Thursday, June 21, 2018

Conflict

Peter de Vries, novelist and satirist, said, "Every novel should have a beginning, a muddle, and an end." The muddle is the conflict. It’s what drives the plot and turns a recitation of facts into a story.

Conflict arises when forces or desires are in opposition. It can be man against man, man against nature, man against himself, or man against God, with all kinds of variations. The purpose of fiction is to arouse the reader’s emotions. This requires conflict. The reader must care. Put a character the reader likes or cares about in a bad situation and it will create interest. The great writers know this. Elmore Leonard said, “Aim for the heart.” William Faulkner (Nobel prize acceptance speech) said, “The only thing worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat, is the heart in conflict with itself.”

Conflict may also be called the problem, thwarted desire, opposition, or similar names. Without it, the story will be boring. Without conflict, there is no story.



Conflict requires three things:

• Dissatisfaction (with the status quo)

• Desire/Aspiration (must want something badly/aspire to something, such escaping an intolerable situation, finding the truth, clearing a loved one's name, saving a life)

• Choice (every character must be faced with a choice)

The major conflict is the big, overriding problem that isn’t solved until the last possible minute in the story, but there are smaller ones to be solved along the way. Depending on the length of the story, there may be one or many. Avoid solving even the minor conflicts until another one is introduced—a sort of leapfrog effect. This creates the cliffhanger at the end of the chapter.

Every scene should have a purpose. The reader may not be consciously aware of the purpose, but she will be interested in seeing what happens if the character has a problem to resolve. The main character in the scene should want or need to accomplish something. It can be as subtle as receiving (but not opening) a mysterious envelope, or it can be heart-pounding dramatic action, such as trying to elude a psychotic killer. Throw in obstacles. Before a conflict is resolved in the scene, another problem should surface.

If the story sags, add more conflict. Think what the reader or main character would most like to happen; then take it away or deny it.



Strong conflict is based on strong motivation. Why does your character react in a certain way? Whatever it is, the motivation has to be worthy of the struggle. Would your protagonist rob a friend because she wants new shoes? What if her child was being held by a madman?

Before beginning the story, plan the conflicts and give the characters strong motivations. If the motivations are weak, it’s much harder to maintain the conflict in a believable manner. If the conflict drags, introduce a new problem—a car wreck on the way to the hospital, mustard on the shirt just before the big event. Determine what the reader wants most, and then take it away; give the opposing character or force the means to prevent it from happening.

Without conflict, there is no suspense. Suspense, according to Sol Stein in Stein on Writing (one of my favorite books), is achieved by arousing the reader's curiosity and keeping it aroused as long as possible. Keeping it aroused means not relieving the suspense by telling what happens until the last possible minute. Don't give the outcome away before it happens. Keep the conflict alive.

Ellis Vidler dreams in Technicolor of characters in fraught situations. She studied English and art and now does her own covers, sometimes before the book is written. A former editor and fiction teacher, Ellis now directs most of her effort to writing, where she aims for action, adventure, and heart. The McGuire women series features members of a family with a psychic streak. In the Maleantes & More series, a team of security consultants tackle a range of cases. Her short stories are southern fiction. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and her website is EllisVidler.net.

17 comments :

  1. Great post, Ellis. I try to think of all that when I write my suspense novels. What's the worst thing that could happen? A lull? Hit the reader with something unexpected. I can't remember which author said that when things get slow, have someone with a gun make an appearance. That works for me.

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    1. The advice I get is blow something up or kill someone. :-) But really, anything your character does not want to happen works, and even better, if it's something that helps the villain. But it should relate to the story and have some impact on the plot.

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  2. Because I write literary rather than genre stories, I have found the guidelines to be somewhat different. Conflict always (for me) drives the action. The difference, at least in my current story, is a major climax followed by a number of lesser but vital ones that resolve other conflicts for the characters and the reader. Reordering their sequence doesn't work because most of the secondary ones hinge on the first. Not addressing these leaves the reader wondering what happened in the lives of some characters they grew to care about. This is an excellent post, Ellis, definitely a keeper.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. That is different, almost reversed. I hadn't thought of it that weay. But even in crime/commercial fiction, we need to resolve the conflicts and tie up the loose ends. We hope we've created characters the read cares about and wants to see what happens to them. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. All good advice. The phrase "every scene should contain conflict" sent me on a journey of discovery that led to my nonfiction series: Story Building Blocks where I explore these topics.

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    1. I have to check and recheck my scenes. Sometimes it's difficult to get conflict into every one. And it can be a subtle thing too. But I know it helps keep the story moving, and I try. Thanks, Diana.

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  4. Ugh. Please excuse my typos. I just thought to enlarge the screen and spotted several. I had eye surgery yesterday and things are still a little blurry.

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    1. Take care, Ellis. Our eyes are so precious to us as readers and writers.

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    2. Thanks, Linda. I'm following orders and doing well. :-)

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    3. Ellis, I, too, have vision issues and too often spot errors after I've pushed "publish" on a blog post or push a FB message. Sigh... nobody's perfect.

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    4. I believe the publish button highlights them. They seem to stand out after that. :-)

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  5. Welcome to The Blood-Red Pencil, Ellis. This is a terrific reminder of what we need to add to our stories. I especially like your suggestion to leap-frog the conflict minor plot issues. Had not ever thought of that.

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    1. Sometimes I reread an especially good book, and once I know what's going to happen, I can see details. I like to look for those conflicts and cliffhangers. It's interesting then, but when I'm involved in the story, I don't see them. It's a good way to learn.

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  6. This is a great refresher post, one I’m keeping! And I want to go find that book you mentioned. Hope the cataract surgery went well, now for all the drops!

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    1. Thanks, Leslie Ann. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein is still available. Every so often, I need a refresher course, and it's one of my favorites.

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  7. The novel I'm working on right now has more conflict than a cat has whiskers. It's my favorite part of writing. Great post, Ellis!

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    1. For me, it's sometimes difficult to keep bringing in conflict, so good for you! Dead Wrong is in my TBR stack. It sounds exciting.

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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.