Monday, February 28, 2011

Conflict Should Not Be Contrived

By Julie Daines

Conflict. The driving force behind the novel. The peril that pursues our main character through crisis after crisis. The element of the story that keeps the reader turning pages or reading late into the night. The only problem is, it has to be believable.

I recently read a novel where the first two-thirds of the book was driven by conflict that just wasn’t believable. A high school girl starts to fall for the wrong guy. He’s bad—as in not human.

The problem is that her father, mother and brother, who all love her very much and want to protect her, know the truth about the guy. They tell her over and over to stay away. But they never explain why. I don’t buy it because if they really loved and worried about her, they would tell her the truth about the guy.

I call this secret keeping conflict. Other people know the truth, but for whatever reason—usually to protect the main character from becoming upset or scared—they just don’t tell. It can sometimes work, and often not. Because it feels too contrived.

So, I guess my advice for this post:  Make sure your conflict feels real and not contrived.

How do you do this? You have to constantly question your character’s motives. Why would he do this? Why wouldn’t she just…? What is preventing him from simply…? Would she rather…? Wouldn’t it be easier if he…?

If the answer to any of these questions is because it would mess up my story, you might have a problem.

This is where the critique group comes in handy. They read your chapter and say, why wouldn’t they just tell the truth? And you ask yourself, why indeed? Then you snatch your manuscript out of their hands and head back to the drawing board to fix it. Hopefully.

This post is dedicated to the Sharks and Pebbles, who ask the questions I seem to miss.


Deren Hansen said...

Well said, Julie.

When I think about conflict, whether it arises from characters or plot, I imagine the parties to the conflict as forces of nature.

Picture what happens when a surge of the restless sea meets the immovable cliff. Or when the speeding car meets the brick wall.

The most compelling conflict has a feeling of inevitability: the collision occurs notwithstanding everyone's best efforts (which should include the five-minute conversation to tell the main character what the others know).

Scott said...

Conflict also arises because two people--or talking bunny rabbits, or whatever--want the same thing. This is my favorite kind of conflict because it opens up all kinds of character possibilities, including those that stem from the fact that neither character is good or bad. We might identify with the protagonist as the good guy because we see the conflict from his POV but if seen from the antagonist's POV, the good guy/bad guy tables are turned. That's so much more fun than the predestined hero struggling against the pure evil villain in the hope that Good will prevail in the universe.