Monday, April 19, 2010

Creating Conflict

Every story needs conflict, not just mysteries or thrillers. Romances need conflict, so do Sci-Fi novels, even Humor pieces and Mainstream. Not all of it, in any genre, is physical. Conflict can be psychological, mental, the tug and pull of opposing ideologies, man versus nature, man versus woman, man versus animal, man ... boy, man is contrary, isn't he?

As you write, and especially as you re-write, you need to be aware of the conflict in your story. Rarely do authors have to lessen the conflict. Usually, the problem is revving it up.

As you work on your story, here are some things to keep in mind:

As much as possible, keep the action on stage. As readers, we don't want to be told what happened. We want to see it occur. Whether that conflict is a physical fight, an argument, a debate, sexual tension, or whatever, let us live it along with the characters. Maybe it's hard for you to write about the subject or maybe it's difficult to get the dialogue right ... all the more reason for you to put it on stage.

As the story progresses, the problems facing the characters, especially the protagonist, should get tougher and tougher to solve. The tension should wind tighter. The conflict should become more important. Obviously, some problems will be resolved along the way, but don't be too quick to get your protagonist out of trouble. Just when he or she gets out of one situation and takes a deep breath, put them in another.

To do this, look at each scene and ask yourself, what could go wrong here? What is the worst thing that could happen? What would this character NOT want to happen? Then do it. Put your character in an even worse situation. Give him a conflict that he didn't expect. And when he maneuvers his way out of it, do it again, each time upping the stakes.

Go through your novel. Make sure every scene has conflict. One way to manage this is to look at each character as an individual, with his or her own story. No matter what the situation, no two people want the same thing. Whether the conflict is overt or hidden, it's there. Each character has an agenda, a backstory that affects the way they talk and think and react.

Your novel will also contain more conflict than just what is going on between the protagonist and antagonist. Layer the conflict. Doing that will make your secondary characters more interesting. It will enrich your story, give it depth.

Make your story more of a "big" book than just a one-dimensional plot. Build up, spread out, intensify the conflict. Just because your book is Mainstream, don't think it doesn't need or have conflict. Life would be pretty dull without conflict. And life is what you're writing about.

Do you try to keep your characters on a roller coaster ride? Do you take your readers along on the ride?
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  1. Very good, Helen. I'll bookmark this post for later ... >:)

  2. Great points here, Helen! I've tweeted this.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Excellent points. Somthing I will definitely keep in mind for my re-writes.

    Brain Droppings

  4. Lots of conflict advice today! Good stuff, Helen.

  5. A real keeper! Marked this one for reference. Thanks, Helen.

    Giggles and Guns

  6. Without that conflict the story would be dull. Great points.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Y'all are too agreeable. Where's the conflict? (Kidding!)

  8. Wow! I can't add any conflict to this either... ;)

    Excellent advice. I'm printing it out for myself now as a reminder.

  9. Great advice, and thanks for sharing, Helen!

    I try to have some internal conflict as well as exterior for the pov character, and opposing wants such as 'I should do this, but I want to do that' which can result in half-hearted efforts and difficulty reaching a goal.

    I think that for me, having a main character who knows what she should do and yet doesn't really totally buy into it is a great device. (Especially when it's regarding the villian, or attraction to bad boys.)

  10. Your post is a timely reminder for me as I’m in the middle of an edit of my second book.

    I tried to keep my characters’ life full of conflict in my first book. The cover even has a picture of a roller coaster on it, which relates to the story in a couple of different ways.

  11. Wonderful reminders, Helen. It's so important to have the conflict happen -not just talked about. Not particularly easy to write, however!

  12. "No." Gayle's neck and cheeks reddened in anger. "I'm not creating conflict, Helen. It's just not my style."

    "Listen, Chiquita." The editor's voice stayed low and calm. "If you want that manuscript to sell, those characters have to DO something, not just sit around talking about burritos."

    "But the name of the book is 'Let's All Talk About Burritos'. What don't you get about that?"

    Helen sighed. "Yes, but you need action. Can't your characters actually make a burrito, and fight about the ingredients?"

    "Maybe you're not the editor for this book." Gayle's eyes narrowed. "You don't seem to recognize literary genius at work."

    "I know genius when I see it, and this isn't it." Helen pulled a small-caliber handgun out of her purse. "I'm sorry, Gayle, but I can't let this manuscript be published. The book world might never recover from the flatness of the writing."

    She tossed the 1,000-page manuscript onto the fire as she stepped over Gayle's body.

    "It's all about the conflict, honey - even burritos are spicy."

  13. I wrote a lot about what my character didn't want to happen!

  14. I had a comment, but Gayle's cracked me up so much I forgot what I was going to say!

    Thanks for the great post, Helen. I'm glad I read it this morning.

    =) Wendy

  15. Karen, I hope your file on me is nicer than the FBI's.

    Writtenwyrdd, a character doing what s/he wants instead of what they should is more like real life, isn't it?

    I think conflict keeps a story fresh, Jane.

    Elspeth, if writing were easy, everyone would do it. Oh, wait, just about everyone does. Make that: if writing well were easy...

    Gayle, I'd write another chapter to your story, but I'm laughing too hard!

  16. This is great, Helen! I have looming rewrites, and I think this is fabulous advice to do the best job I can shaping my novels up.

  17. This is the BEST post!

    I read it, and now I'm going back to read it again. So may points to remember.


  18. WateryTart and Carol, I've found that sometimes I have to step outside my comfort zone and push myself to up the conflict. But it always seems to make the manuscript better.

  19. This came at just the right time for me Helen. I'm doing some work on conflict. I like what you mention:

    "As much as possible, keep the action on stage. As readers, we don't want to be told what happened. We want to see it occur...let us live it along with the characters."

    Something I have to remind myself of constantly as I'm writing. It comes easier now, but still work in progress. :-)

  20. We always have to remind ourselves, Sia, that we can't take the easy way out when it comes to writing.

  21. Like you, Helen, I sometimes have a hard time with conflict and have to remind myself to ratchet it up for the characters. Thanks for the great tips.

    And Gayle, I loved your short story. What a hoot.

  22. Great post, Helen. I printed this one for my writing folder. :-)

  23. Glad to see I'm not the only one with a writing folder!

  24. Excellent post, Helen.

    Worthy of a gold star in Google Reader, I feel :)

  25. Why, thank you, Wendy! Don't actually know what that means, a gold star in Google Reader, but I like gold, stars and Google and I'm a reader, so I like it.

  26. I'm just starting a new project. This advice is perfect. Thanks, Helen!

  27. Like the new banner, Helen! It's spring in Texas now? Conflict, my new friend. I haven't considered it when I first started writing but now I know I have to.

    Bargain with the Devil


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