Friday, June 26, 2009

Tracy Garret-Conflict is the 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. 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.


Tracy Garrett

Touched By Love-Texas, 1847. Jaret Walker is a loner, a gun for hire with a heart of ice. He's never had anyone to call his own, and he likes it that way. But when a promise made to a friend leads him on a ride through the desert and to remote Two Roses Ranch where he meets Isabel Bennett, the woman he's supposed to protect, all he can think of is making her his. She's the kind of woman a rough riding cowboy like him can never have. But her hot gaze tempts him like no other woman has before...The moment Isabel Bennett lays eyes on Jaret Walker, she remembers the dreams she's denied for so long. She's sworn never to marry. It's the only way to protect her ranch. But when Walker rides into her life, she decides to let herself taste what she's giving up - a passion that burns through her with each kiss - and a desire that won't be denied...


  1. I like this, Tracy. It's already sparked some ideas for the book I'm currently writing. This couple has a lot of trouble but it's pretty much external conflict. I'm struggling a bit with the internal.

    I just want them to be HAPPY is that so bad?????

  2. Okay Tracy,

    You put that up early. I'm conflicted. I'm happy cause I'm the first person to leave my comment. But I don't know what to say.


    Nice job, especially the build for why our heroine would freak out in the water.

    All the little nuances or big ones add to the conflict in her and between them.

    Reminds me of taking off from JFK headed for Turkey, the day after two planes collide on the taxi way and several people are killed.

    We take off and the inflight movie is Jaws, so now I'm afraid if we ditch we're going to get eaten.

    And we hit this humongous air pocket and the plane dips a few hundred feet.

    We get to Turkey and it's one of their special holidays so they are out at the end of the runway shooting sheep.

    Our first trip to the beach we are snorkeling and there are fins in the distance, I was out of the water so fast. When you're scared you can't tell the difference between shark and dolphin.

    Anyway, I hate to fly and the funny thing is we have a business where we work on aircraft. Also if I'm in any kind of water other than the bathtub, or swimming pool, and fresh water, I wonder about what's under my feet.

  3. Oh bummer I was going to be the first and took too long writing my thoughts, now I'm second and even more conflicted...

  4. Mary, I'm SO with you on wanting everyone to get along. A good friend told me 'knock 'em down, kick 'em, then kick 'em again.' Sounds awful, but that's the nature of conflict--at least the kind where we only have 300 pages to tell their story.

  5. Tina, good (early) morning. I didn't get here as early as you did. Sorry.

    Your story is conflict personified. lol And about that under your feet thing? I love to snorkel, but that first jump into the water takes all the nerve I can muster. :D

  6. One fond memory of writing advice from the Seekers was once, when I complained that my story had hit a wall.

    I figured this out when I was writing a scene of the hero/heroine folding laundry for aobut ten pages....NOT WORKING NOT RIVETING

    Ruthy advised me raise the stakes and add some action by leaving the door open and letting a toddler wander out into traffice.

    Cruel and yet amazingly affective. :)

  7. For me, Mary, it's preparing and eating meals. I go into great detail about what they're eating and how it's prepared--then realize what I'm doing and start slashing pages. :)

  8. I can usually tell I need to ramp up the conflict when I get bored writing a scene.

    LOL - What makes me think someone will want to READ the crazy thing. :-)

  9. What Mary's not saying is that she named the dead toddler "Ruthy"...

    Oh mylanta, nothing like the guilt of a dead person to start your day right.

    Anybody want eggs and ham????


    Actually she didn't kill the kid, although you CAN kill kids, just not dogs.

    What's up with that??????

    Ohhhhhh.... Blubber..... Poor Bowser......

    We're a goofy bunch.


    Having said all that, Tracy, you are so right, right, right that it kills me to say it because I rarely admit that others are right. It's an inherent defect from my father's side, but you did a great job on this, the whole idea of raising the stakes.

    Ya' gotta.

    My biggest mistake as a new writer was fixing things.

    I love to fix things. Emotional, physical, even a few mechanical.

    Gotta fix it, right? I'm a mom.

    BUT NO.

    Stop. Move away from the keyboard. Let it fester. Fume. Stew.

    And Tracy that's what you pointed out so beautifully. Raising those stakes and letting it stand, or hiking them again. As long as it's not conflict for conflict's sake.

    I don't like stories that just dump random stuff on H/H. That just doesn't really happen often in real life. Usually it's our attitudes/actions/inactions that spawn the conflict and grow it organically, so I love a book that incorporates layered conflict into the story line.

    Bless you for being here, kiddo. My word verification is hollychr...

    Holly Christmas, Everyone!!!


    I brought some frosted sugar cookies and candy canes to celebrate.

    And coffee. Mary, how did you forget the coffee? It's still early out there, Sweetcheeks.


  10. just finished GMC myself...and i'm amazed at what i leaned. (and disheartened at how much i'm going to have to change in my WIP). excellent advice, tracy...and timely.

