CONFLICT: THE GREAT WHY NOT
A few blogs ago, in “LocoMotivation Station” (June 16, 2009), Cheryl Wyatt said “Motivation is the WHY.”
According to Debra Dixon in “Goal, Motivation and Conflict”, it’s “the reason your character can’t have what he wants.”
What keeps the Hero and Heroine from finding instant happiness? If you believe in love at first sight, what keeps the lovebirds from figuring it out as fast as you would?
That element, that “thing” keeping them apart, is what writers refer to as conflict. It happens when the needs or values of one character are directly opposed to those of another character—or in opposition to something within the characters themselves.
One character in opposition to another is an external conflict. Put that problem, that opposition, inside a character and you have internal conflict.
Here, maybe the Random House Dictionary definition will help:
to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
to fight or contend; do battle.
a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
a striking together; collision.
incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.
Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.
Still not sure? How about some synonyms to describe the concept:
1. collide, oppose.
2. encounter, siege. See fight.
3. contention, opposition.
In “Writing the Breakout Novel,” author Donald Maass proposes that the essence of story is conflict. It’s what makes the difference between a boring story and one in which the reader can’t flip the pages fast enough.
Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.
And that sympathy is vital. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, they won’t care if the conflict is resolved so the hero and heroine can defeat the bad guy and get together by the end of the book.
So how do you add conflict in your book?
Start with your characters. What makes them tick? What do they love and hate? What do they fear? All of those things can become conflict if they put your hero or heroine in direct opposition to the other.
Here’s an example. Say your hero is a boat captain who makes his living taking sightseers out on the ocean surrounding the Florida Keys. He not only loves being on the water, he has to be on the water to pay his bills.
Now make your heroine terrified of deep water because she’d nearly drowned when she fell out of a boat on a wave-tossed lake. Then up the stakes: she’d nearly drowned because her older sister, who was supposed to be watching her, was busy making out with her boyfriend. Then up the stakes again: her neglectful sister managed to save the heroine, but not her twin brother.
Okay, you’ve made her justifiably terrified of the very thing that keeps the hero going.
Now make her face that terror; add a situation that forces the heroine to go out on the boat with the hero. Maybe that same older sister is in trouble and the only way to reach the island she’s on is by boat. And there’s a storm coming so she can’t take the time to look for another way to help her sibling.
As long as the reason for getting her out on the water is plausible, the reader will be hurting for the heroine before they turn another page.
Remember, conflict hurts. It hurts your character and it hurts the reader who has come to care for that character. But you can’t shy away from that pain. You have to dig deep and pile the troubles on your hero or heroine. Make them hurt and their redemption and subsequent HEA will be that much more satisfying.
Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by Debra Dixon, Gryphon Books for Writers, Memphis, Tennessee, 1996.
Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books, Cinncinnati, Ohio, 2001.
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