More Conflict by Shannon Donnelly
Conflict—you can’t get too little of this in real life, and you can never have enough in fiction. A reader pays to see a character be put through the ringer—and that means you want to pile on the conflict. But there’s a danger to avoid. You want great conflict, not small arguments or even worse, misunderstandings.
How do you know if you have enough conflict? Simple answer is there’s no such thing—you can always add more. So how do you add conflict—and that’s without a contrived situation or plot, or a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a chat?
Some easy tests for you:
1. If you put your protagonist and antagonist in a room, would a conversation make matters worse?
This is my first test. You want things to be worse if both characters spoke their minds at the start of the book. If an honest conversation can resolve conflict, you have a misunderstanding, not conflict. Now a small misunderstanding for a subplot is not usually a problem, but basing the main conflict on character A thinking one thing and character B thinking another is problematic. You can sometimes make this work for comedic effect, but be wary of anything that weakens your core conflicts.
2. Can both the protagonist and the antagonist get their goal?
You want a conflict lock. (If you don’t know what this is, Google it—there are lots of great videos out there). In an action story, this same goal needs to be only one can have it/reach it. Or the goals have to be opposite. In a romance, the hero and heroine are not always antagonist/protagonist, but you still need to set up conflicting external goals to help drive your action. This can be as simple as one character wants to hide her past and the other character wants it out in the open—that’s instant conflict. If both characters are headed for the same goal, look at how to make them have opposite approaches—the guy who wants to be organized vs. the woman who flies by the seat of her pants makes for conflict.
3. Did you set up conflicts between needs and wants?
You want to build in conflict so your story doesn’t wander or fade out about page 100. The best way to do this is set up lots of internal conflicts with external goals. In other words, if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to keep secrets, she’s not really conflicted about these things. But if a woman’s external goal is to hide her past and her internal need is to be honest, now you have her conflicted—she can’t have it both ways.
You want to set up these conflicts for all your major characters. And you want to make sure the needs and wants are well motivated.
4. Are the needs and wants really well motivated?
Reader needs to know WHY wants and needs matter to a character. This is very important.
This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character.
If your character’s needs go deep—as in straight to core development years in their childhood—the reader is going to understand that these are core issues. The character who grew up poor and who saw her mother die because there was no money for a doctor will make sense as a woman who will marry just to have money. The character that started torturing small animals at six is going to seem a lot more spooky and threatening than anyone who started killing people as an adult.
To make things matter to the reader, make it matter to the character. However, make sure you have someone look over your ideas—motivations have to be plausible, too. They have to fit your character’s background. In general, accountants don’t suddenly wake up one day wanting to be lion tamers—that’s too big a jump to be plausible to readers. So it needs a lot of motivation (as in he’ll get three million dollars if he makes the job change within six months.)
5. Are any of your conflicts clichés?
In manuscripts I look at I see the same thing over and over. The most common ones are:
The heroine is kidnapped by the bad guy (or guys). This usually makes the bad guys seem weak—as in really bad guys just shoot people.
The bad guy wants to marry the heroine (so he kidnaps her…and here we are again).
The heroine decides she has to go up against bad guy (or guys) all by herself…for no particularly good reason. (Usually without a gun, or back up, or any kind of martial arts background—it’s a little different if she has a super power, but most folks are willing to call in the cops.)
The hero decides he has to make big sacrifice…he can’t be with heroine for her own good. (This takes us back to throwing these two in a locked room would probably resolve this.)
Hunt down clichés and put a fresh twist on them. Let your characters come up with better ideas. And never settle for ideas you’ve already read in too many other books.
6. What are the consequences for failure?
If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal—this means the conflict is going to be weak. This ties in to motivation for why the character wants something, but it also ties into having consequences. And these consequences have to matter to the character.
If a woman is going to lose her job if she fails to reach her goal, readers are going to be left wondering why she can’t just get another job. It doesn’t seem a big deal. So you have to look at making it matter more to the character and the reader—it has to be personal. A job is just not personal.
This is why so often consequences are about someone close to the protagonist being in danger. But it really boils down to you wanting your consequences to be about putting at stake whatever matters most to your main character. This means you have to really know your main character.
Let’s say your main character helps disabled kids. If she gets shut down, she won’t be able to help. That’s great—but it’s not that personal to her. And why can’t she go to work for another disabled center? Now it would matter more if one of those kids was hers. But it would matter even more if it’s not the center that would be shut down—it would matter to her most if she’s going to be banned from every working with kids anywhere, ever. Now the thing that defines her is being threatened—she will no longer be who she is if she loses. That’s called raising the stakes, and the higher you raise them, the more the conflict will matter to the characters and the readers.
7. Are you looking for more places (and people) who can add conflict?
Keep in mind that friends and helpful people can give you more conflict—it doesn’t always have to be good guys and bad guys. Family members are great to add in more conflict, so are friends, and co-workers who mean well but end up throwing up obstacles. Let the good guys add as much conflict as the bad guys do—let the people with the best intentions make some of the worst road blocks for your characters. This is why you want to build in a family around your main characters because they give you some of the best conflict you could want.
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire.
She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.