Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Conflict Is Key

One of the key elements that keep a story moving and keep the reader wanting to flip the pages is conflict. We all know this. Unfortunately, too often, writers get really hung up on this concept. Either there is far too much conflict in the story, or in some cases, the conflict is not strong enough to maintain a pace throughout the book.

I was thinking about this recently as I was reading a submission. The premise of the story I had asked for sounded great. The intial pages of the submission sounded like it might head in the right direction. And then the bottom fell out. The problem was simple. There was simply no conflict that was going to hold the hero and heroine apart. Both characters liked each other from the first moment they saw each other. The "conflict" the reader had put in place was literally fixed by the third chapter. In other words, other than taking some time to "get to know each other" there was nothing that was going to stand in the way of them getting together.

Now, in the case of this story, sure the writing was good. It was great to see these characters hanging out together and this was a nice "feel good story." The problem though was that I kept asking myself why I really was going to be concerned about them on the next page. I knew, by the end of that third chapter that in 20 to 30 years, they would still be living happily ever after. Ugh.

On the reverse side, I do see too often writers creating far too much conflict in a story. First of all, we have internal conflict for both the hero and the heroine. I'm not talking about a little bit here, I am talking a full blown stack of baggage that would put anyone over the edge. To make it worse, their conflicts are in such a direct conflict with each other, the hero and heroine have nothing in common other than a pscychotic mess. Now the reader adds in secondary storylines, and external conflicts for, what they call, "layering". The end result, however, would look like that tangled mess of Christmas lights we fight with each Christmas. And, like those lights, we probably toss the story out because it is too much work to untangle.

The key to good conflict is to keep it simple but to really make it worth something. One or both characters will have to potentially give up something to make the relationship work. The external conflict should be something that doesn't just serve as a roadblock for the relationship, but a challenge that will bring the two together.

So, your homework this week is to trim out that conflict. Find the key elements and push for those. The other "conflict" things you added to the story? Toss those in the attic with those Christmas lights.



  1. Yeah... Easier said than done :) I'm kidding - it's great advice, Scott. It's so hard to be objective about the story (and the conflicts) one is writing. Thanks for the reminder -- off to edit the conflict now.

  2. I love the idea of throwing 'extra' conflict in the attic! I've been spending the last month tearing apart my first manuscript to identify the conflict role in the story. I think I may have crafted a manuscript that is a blend of the two scenarios you describe-guess that's why I think something is missing and I need to rework the story path. You've given me a good perspective on what I should be looking for this month. Thanks Scott!