Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Proper Care and Feeding of Conflict

Erin Shakespear

"The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict."
                                                   -James Frey

Conflict. Oy...we need a lot of the stuff, right? In our books my living room, between the wee natives, not so much.

But how do we make conflict? How do we stuff enough into our stories to turn them into Must-Be-Read-Until-The-Crack-Of-Dawn page turners?

I'm glad you asked! I'll just turn to my notes from a lecture Patti Gauch gave. Yep, I know, I'm talking about her again. I tell you, she's brilliant. And then I'll sprinkle in some wisdom from other awesome people.

The Proper Care & Feeding of Conflict

#1: Start in a hole. 


What does you character want? Put them as far away from this as possible. Make 'em suffer! It's for their good. Give them a large dose of internal conflict. They want something so very very badly. It's the thing they want most in the world, but they are their biggest obstruction. Somehow they are standing in their way. Or maybe someone else is. Someone else is keeping them from getting this Great and Grand Thing They Need. Just make it big and make it good. 

#2: Dual Desires 

Okay this is just an awesome idea. Dual desires? I'd never thought about this before until I read Daisy Carter's blog post about conflict. What if your character wants two equally good things? Or one is good and one is not so good, but he just can't choose? Two different love interest? Yep. that would definitely add some major conflict. 

The story...must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person. - Maxwell Anderson

#3: Load It Up

You could give your character one conflict. But why not throw in all three? A conflict internally, something he wants desperately, a conflict between those around him, with a friend or family member and a conflict within his environment. Oooooh, that would be a whole lotta conflict. 

#4: Set the Stage


Let your atmosphere reflect your main tension. Throw in some mist, creaking doors, play with the lighting. Be the stage director. Set your stage.

#5: Pacing

Slow down when you're about to have a big moment. Let your character take time to notice the smells around him, the sounds (back to the creaking), what the floor feels like against his bare feet. Draw out the anticipation. Make us feeeeeeeeel the conflict.

"If you think you're boring your audience, go slower not faster." -Gustav Mahler

#6: Fear

When you're watching a scary movie and someone says, "Hey, I know I should stay in the house, with the light and the friends surrounding me because there's that risk of the crazy masked murderer attacking people with a cheese grater and a spoon, but I think I heard a strange noise out there. Yeah, sounded kind of like someone scraping something against metal, almost like a grating sound. I'm going to go investigate. But I'll take this baseball bat with me and I'm sure I'll be fine. Yep, I'll be right back."


Mmmmhmmmm, yeah...buh-bye now. 

We sit on the edge of our seats wishing the person would stay in the house and hoping they'll actually make it back safe and sound. Or that they would have at least put on the protective rubber suit hanging beside the door. But there's no hope for that guy. Nope, he's done for.

Make your reader want to shout, "Don't go!" or "Don't do that!"

Fear, yep it works, right?  

#7: Give your character a secret

I love secrets. Give your character a good and juicy secret he tries desperately to keep from everyone else. Make him hold onto it. Make it eat him up. Make him go to extreme measures to keep that secret hidden. Or maybe someone finds out. And of's the wrong someone, right?

Thing about your own secrets or your friend's or your spouse's. Think about what your character faults are. Does he try to keep them hidden? Or something about his past? Maybe he did something wrong. Maybe he made a wrong choice. And now he doesn't want those he cares about to know. You can learn a lot about people by the things they try to keep hidden.

And we're all hiding something.

#8: Hit "em where it hurts

At Writing for Charity on Saturday, Jennifer Nielsen talked about how we need to know what the worst thing that can happen to our characters is. We don't need to make it happen, but we need to know what it is. 

But if you're looking for more conflict, maybe it needs to happen. What is the most dreadful and horrible thing that could  happen to your character? What would they do if it happened? Or maybe it almost happens. Oh, the horrible anticipation of watching The Worst Thing Ever coming towards your beloved character. Yep, that will definitely keep us turning the pages.

Or maybe it's just something really really bad. You might not want to completely ruin your character's life. Either way, make it worse, make your character truly suffer. Take away what they want and then dangle it in front of them like a carrot.


#9: Dialogue

Use the dialogue to increase the tension between your characters. What can your characters say to make the conflict greater? Do they lie? Does your main character believe something false he's told? Or maybe your characters is threatened. Or maybe your character swears revenge on the Spoony Cheese Grater (the mass murderer of doom).

#10: Cliffhangers

Ooooooh, I love a delicious cliffhanger. Seriously, this is my very favorite part of writing a chapter. I love coming up with a massive cliffhanger which (I hope) makes the reader's mind explode with questions. Try it out! How can you end your chapter so the reader has to read "just one more"?

#11: Mystery

Can you include a good mystery? Something that keeps your characters wondering? Fill your character's heart (and the reader's) with fear and confusion. Drop clues which only create more and more questions in their minds.

There you have it. Stuff your manuscript will all of that and you'll surely have enough conflict.

"Turn the screws! Blow up the balloon! MAKE IT WORSE!" Patricia Lee Gauch

How do you add conflict to your stories? Do you have a stellar surefire way to throw your character's lives into peril and make us want to keep reading about them?


Charmaine Clancy said...

Love the dual desires - I remember the old Superman movies (Christopher Reeves style) where a bus load of children were in danger but on the other side of the world so was Louis! Lex told Superman he had to choose, he couldn't possibly save them both (silly Lex).
Wagging Tales

Danielle Paige said...

I see a lot of characters having dual desires where one is a matter of his heart and another is the thing needed to end the adventure happily. If played right things get really juicy at the end when he has to choose or figure a way to get both.

Taffy said...

I love in Batman when Joker says something like "we're the same, you and I." No way is Batman like Joker! Or is he?? Great internal conflict.
THANKS Erin! Great post.