How to write conflict
My work-in-progress was coming along wonderfully. The book was on target to be finished not only on-time, but early. Those are the best kind. And the book was good. Really good. Until it wasn’t.
Somewhere around the 50,000 word mark, I realized that the book that had been coming along so well had gone off the rails. How did I know this? Not because it was messy, because first drafts usually are. And not because there were a few plot holes, because those are easy enough to fill in during the revision process. No, I knew this story had gone awry because it had the mark of story-death:
I was bored. I’d lost sight of where the story was going, and worse: I didn’t care. And a bored author is bound to result in a bored reader. Mayday.
I hit pause on the book, and went back to assess where I’d gone wrong. Clearly something was amiss with the story, but what?! Usually I have a gut feeling about my misstep; that protagonist tantrum that was out of character, or back-to-back scenes that neither propelled the story forward or revealed something new about character. This time, though, I was a little stumped. It took me an entire week of taking some time away from the story to chew on it before I realized the issue:
Starting at the 40,000 word mark, my two lead characters started wanting the exact same thing. She wanted to be “just friends,” because being more than friends didn’t fit into her Master Plan. He wanted to be “just friends", because his current obligations didn’t allow for a girlfriend. Even worse, in addition to both characters wanting the same thing, they were both getting exactly what they wanted, which leads me to a crucial lesson in storytelling that I’d forgotten:
Never give your character exactly what he or she wants.
Sure, you can let them think they’re getting it for a scene or two. But then you have to take it away, or introduce a new development that makes them realize they what they thought they wanted, or thought they’d already achieved, isn’t enough.
Imagine the original Star Wars trilogy if the Empire had been defeated in Episode 4.
Or Harry Potter, if Voldemort had decided to go easy on Harry starting in Book 5 of a 7 book series.
Or Pride & Prejudice, if Elizabeth Bennett had been granted her early wishes of never having to see the insufferable Mr. Darcy again.
The reason the versions of the above story examples would never have worked, is because in each case, Luke, Harry and Elizabeth would have been getting what they wanted too early.
Once you give your character what he/she wants, you remove the conflict. And without conflict, you have no story.
What is conflict?
Conflict is the opposing force to your character’s grandest desire.
It’s the antagonist (bad guy), character flaw, unfortunate event, jerk-boss, unexpected pregnancy, government conspiracy, inconvenient attraction to one’s ex, etc, that makes your character’s life difficult. Without that tension that conflict creates, you’ve given readers no reason to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. There’s a reason most romances end shortly after the happily-ever-after, save for perhaps a quick feel-good epilogue. Once the hero/heroine get what they want (each other), the readers get what they want: resolution. Deliver that too early, and your reader will put the book down because they sense they’re not going to get any emotionally satisfactory pay-off when you finally relieve the tension at the end of the book—because you haven’t built any tension!
You’ve probably heard a movie, TV show, or romance described as a “will they / won’t they” set up. Think, Ross/Rachel, Pam/Jim, Sam/Diane. The reason this set-up works so darn well every single time, is because there’s an inherent question built into the push-pull of the characters’ journey. If you answer the question, if you’ve said simply, “yes, they will," or "no, they won’t …” Story over. Reader/viewer interest gone.
Yep. It really is that easy to lose your reader. But. There is some good news in all this! Ensuring your story has conflict is actually fairly easy, once you’ve made a point to look out for it! Even in current my work-in-progress, I was able to save the story once I identified the problem, and deleted 10,000 words of conflict-free scenes.
Three Keys to Writing Conflict
(1) Be very clear on what your protagonist wants.
Until you clearly define what your main character wants to achieve in your book (destroy the empire, defeat Voldemort, avoid the heck out of Mr. Darcy), you won’t know what he/she doesn’t want. It’s this doesn’t-want part that is what you’ll be continually serving to your protagonist to keep the conflict alive!
(2) Embrace the fake-out.
Your story doesn’t have to be a non-stop struggle for your character. This is especially true if you’re writing a comedy, or a lighter story. Because I write romantic-comedies, and don’t necessarily like to give my main characters one crushing set-back after another, I employ what I call the “fake out.” From time-to-time, I’ll give the character what she thinks she wants.
Maybe she thinks she wants her ex-boyfriend to come crawling back, but when he does, she realizes she can’t stop thinking about someone else. Or maybe your hero thinks he wants that promotion more than anything, only the he gets it, he realizes it wasn’t worth the cost of alienating his family. Maybe your heroine thinks that if she can just make it to the hidden bunker she’ll be safe from the soldiers, only to realize that there’s something far worse waiting inside the bunker.
Remember, just because you know what your characters wants most, doesn’t mean your characters necessarily know! They might have to go through a couple of “false wins” before they land the ultimate prize at the end of the book.
(3) Make sure each chapter has its own conflict
I talk quite a bit about this in my Scene Worksheet, but in addition to your overall story needing a conflict—someone, or something pushing back against your character’s goal--each scene should its own conflict. If you’ve ever found yourself skimming through a chapter of a book that you’re otherwise enjoying, the author probably went a little bit light on the conflict in that chapter. Know what specifically your character wants to achieve in every single chapter. Then identify the opposing force (the interfering mother, the meddling best friend, the bad guy with the gun, the mysterious old man who knows something he’s not telling … even your protagonist's own character flaw can be a source of conflict. And by the way, if you're looking for an example of a character being her own source of conflict, watch Bridget Jones. That character is the master of getting in her own way, and it's wonderfully effective because we can all relate (no? just me?).
Remember, your story stops being interesting the second your character gets exactly what he/she desires.
Give ‘em hell.