Posted on December 6th, 2012 5 comments
Characters working against each other, against themselves, and against events. That’s the heart of conflict.
But how do you make your scenes come alive? How do we make them gripping? But most of all, how to make those freaking things cause our reader to keep turning pages long into the night?
Conflict Creates All Those Things You Want
Conflict creates tension.
Conflict creates hooks that bring the reader in and make them want to know what is going to happen–i.e. how will this conflict be solved?
And no, I am not saying your book needs to be one big conflicting piece of tension that overloads your reader. Because that’s no fun for anyone.
Every Scene Should Have Conflict
Yes. Every scene. Scenes without some sort of something going on get boring. Each scene needs something that either sets the character back, or moves them forward, but always causes a new problem, conflict, or set back. This can be miniscule, or huge. It can involved the main plot thread and story question, or it can deal with a subplot storyline. But it needs to have something that drives the reader forward.
Why Conflict Works
When you introduce conflict, it gives us readers something interesting to get involved in. What will the characters do? How will they handle this? How will this affect the outcome and help or hinder them in their quest for their goal? I must read on!
Worth Stating Again: A scene’s conflict does not have to be major to draw the reader into your story. But conflict has to be present. <– Want to Tweet this? Click here.
For example, this is part of something I’ve borrowed and compiled from the lovely Carol Hughes (from her Deep Story class–it rocks, take it. And she’s putting it out in a book in January–buy that too. No, really.) that I find really helps me focus in when I write and rewrite a scene:
CHARACTERS GRAPPLE WITH PROBLEM PONDER DILEMMA: (The very thing that sets the scene in motion. What they need to accomplish or do. How are they going to solve things and move forward?)
DECISION AND COURSE OF ACTION: (What the character plans to do or does. And of course, you are not going to make it easy for them, are you?)
SCENE GOAL: (What is the purpose of the scene. What will be conveyed?
EMOTION OF SCENE: (What emotion do you want the setting, word choice, etc., to convey to the reader? If you know it, it is easier to convey in the details, making for a powerful scene.)
CONFLICT (WHO WHAT WHY): (who is having a conflict with who, over what, and why?)
Conflict Internal: (Conflict going on inside of character–often different than the external stuff.)
Conflict External: (Conflict going on outside the character.)
DISASTER: (Uh oh. Set back. Things aren’t quite what they wanted… This does NOT have to be major.)
CHARACTER REACTION TO DISASTER: (How do they react to the way things pan out?)
If you use something like the above ‘reminder’s when working on a scene, it can help you stay focused and ensure that your scenes have conflict of some kind. A nice little effect of knowing what you are going for is that it becomes natural when you write to convey it to your readers–either explicitly or not.)
As an example, in Champagne and Lemon Drops (currently in rewrites) I have the ‘on break’ lovers Beth and Oz in a scene. They both want the same internal things–not to sell their once-shared home. However, Beth needs the equity from their home in order to get her own place and she tells Oz to sell the place–an attempt to force his hand thinking he will never actually sell it. He doesn’t want to sell it because he thinks they will get back together again and will want to resume living in their home, but he also wants to do right by Beth. If they sell the place neither will have a home to come back to and it will signal a finality to the romantic break that neither of them really wants. Neither of them are saying what they really want (which creates new conflicts)–each other and their home. Hello conflict! Either way, any action is a no-win situation for the characters as they will be set back in their long-term goal (getting back together) if they sell as well as their short-term goal (a place to live). And if they don’t sell, it will up the conflict between them.
Here’s what it looks like:
CHARACTERS GRAPPLE WITH PROBLEM PONDER DILEMMA: How is Beth going to get Oz back (romantically)? How is she going to get money to live off of?
DECISION AND COURSE OF ACTION: This is the scene that plays out. She goes to Oz to talk to him about not selling the house but convinces him to sell.
SCENE GOAL: Beth tries to get Oz not to sell the place.
EMOTION OF SCENE: Hurt. Both positioning themselves around each other not to get hurt.
CONFLICT (WHO WHAT WHY): With each other. Beth doesn’t want him to sell the place, but needs the money from it. Oz doesn’t want to sell it because he thinks he will get Beth back once he gets his life sorted. But he loves her and will do what she wants him to do. It’s the least he can do.
Conflict Internal: Doesn’t want any of things saying she wants. Doesn’t want him to sell, but she needs money. And she wants him to force a move in his life–hopefully towards her again.
Conflict External: She wants him to keep the place, but can’t let him ruin her life financially or be unfair and keep everything. A little tit for tat going on.
DISASTER: He is not reacting and she corners him, making him think and feel that selling the place is the only way to go.
CHARACTER REACTION TO DISASTER: Gets a bit nasty. Raises the stakes for both of them. Regretful words and actions. Makes things worse.
In this example, I hope the reader will feel the need to find out who ‘wins.’ Which won’t happen until many scenes down the road. And in the meantime I will introduce new conflicts, big and small which will… you guessed it–keep the reader turning pages.
As well, this kernel of a conflict will gather other incidents around it and grow larger. It will become the elephant in the room in their future interactions.
This is why some books are really difficult to put down and why action movies keep us on the edge of our seats. This go from bad to worse, to worse–and that is all due to conflict.
Note For the Pantsters on Building Conflict
Reading this you might be thinking, uh, no. Not for me. I like to write by the seat of my pants (panstster) with no outline or idea of where I am going. That’s fine. I don’t actually fill this out until I’m at least 250 words into a scene. I have to know what’s going on and where they are and what needs to happen before I can fill this out. When I go back to the writing, I can hone that scene in nice and sharp.
The big thing with using conflict to your advantage: Your reader won’t put down the book until they’re ‘good.’ It’s your job to make sure that isn’t until the last page. <–Click to Tweet this.