Friday, October 19, 2012

Conflicting Your Reader

Photo by Brady Tulk, Indy Trendy Skits, Flickr
Draw your reader even more deeply into your story by playing on their own conflicting feelings. How does your reader hope the book will turn out? Think of this plot thread: the protagonist loves two men, but one is perfect for her and the other is obviously using her and will hurt her. For the reader the hope is simple: choose the good guy.

Now change one element: Both men are perfect for her but in completely different ways; both men are good, both men have their flaws, both men love her deeply. Now you’ve created reader conflict – whom should she choose? Whom would the reader choose? In one scene, one of the men reveals something that could hurt the protagonist, and the reader makes a choice: choose the other guy. But then the other love interest makes a mistake, and the heroine (and, along with her, the reader) is back to square one.

Perhaps the protagonist wants the same goal as another character, or reaching the goal will cause harm to that character. Again, if the other character is the villain, the reader’s alliance is simple to form. But, if the reader has almost equal sympathy for the other character in conflict with the protagonist, the pages almost turn themselves. How can they both win? What will the protagonist choose to do? Who will win, and what will happen to the character who doesn’t?

This is not to say you shouldn't write clear-cut plots with a sympathetic protagonist versus a nasty antagonist, but, rather, that adding an element of conflict on either side of the equation might be the missing piece that injects life into your story and gets your reader emotionally invested in your book.

If something seems to be missing from your story, or it seems somehow lifeless, check that you're causing your reader conflict.


Elle Neal is currently on maternity leave, but is volunteering behind the scenes at Blood-Red Pencil, while keeping an ear out for blood-curdling screams from the other side of the house.  She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. Easy choices do tend to be the least interesting.

    Moody Writing

  2. I think this is precisely what makes The Vampires Diaries such an engaging series. Two guys who love the girl, one seemingly good, the other badass but gradually it's revealed that the good guy has a pretty dark past and that the badass is just vulnerable and prone to acting out - love it!

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. Well put, Mooderino.

    Absolutely, Xan. And the longer this type of conflict is drawn out, the more intense it becomes, and the more it hooks the viewer/reader.

  4. Pulling the reader into the story and allowing him or her to walk beside the characters is an effective hook that keeps the pages turning. Fiction, in particular, relies on emotional connections — although a lot on nonfiction taps into the emotional element, too.

    Great reminder, Elle!

  5. Xan—great example. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series with Morelli and Ranger is another. Great key to writing juicy stories that keep the reader engaged, Elle!

  6. Very good explanation of how to add layers of conflict. That was the hardest lesson for me to learn early on in my writing. I thought conflict had to be the obvious, but sometimes it is not. Louise Penny does that well in her mysteries. There is always that subtle undercurrent of things not quite right that keeps me hooked.

  7. I'm not a big fan of most television writing, but I loved the series "The Practice" because its theme was moral ambiguity. How do you choose between what's ethical and legal versus what's morally right? Every show had an impossible decision, a choice between two imperatives.

  8. Conflict is always good. It's what keeps shows like CSI, NCIS, Law & Order hanging on for so many years - there is constant conflict and tension. I know those aren't books, but it's the same idea.

  9. Have to be a little careful though. Nothing as dissatisfying as rooting for one guy to get the girl and having it be the other one.

  10. Hmmm ... good thought ... and, hopefully, it will provide the reader with at least one easy decision ... pick my book!

  11. Choices, changes, challenges. It'll all help to keep the reader reading.

  12. You know who is really good about creating impossible love choices? Julie Goodson Lawes in all her mystery books. The protagonist always has too many really GOOD options when it comes to men. I can't decide which one I like better... ever. It makes me crazy! :D In a good way.

  13. Thanks for all the great examples. Love interest is probably the easiest dynamic in which to add conflict. But you can do this with any character relationship - parent-child springs to mind, too: the child seeks independence; the parent tries to thwart the child's goals out of love and fear.

  14. Mother/daughter - that's a tough one!

  15. Conflict is fun. Let the reader suffer along with the characters!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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