Monday, February 2, 2015

Conflict Vs. Complication: Raise the stakes!

I have been seeing a lot of this lately in submissions. Authors are confusing the idea of conflict vs.
complication. I am constantly asking myself, "so why don't they fix it?' or "so why aren't they together?" Instead, the author goes on and on, making up excuse after excuse to keep the story going but there still is no real conflict.

Let's start with the basics. A complication, which is the one we see the most of in stories, is simply a bump in the road. It's easy to see a complication with real life issues. 
  • You are driving down the road and a road crew has a flagger stopping traffic to allow that digger to move dirt.
  • You need to bake cookies and realize you need an egg or two.
  • You are getting ready to set the table for Thanksgiving dinner and realize you forgot to turn on the dishwasher so you have no clean dishes.
These are complications. These are issues that have an easy solution. Each one simply requires you to do something different, or to take one additional step to fix the problem. With the flagger, you wait an additional 1-2 minutes; with the cookies, you run to the store, or even easier, run next door; with the dishwasher, you go "old school" and wash what you need. See? Easy fixes.

When it comes to stories, I am seeing the exact same thing. Authors are going on for pages and pages making a big deal out of something that could have been easily fixed. When you have the heroine worrying about getting the paperwork filed to open up her cupcake store - solution, fill the stupid stuff out and turn it in; when the hero and heroine want to get together but are worried what the other person might think - solution, they talk. Again, these are all easy complications.

I recently read a story where I spent the first part of the book wondering just why this relationship didn't happen. The heroine had been engaged to one guy for several years (they planned on it in their early days of college), but now that guy is away on business, and keeps saying, we will get together eventually after, after, after.... She really has fallen out of love with him a while ago and doesn't really ever think they will get married. She wants out. The hero, who happens to be the best friend of the jerk fiance has always liked and probably loved the heroine but never did anything about it. When the heroine wants to break up with the fiance, the hero spends the time trying to convince her not to. Of course she realizes that she has always liked him. Solution is easy, but nooooo, the author tries for 2/3 of a 100,000 word book to make this a conflict.

This book simply drags because there is no conflict. Everyone wants the same thing but the author doesn't want them to have their solution because she has a 100,000 word count to make for her editor and the book could have been finished in easily 50,000-60,000 words:
  • Heroine says she wants out of engagement.
  • Jerk hero is fine with it since he has been fine with it for some time.
  • Hero uses this as an "in" to the girl he likes.
  • Heroine already liked the hero.
  • And they lived happily ever after.
A conflict, however has a lot more at stake. The characters will be faced with a solution that is not that easy to make. The stakes are so high that there is a chance someone will have to lose out on something, and that something will be much more than a sense of pride. 

Let's say that we have a hero and heroine who are both in the corporate world. Their jobs might be in the same general profession but nothing has really stood in the way of each getting what they want as well as having a relationship. But now one of the two has a chance for a job that is what he or she had always been dreaming of. This is money, prestige, advancement and everything. The issue is that it will be with a rival company with a no fraternization policy.
  • Take the job and the relationship has to end.
  • Take the job and the other person has to quit his or her job.
  • Keep the relationship and turn down the work 
This is not something that can easily be fixed. This is a conflict. In this case, it is an external conflict but it does stand in the way of the characters moving ahead with what they want to achieve - their GOALS. 

When an author works with a real conflict in the story, the readers now have an invested interest in the characters and the plot. They want the two of them together and are now working hard to find the solution to the problem WITH the characters. The readers keep turning the pages wanting to know how the character will really get out of this mess.

There is one word of warning here. If you make the conflict so hard to overcome, and your only solution is to bring in an "act of God" to fix the problem, your readers will be very disappointed in you. They want the characters to figure their way out of the mess, and they don't want that "surprise" solution to just pop out of thin air. An example of this would be a family who is about to lose their home due to finances but mysteriously, a distant relative in another country, who they didn't know about, dies and the one of the characters is the only relative left so the 5.5 billion dollars is now their money. Um, yeah, right! That's believable.  Keep your solutions on planet Earth. Make the conflicts tough and make the characters fight for it, but make the conflicts real. 

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