Jilly: Creating Conflict

I may be a newbie writer, but I’ve spent many years’ worth of lunch breaks lurking around author websites like Jenny Crusie’s Argh Ink, hoovering up discussions about writing craft. You can’t do that without reading a lot about conflict, so when I sat down to write a story of my own, I knew conflict was important. I thought I had it covered, because for some crazy reason I had the impression that conflict was something a writer mixed into her story to make it interesting and tasty, like nuts and chunks of chocolate in a brownie.

I misunderstood, as I discovered when my first draft turned out to be a series of not-too-bad-at-all scenes connected by saggy bits and flat spots. The middle was one big, boring saggy bit. Luckily we talked about conflict and escalating tension extensively in class, took apart our favorite books and discussed our WIPs until finally I got the idea. Conflict isn’t some kind of extra you add to zhuzz up a story, it’s the basic mixture. If you get it right, it’s so irresistible it can make a reader wolf the whole book in one sitting and ask for more.

I’m revising my WIP now, and I’m going back to basics, in the form of two simple rules:

1 Story is character in conflict.

2 The story starts when the conflict starts and ends when it ends.

Conflict isn’t trouble, and it doesn’t have to involve arguments or physical fighting. Conflict arises when two characters each pursue a vital goal, and those goals are mutually exclusive. It could be two men who both want to find a sacred artefact (Raiders of the Lost Ark) or a young dance champion who wants to create new steps pitted against a bastion of the establishment who’ll crush any attempt at innovation (Strictly Ballroom). It doesn’t matter what’s at stake, as long as neither party can walk away, so the characters become locked in an escalating battle that can only have one winner.

Right now my heroine, Rose, has it much too easy. She suffers a few setbacks, but she doesn’t have to fight tooth and nail for her happy ending, so we never find out what she’s made of when the chips are down. Similarly, my hero, Ian, needs to feel a lot more pressure. At the moment his biggest problem is that he has to see beyond a role he’s created for himself. That’s important, but he could have a light-bulb moment one day, and the story would be over. I have to make the consequences for him much more severe, so that the hard choices he makes will reveal who he really is.

That’s my challenge for the next weeks and months. What’s yours?

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Creating Conflict

  1. I got conflict coming out of my ears. Although some may beg to differ (-:. My big challenge is conveying information without infodumping it. I just re-read my first 30 pages yesterday, and was aghast. Dump-dump-dumpety-dump. Big, squishy, uninteresting plops of infodump. There’s a sweet little pony of a story in here somewhere, I just know there is. I could see it peeping out from behind a big pile of infodump . . . .

    • Recognizing you have a problem is the first step…I just find it amazing that I CAN see the problems in my WIP now. The trick is translating the story we see in our heads to the page.

      • I agree, Kat, it’s amazing and wonderful to me too. I may have a long list of problems, but at least now I know what they are and what I want to do about them.

      • Here, here! I read through my story a week ago and was amazed at all the problems I could identify! It’s a bit like being an alcoholic…the first step is recognizing you have a problem.

    • I remember your opening scene as being action-packed, not infodumpy, Michaeline, and definitely not short of conflict.
      At least infodump is relatively easy to deal with – all you need is a large shovel, plenty of time, and a nice hot bath when you’re done 🙂

  2. My challenge is to strengthen Cheyenne’s goal and put her in action more. The men in my story (Reed & Hawk) are both action-oriented and Hawk (the antagonist) has a strong motivation to get the house. So strong, in fact, that unless Cheyenne’s need for it outstrips his will, she won’t stick around for what he has planned.

    So unlike Jilly’s Rose, my Cheyenne has things tough, but her goal and motivation (right now) isn’t strong enough to make her determination to stick this nightmare out, believable.

  3. I love the fact that Reed and Hawk are both such strong characters, Kat. They’re going to push Cheyenne right out of her comfort zone, and to win the day she’s going to have to become one kick-ass heroine. Yay!

  4. So funny that I was just talking with my dad about all of this stuff today. Conflict is the heart of the story. Without it, you just have a bunch of scenes (that was my revelation last year). I have good conflict in the first act of my book, but I’m a little nervous about what’s going to happen in Act 2 and 3 (mostly because I really don’t know what’s going to happen in Act 2 and 3). I guess that’s what the next workshops will help me figure out!

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Conflict Conundrum – Eight Ladies Writing

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