Justine: Conflict. Wait…What?

Trouble is coming. Or is it conflict? Image (c) 1950 Disney Animation Studios.

Trouble is coming. Or is it conflict?
Image (c) 1950 Disney Animation Studios.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week reading through the second half of Three Proposals (and highlighting á la Margie Lawson’s EDITS). I’m amazed at how crappy it all is. I mean it! I might have done some good, award-winning work on the front end, but the back end is just that…a back end. Mind you, I finished that draft nearly two years ago (??seriously??), but good grief…apparently I hadn’t yet learned the lesson about “sittin’ and thinkin’” or “conversation for conversation’s sake.”

I certainly didn’t know about conflict. Well, maybe in theory, but not in practice. There are several scenes I’ve written where I have to look HARD to find it, and in many instances, it’s not there. What is there is trouble, but that’s not the same thing.

Now, the good thing about that is it means there are plenty of scenes I can cut. And not just part of it. I mean the whole darn thing (which is fantastic, because I have to get my word count down).

The bad part is that if I really want to make my story agent-and-editor-worthy, I have some serious clean-up to do on the latter half of my book.

In the meantime, as a lesson to the rest of you (and a reminder to myself), here’s a little bit about conflict…what it is, and certainly what it is not.

Before discussing what conflict is and isn’t, it’s important to know the two ingredients required for conflict: goals and motivations. What does each character want? Why? Your characters’ pursuit of their goals will drive the conflict.

So, what is conflict?

It’s when one character’s actions to achieve their goals interferes with another character’s actions to achieve theirs.

Here’s what it isn’t:

An argument or some such discussion that could be resolved if the two characters stopped being so obtuse.

I’ve read plenty of books where two characters go in circles about some stupid and inane topic simply because one of them isn’t cutting off the other with, “Wait, stop. This is silly. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: _____. What is it that you’re saying?”

Conflict should also not be confused with trouble. Trouble is when something happens to your character that wasn’t done by your antagonist. Cinderella getting a tear in her dress is trouble. But her stepmother slashing her dress so she can’t go to the ball? That’s conflict.

Sometimes the conflict comes from two directions. For example, Susannah has conflict with both her uncle and Nate, the man investigating her uncle for treason. Both men take actions that prevent her from achieving her goal, and she must take action against both of them to achieve hers.

Another thing to know about conflict: it can’t be against something that can’t fight back, like time (although time can be a constraint on conflict), or a thing/situation (such as not having a fairy godmother). It has to be against something that can respond in kind. Anything else is just a difficulty.

So what’s the problem with not having conflict in your book? Without conflict, you have no rising tension, no crisis point, no point of no return…nothing. You have two people with perfectly uninteresting lives, just going about their day with no issues, and that’s boring. Even two characters arguing through the whole book is boring. There’s no action. What makes a book so engaging and difficult to put down is each character trying to circumvent the other to get what is their heart’s desire.

To that end, conflict should be in every scene. [Note to me: take my own advice here!] If there’s no conflict, then why is the scene there? Are you writing infodump? Backstory? Things You Think The Reader Must Know? That’s not what scenes are meant to do. Each scene is a step up the mountain towards the climax, and conflict serves to escalate the tension as the characters reach the peak. It doesn’t mean that each scene has to have super-intense conflict or major, life-threatening actions (although those can be good), but there needs to be a battle, however minor, of two characters’ goals and their resulting actions, which create conflict.

To recap:

  • Conflict is when one character’s action blocks another character’s goal
  • Trouble is not conflict. Did she simply get a tear in her dress (trouble), or did someone else tear it to prevent her from going to the ball (conflict)?
  • Conflict is not an argument or misunderstanding. It’s not something that can be resolved if two people stopped being obtuse and talked it out.
  • Conflict cannot be against something that can’t react (time, a thing, a situation).
  • Conflict must be in every scene. It must escalate throughout your book.

I highly suggest you check out Deborah Dixon’s book GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. It’s excellent and has some great exercises for helping you identify your characters’ GMC. As you read her amazing book, I’m going to hit 3P again.


With the Delete key.

7 thoughts on “Justine: Conflict. Wait…What?

  1. I just finished reading Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and it seems to me, the Regency is a great time for misunderstandings. People had to live with each others, and the rich had guns and knives around the house at all times, so there was a strong social value in preserving appearances, rather than being honest. Honesty could get you killed, or could send you into a murderous rage . . . . Well, in the worst case. Austen always has the characters very carefully poking into each other’s affairs. There’s such a reluctance to assume anything, or to make bold statements . . . .

    (-: Sorry, little tangent while I process what I learned from those books (I can’t believe I’ve never read them! But I don’t think I have). Since you are writing for modern audiences, you do have to cut through some of the social BS.

    Also, take heart! You got your first pages to award-winning status. It took time, remember? You’ll be able to do this, too! (I hope you give me the same pep talk — my first draft pages are really painful to skim over right now. Not only do they not reflect my best work, they look like absolute crap next to Jane Austen’s work at 23, LOL.)

    • The Regency is a GREAT time for misunderstandings. Look at “Sense and Sensibility” — Elinor heard that Mr. Ferrars had married Ms. Steele and assumed it was Edward when in fact it was Robert!!

      The whole bit about appearances and such is precisely why I love the Regency. Heyer is marvelous at that. Such fascinating reads!

      And no worries, of course I’ll give you a pep talk…whenever you like. 🙂

  2. Congratulations on getting to the end of your read-through, Justine. I never understood before class, no matter how many articles I read, but conflict really is at the heart of everything, isn’t it? As Micki said, if you can do it with your opening pages, you can do it with the back end of 3P. Good luck with the clean-up 🙂

    • I think my clean-up may be more like what you did for Rose and Ian’s story — a rewrite. *sigh* So frustrating. Why can’t we do a Vulcan mind-meld of all this stuff and learn it at once, instead of over time? It’d sure make writing books easier. At least in theory. 🙂

  3. I think I told this story in class, but at an RWA some years ago, I went to an unrecorded “chat” with Jenny and Patricia Gaffney, and someone asked if it got easier the longer you wrote and the more books you put out, and Jenny banged her head on the table, and Patricia threw her head back and laughed, really hard. So—asked and answered! I guess it never gets easier, although it seems like it *should.*

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Conflict | Eight Ladies Writing

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