  11. You are so correct, I make so many mistakes and when I was younger I would not amit it, but now I am 66 and all I seems to do is make mistakes. Everytime I say something to someone it seems to be taken wrong and then I am the one that has to say I am sorry. but I leave things to God and try to leave them there but find myself trying to pick them up sometimes. I pray that I can let God handle everything for me and I will make a mess if I try.


  12. Due to a crazy little thing called life, I've been "away" from active work on my WIP for awhile. Wonders of wonders I've had a chance to read a lot of other fiction and boy it's amazing what you can see when you're looking back at your own work--at the big picture.

    I thought I had conflct. I just don't have enough. My h/h need a day like Tina Pinson had.

    By the way, Tracy, that is some good looking cover you have there. That poor guy looks really conflicted.

  13. The poor guy looks really conflicted....


    How come guys look sooooooooo good in cowboy hats?

    And chaps?

    Just thinking out loud.

  14. Morning Ruth.

    Whenever I’m writing, I try to make the dialogue like a normal conversation and the action and conflict believable. Granted, a lot of stuff has to happen in a short time, but this is fiction and we’re allowed to tighten the time frame.

    Now, may I have a cookie? And I’d love another cup of coffee. :)

  15. Hi Jeannie!

    Everytime I open GMC I learn something new. I have so many post-it flags in that book I have trouble reading some pages. lol

  16. Sara, if you ramp up the tension enough, an editor will LOVE to read your wip. Go girl!

  17. Oops, I forgot your 'h' Sarah! Sorry. :(

  18. Edna,
    We all make mistakes - but we keep on trying, don't we?

  19. Debra, that's one cute pic you've got, yourself. Thanks for the compliment on my cover. The art department at Kensington was very good to me!

    And Ruth, I'm with you. There's just something about a guy in a cowboy hat and tight-fittin' Levi's. :D

  20. Perfect timing. Thank you. I'm meant to be preparing a talk on conflict vs. crisis.

  21. Ooo-la-la, what a hunky cover that is for Touched by Love! My goodness! Being a Texas girl, I like a buy in a beat up cowboy hat! :)

  22. That was a great post. And like Mary, it sparked some ideas, or at least gave me some questions to ask myself to get my ideas flowing. This is very welcomed since I've been struggling with my next novel idea. So thanks!

  23. Sheila, welcome. And glad I could help.

    Hi Sherrinda! *waving at a fellow Texan*

    Katie, good luck with the new wip.

  24. Tracy writes westerns like me and we alllllllllllll know how we deal with slow spots in westerns.

    We shoot somebody.

    Guaranteed to up the stakes. Not so easy to do with the sweet contemporary romances. :)

  25. OMG. Great cover, great post.

    Touched By Love, Texas. Does it get any better?

    Pass the BBQ and the cowboys, Tracy.

    Thanks for being with us today.

  26. I'm glad to read this about conflict. Good nuts and bolts stuff.

    I'm a fixer, too, and hate for the peeps to suffer too much. That's hard.

  27. Mary said "We shoot somebody."

    lol Mary! But not just anybody. We shoot the hero, and the heroine has to save him, but that gets her into trouble that only the hero can pull her out of, then the hero gets to shoot the bad guy and put everyone out of his misery. :)

  28. Thanks, Tina. I'm glad to be here. You guys are great!

  29. Me, too, Ann. But just like a parent can't fix everything for their child, we can't fix our h/h's problems; we have to let them muddle through on their own. Painful for us--and them--but necessary for a good story.

  30. Great post, Tracy! Thanks for being with us today!

    Conflict is my weakness! I have a hard time torturing my characters. :)

  31. Missy, I've only met a couple of writers who enjoy making their characters suffer and work for their HEA. And I've always wondered about them... :D

  32. At the risk of having Julie call me the Devil’s Advocate, I pose this question:

    Why is it an unchallenged article of faith that a story requires conflict? Why assume that without conflict writing will be dull?

    Can you imagine the creativity that could be unleashed if writers shifted the ‘conflict paradigm’ to a paradigm of creating excitement ‘in and of itself’? Just consider the energy that was released when Columbus demonstrated that there was a whole new world ‘beyond the edge’.(The GMC).

    How boring is a spectacular sunset? How humdrum is hearing the song, ‘Fields of Gold’, for the first time? How unexciting is snorkeling above the Great Barrier Reef? How lackluster is having a mystic experience – an event where your ego falls away and you become one with the Godhead (universe)?

    Imagine a story where an entire village comes together in the search for a lost child, whom the reader knows from the start is not lost nor was ever in any danger. In the communal search for the child, one villager after another makes a personal discovery and advances on the path to enlightenment.

    Imagine a story were a character falls asleep under a bridge and awakes at sunrise to the conversations of villagers crossing the bridge. Fascinated by the bits of conversation he hears throughout the day, the man stays hidden under the bridge until evening. (It was not his village and he knew none of the people. He is equal to the reader.) Could a creative writer make the conversations interesting enough to hold the reader’s interest? I think she could.

