Last week, I shared five things I’ve learned over the years about creating fictional characters . I decided to continue in that vein today, this time talking about conflict. I’ve spent the past 24 years or so teaching classes and conducting workshops on writing, and I don’t mind telling you that when I had an Aha! moment with conflict–when the concept finally clicked together and made sense–it was one of the most profound moments of my writing career.
Lesson #1: Conflict does not equal bickering. I know, I know, for some of you this is a no-brainer. Some writers get that instinctively, and some don’t. I think it depends on our individual personalities, backgrounds, and life experience. If this isn’t something that’s clicked for you, consider it now. Two people can be in deep conflict without ever having an argument. They might discuss. They might even disagree aloud, but they don’t have to argue, slam doors, stomp out of the room, and think “it’s over” every time they discuss the subject. The reverse is also true: constant bickering and “playful” banter between two characters does not necessarily create conflict in your novel. Usually it just creates irritation in your readers.
Lesson #2: Internal conflict must be more than just a bad situation. It took me a while to fully understand this, but when I did, it was a powerful thing. In more than two decades of working with other writers, I’ve realized that I’m not the only writer who didn’t instinctively understand that for conflict to be conflict, there must be two equally strong forces at work within the character. A romance heroine who had a bad previous relationship and who has sworn of men is not in conflict. She might be bitter. She might be hurting. But she’s not in conflict. She’s still not on conflict when she meets the hunky hero, no matter how hot he is, no matter how amazing he looks in his Wranglers or his tailored suit. For her to experience internal conflict, she must be both hurt by her previous situation, but also longing on some deep level for a relationship. She must be terrified of exposing herself to hurt again while, at the same time, longing to be part of an “Us.” Without two equally strong things at work, you may have a situation that motivates some of her actions, but you don’t have internal conflict.
Lesson 3: Conflict that works in a story is conflict that is always at work in a story. Anticipated complications (“Oooh, the boss is going to be so angry when I get to work late,” or “How am I ever going to tell my mother that I wrecked her car?”) isn’t conflict, especially when it’s left at the door as the character walks on-stage. If the scene progresses without the conflict being front and center, you’re probably writing a scene that’s going nowhere or slows the pacing of your novel. If you’re writing about two characters with conflicting goals or conflicting ideas, the conflict needs to be on-stage with them, pushing and pulling the whole time the scene is playing out. Sometimes this requires you to find subtle ways to show the conflict, especially in the non-POV character. Characters don’t have to speak aloud everything they thing. Body language can convey a lot.
Lesson 4: Conflict is one of the most important parts of the story for your readers. In fact, it’s one of the most important parts of any story, whether on stage, on the small screen, or the big screen. If you don’t believe me, ask a friend to recap one of their favorite movies for you–one they really liked. Chances are, the two things they concentrate most are the conflict and the disasters for each scene they summarize, occasionally going back to the goal if the character’s goal changes. What makes the story exciting are all the things that get in the way of the character’s attempts to reach their big goal (what I like to think of as their book goal.) But remember that conflict restated too many times becomes boring. That’s why it’s not enough to have just one big conflict in your book. To really carry a work of fiction from beginning to end, you need to remember that several conflicts will pop up to thwart the characters.
Lesson 5: If the solution to any conflict is easy enough for me to figure it out while I’m sitting in my easy chair, thinking about the story, it’s probably not a strong enough conflict to carry the book more than a few pages. It’s sad, but true–at least for me. While I do like to plot my story out in advance organically (and very vaguely), I have learned that if I know exactly how I’m going to resolve the main conflict before I get started, I run the risk of making it too small to be convincing as I write. The conflicts that have worked the best in my books over the years are those that have me stumped and leave me wondering how I’m ever going to get those two characters together, or get the protagonist out of this situation, or, for heaven’s sake, figure out who committed the murder. If this happens to you, don’t despair. You are not alone, and nothing is broken. But do resist the urge to go back and shave off the edges to make it easier for you to resolve. It may take extra effort to work through a sticky conflict, but it will be worth that effort in the long run.