Sometimes Conflict is a Good Thing


Most people do not like conflict in their lives. Others thrive on conflict. Those who don’t like conflict call the others “drama queens”. Those who love conflict, think the other people lead boring lives.  Who is right? If you’re a fiction writer – romance, suspense, etc., then having conflict is necessary. If you do not have good conflict then the reader will put your book aside or worse yet – discard your book in a garage sale or give it away. We don’t want that. You want to write a book your reader will read so many times, the binding is falling apart and the corners are so badly dog-eared it’s hard to find your real spot. We all have those favorite books – the ones you kept on your bookshelf because you read it every year. It’s the same book you go to for help when you’re writing your own book because the conflict was so intense; you pick up different information every time. Passages are highlighted and you have post-its sticking out from odd angles. The question remains – how to do you create conflict in your story so intense your reader cannot put down your book?

Layers.

What do I mean by layers? Think of a cake – it only has two layers and is pretty simple. You have your top layer, the one everyone sees when you carry the cake into the room, and then there is the middle – the surprise if you put something interesting in it like cherries or peaches, and then the bottom layer.  Sometimes the bottom layer is so much like the top layer it doesn’t really surprise you at all.  Imagine if you changed the layer. If your cake was chocolate, you made the bottom layer while marble with red swirls, then everyone would be surprised and probably a bit intrigued why you made it so different.

If you are a writer, the reader can see the top layer of your characters and what motivates them to action, but if you want to intrigue them, you need to mix it up. You have to change what you think should happen and make something happen which will make your character extremely uncomfortable. This is conflict. 

There are many kinds of conflict but keep in mind you need an external conflict and an internal conflict to make the characters three dimensional. For example, it’s not enough to strand your hero on the top of a cliff, but put him up there with an sudden case of vertigo, a rattlesnake only two feet away, and having to choose between capturing a most sought-after object or letting go and saving the woman he loves makes your reader sit on the edge of his seat. Add in this is the only chance he’ll get to avenge his parent’s death and you can see what I mean. Each element heightens the tension and adds more conflict to your story. It becomes a balancing act. Then make your character do exactly opposite what everyone expects him to do.

Authors who write suspense are great at this. They manage to keep the reader on the edge of their seat throughout the story. You never know which way the story will really go and just when you think you have it all figured out, the writer throws in a twist that makes you want to fling the book across the room. And yet, in the end, you cannot imagine the story without that twist.  That’s great conflict and suspense all rolled into one.

So how do you know if your story has enough conflict to sustain it for 250 pages, 300 pages, or even 400 pages? The answer is in the layers again. You need to make complex characters that are not clean-cut. If you want paper doll figures that do exactly what you want, then your story will not be bought. It will be just as two-dimensional a the paper doll figures. Worse, if your story is bought, if the conflict is too watered down or bland, the reader will not even go past the first chapter.  The sales of your book don't pick up and your editor decides not to purchase any more books.

You need to hit your reader with the conflict from the very beginning if you want them to buy into your character and see what happens to them. If you open your scene with the heroine searching for clues to her parent’s murder, you need to place her in a dangerous situation so she can make a choice that will be in direct conflict with her goal. This choice not only will take her further away from her goal, but it will make her think about this goal in a new way. Does she really want to find this murderer? Will finding the murderer help her feel any better? Hell yes!

Okay, so now you’ve decided the heroine has to keep pursuing her goal. She has no choice. She is driven by this desire for revenge so intensely that it will color everything else she does in her life. She cannot make a single decision if it affects the outcome she seeks. If she finds a clue to a secret chest, she now has to find the key, but it cannot be so easy as stumbling across it. NO, she has to come against some bulwark – something that will impede her progress to such an extent that she will need to make a different decision. Will she go around, under, or through the bulwark.  Okay, so now make her do just the opposite of what she wants or needs to do.  If she wants to go around it, force her to take the more dangerous route – over it. You have now ratcheted up the tension ten-fold.

How do you turn your layer cake into an onion (and I don’t mean a stinky onion)? Add in the opposing character’s conflict – make it oppositional to the main hero or heroine and twist this person into hundreds of knots as well. Are you getting the idea now?

Last – if you’re writing a suspense or even a romance – there’s always a third party – a protagonist.  And you got it – they have conflict as well.  Not only do they have conflict – but their conflict is in direct opposition to the hero/heroine.  Once you throw this person into the mix you have a completely twisted story that will keep your reader riveted.  Now if you’re not sure how to do this – diagram it. 

Now you really think I’m crazy. I can already hear your groans of discontent. Think of your diagram as three interlocking roller coasters – they are dipping and diving in many directions, keeping the rider holding on for dear life. In the end, all three roller coasters have to head in the same direction – a direction that looks like they will collide and everything will explode.  But somehow it magically works out and our hero and heroine survive, the protagonist is destroyed, and the reader goes home with a satisfying feeling in his/her belly. Remember that with any good roller coaster, there will be times when the three parties will look like they will almost collide. But in the end, some twist will arise to turn things completely upside down and on its side, and that’s when you’ll slip in another clue that leads everyone toward the end goal.

Before we had computers, we wrote out books out in notebooks and piles of loose leaf paper. We drew diagrams and used index cards to plot and move things around to our satisfaction.  Now there are programs to help us do this.  Unfortunately, for those of us who are not computer literate, this can be a daunting task. How do I write down what I want and plug it into the computer when I can just take a piece of paper and draw it?  Do whatever works for you.  Once you have that diagram and you know where you want it to go, then post it up in front of you so you never forget to heighten the tension.

What do you do if you are a "seat of the pants" writer?  Just draw in the part of the roller coaster you know.  Draw each character's dips and turns.  Add to it as you go along.  When your roller coaster looks like it's boring and nothing is happening, add a steep climb and a quick drop - making one of the characters collide with another's course.  There!  You have conflict.  Then when it comes time to write your synopsis - it will be easy breezy lemon squeezy!!!

Good luck.


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