Thursday, March 26, 2015

It's About Conflict

From the New Yorker
I saw this cartoon from the New Yorker and it reminded me of an underlying theme in so many of the panels I attended at the recent Left Coast Crime conference. LCC is more reader-oriented rather than craft-oriented, but even in the panels targeting readers, there were writing tips hidden amongst the panelists’ responses. One repeating theme was conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story, so creating conflict is obviously any author’s challenge.

For example, the first panel I attended was called Couples Solving Crimes, and the second was Guns and Roses: Romantic Elements in Crime Fiction. In the first panel, the couples involved weren’t necessarily working as partners, which one might have expected in a mystery crime panel. Instead, they were often partners off the job, or had jobs that brought them together. But each panelist did mention that having dual protagonists, or a protagonist and a sidekick, was a way to increase the conflicts in the books. You can have conflicts between partners, conflicts of personalities, and conflicts about their jobs.

The second panel was made up of authors whose characters in the books were in romantic relationships, but again, each panelist stressed that having a relationship could add conflict to the stories.

In a third panel, Do the Twist: Keep the Audience Guessing, the topic of conflict again was a major focus. Readers like plot twists. The best endings are completely unexpected but inevitable. A “Why didn’t I see that?” is what an author loves to hear. Twists are obstacles, and obstacles are conflict.

I remember one of my first critique group leaders who, when I’d been writing and submitting chapters of my first book, Finding Sarah, said, “Oh, don’t let anything bad happen to Sarah. I like her.” Needless to say, I left that group in a hurry.

Tension and conflict keep the reader turning pages, and that’s what it’s all about. Character A wants X. What happens if he can’t get it? What happens if he can? There are three routes you can take. One, he gets what he wants, which pretty much ends the conflict. Two, he can’t get what he wants, which will send him in another direction. But the best source of conflict is for the answer to be, "yes, but."  Give the character a choice, and have one be, “It sucks,” and the other, “It’s suckier.” He wants a raise to pay for his mother’s medical expenses. Okay, give it to him. But in order to get the raise, he has to work on weekends, which are the only days he can see his children. What does he choose?

What kinds of conflicts will keep you turning pages? What books have you read (or television shows have you watched) that are more like the cartoon in this post?

And, since I have a new release, there's a giveaway over at my blog good from today until April 1st (no joke), along with a chance for you to do something for a good cause. Hope you'll check it out.


Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

13 comments :

  1. Good conflict keeps me turning pages or >>-ing through comercials. It is overcoming an obstacle only to find another one, finding something but needing some more, trying something that fails and having to try again. Scandal and Revenge are two shows that propel the story that way. Shows, like Castle, usually conclude the episode case solved and everyone happy. I love the show so I will tune into the next "chapter." There is anticipation but no anxiety. You can write your fictional chapters that way if your book is upbeat or lighthearted. If you want ultimate tension, you need "What the heck" cliffhangers. That said, you can't please everyone. Cliffhangers make some readers too anxious.

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    1. I know when I'm reading in bed at night, I'll usually stop mid page, mid chapter, because I know if I continue to the end of the chapter, I'll probably have to keep reading.

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  2. What kinds of conflicts will keep me turning pages?
    That's an easy one, Terry ... it's the latest threat from SPECTRE that my man, James has to nullify. He takes a licking, but keeps on ticking!

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    1. Chris, that's a good point. Even though readers of genre fiction "know" what's going to happen at the end, they'll keep reading to find out how the character overcomes the obstacles. We know James will prevail, or the hero and heroine will fall in love, or the detective will solve the crime, but it's the thrill of the ride that keeps us going.

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  3. I prefer the unexpected, the event/situation I didn't see coming but, upon review, realize the subtle hints were there. Like Diana, I like Castle (maybe because he's a writer), but a teeny bit of boredom comes with knowing how it will end so we can have another episode.

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    1. Very true, Linda (and the topic of another panel at Left Coast Crime!).

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  4. debby turner harrisMarch 26, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    I also love plots that feature unexpected twists and turns. That having been said, engaging characters can sometimes compensate for mediocre plotting. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries fall into this category. These books are great fun to read (and re-read) even when the central mystery is sub-standard.

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    1. Good characters can compensate for a weak plot. For me, the opposite never works. I don't care how great your plot is, if the characters don't engage me, I'm gone.

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    2. I'm with you on the issue of characters, Terry. I have to connect with the character(s) to enjoy the fictional journey with them.

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  5. I like the unexpected too... especially when it's not overly dramatic. When it kind of blindsides the reader with its common-ness. I find myself looking for those kinds of plot turns.

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    1. Sneaking in clues without waving red flags is the author's challenge.

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  6. It was the opening conflict that kept me reading through Hunger Games in the mistaken belief that, since this was YA, and JK Rowling had just successfully and satisfyingly pulled it off, Katniss would get herself out of this situation without having to kill anyone (and I was hooked by the "how on earth is she going to manage that?" conundrum). Genre / age expectation is an important consideration, and an author needs to use caution against being misrepresented and mis-shelved.

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    1. Dare I admit I haven't read Hunger Games? Or Twilight? Or 50 Shades? But you're right. Reader expectation plays a huge role in whether or not someone enjoys a book.

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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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