plot in many ways in every genre.

Attempting to locate someone who has died makes a great overall story problem in a Horror or Paranormal Fantasy novel. It can also be used at scene level. If Jane needs to talk to someone and can’t find them, she will be unable to achieve her scene goal. If someone disappears in the middle of a scene, she has conflict. She is either forced to give up the scene goal to look for them or muddle on without them.

If a Jane takes her child into a store and the child decides to play hide and seek, Jane has conflict. If she is trying to overcome a scene obstacle, little Sally's stunt will make Jane's goal that much harder to overcome. If little Sally has been snatched by kidnappers, Jane has an overall story problem.

You could argue the thematic statement that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The flip side is to argue that it doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes you realize you don’t really need or want the person after all.

What if Dick chased the one that got away only to find out he didn't like them? That would make a fun romantic plot, providing the right girl was there all along. Dick could pine for an old girlfriend, see her in passing and realize she isn’t as attractive as he remembered, or that she is now a centerfold model. This could be used in a literary tale about a marriage gone stale.

At scene level, an inspector can locate a suspect and realize the suspect is innocent. He must abandon theory one and investigate theory two. The inspector can be haunted by a partner that left without explanation. He can be haunted by a missing person case he did not solve.

In any genre, Dick can be abandoned by someone in a crowded park or building or left on planet Zircon to solve the situation by himself. It will frustrate, if not panic, him.

You can play abandonment in a different way. If extroverted Dick takes introverted Jane to a party and goes off to talk to other people all night, Jane will feel abandoned. She might get mad. She might leave. She might hold it against him for a really long time. The next time he asks her for something, she will refuse. She might deliver verbal zingers until he finally asks why she is being so mean.

If Dick and Jane fly to Africa for a safari and Dick disappears, Jane has a massive problem. She has to find Dick or face the possibility of returning to America without him. Finding someone in a foreign country is a difficult thing to do, particularly when their laws, society, and language are foreign to you.

Abandonment is a terrific theme and overall story problem. It adds poignancy to a love story or motivates a character at scene level. Being alone, even in a crowd, is a universal fear that everyone can tap into.

For more about using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.

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