    So should one really try to write a publishable romance without conflict? Did Galileo do well with his heliocentric theory of the universe?

    No, of course not. But here’s the point: Conflict is the easy way to create interest. I’m just suggesting that writers exercise their ‘non-conflict’ interest-building muscles from time to time as a way of rewarding loyal readers. (Without all the stress.)

    I have to go. I just got a twitter from my client who is unhappy about that Godhead comment.


  33. Vince there are some books that have an 'us against the world' tone to them.

    But boy, for romance, you know if they just get along fine, where's your story.

    It was that blasted FIN that kept us on the edge of our seats through the Little Mermaid.

    Otherwise Ariel's just a nice girl, the prince is just a nice boy. Happily ever after happens on page six. that's not a book, that's a pamphlet. :)

  34. LOL, Mary, I've read enough pamphlets to last me a lifetime!

    And Vince, you can't get a spectacular sunset or sunrise without the clouds. ;)

  35. Do I correctly recognize Vince's comment as a possible source of conflict right here in this (up until he walked in) agreeable discussion group?

    (Actually, I think he has made some pretty darn good points in his dissertation).

  36. Vince, you make some excellent points. But I would put to you that, in all your examples, there is conflict.

    As Sherrinda pointed out, a spectacular sunset requires moisture and clouds from which the colors prism. And in their communal search for the lost child, if each member of the village has a revelation, there was some paradigm that shifted; that is internal conflict.

    As for Columbus, that journey was so full of conflict, both internal and external, it would take an entire dissertation.

    I agree that creating external conflict for the sake of conflict is boring and unneccesary. But, true conflict, the kind that forces a character to reevaluate their beliefs and values, their personal truths, is what makes us care about that character and keep reading.

    Thanks for joining in!

  37. I kind of see Vince's point--I think. Some books have TOO much conflict. I'm a nervous wreck before I get past chapter four, and so I put the book down and never pick it back up. That's a rare happenstance, but really, conflict can be badly done just like anything else. Conflict has to be realistic, believable, and the characters have to inspire sympathy in order for the conflict to work like it's supposed to. Look at Scarlett and Rhett. Sure, you have conflict, but they had a few happy moments, too. Some funny moments, some laid back moments. Trust me, it's in there.

    Oh, and it's funny you should mention the hero getting shot. That happened in my last book! The poor guy. I hated doing that to him, but he played with fire one too many times and it was realistic. Had to happen.

  38. Hi Mary and All:

    I am really enjoying all your comments.

    I particularly enjoyed Mary’s comment:

    “Otherwise Ariel's just a nice girl; the prince is just a nice boy. Happily ever after happens on page six: that's not a book, that's a pamphlet. :)”

    The above is true, if the HEA happens on page six and if it was a case of love at first sight. But what if the process of falling in love is slow and examined? (As in “The unexamined life is not worth living.”)

    The writing of this story could be so beautiful and poetic, the insights so delicate and heartfelt, the conversations so funny and poignant, that the reader might find herself enthralled by the reading experience – even without there being the requisite conflict.

    And if such a reader wished the story never to end, couldn’t this be more than a pamphlet?

    Isn’t life rich enough to produce such a story?

    Maybe not.

    But somehow I find it's life-affirming to think that such a story is possible and such an author does exist.

    Thanks for your thoughts,


  39. Great points, Vince. Wow, are you writing a story like that? :-)

    Could the conflict be in the internal discovery...the examinations itself? Even as we examine ourselves and our relationships, we might not have catastrophic conflicts, but we see our weaknesses and struggles, our doubts and fears, our insecurities...couldn't those be the internal agnst, even if volcanoes aren't erupting, airplanes aren't crashing, and no 8-legged octapus lady named Ursula is trying to kill you?

  40. Melanie, I agree totally that conflict must be believable. It must come into the story logically, not just be tossed in to fill pages and create "issues" for the H&H.

  41. Vince, I'm with Pepper. I hope you're writing a book like this and I hope you hit the NYT list with it!

    Realistically, though, I write for the current romance market, and conflict is a must. Right or wrong, it's what the editors are looking for at this time.

    Could it change? I certainly hope so.

  42. Pepper, you're right on the money in describing internal conflict. For me, that's what makes the characters' journeys worth reading about.

  43. Hi Pepper and Tracy:

    I could not write such a book. It would take a very sensitive writer, indeed, perhaps a female subjectivist like Anais Nin could do it. Such a book, by its very nature, would be restricted to a limited audience. (In a world where “If it bleeds, it leads”, Saint Francis would garner few headlines.)

    Think of the non-conflict book as a thought experiment. What would such a literature be like? In what new ways would the reader’s interest be maintained? And how could these non-conflict techniques be used to enhance the traditional romance story? That is, make the same quest for a HEA different -- once again.

    Thanks for your posts,


  44. Very cool! Love this teaching.


  45. Tina P,

    Your comment was hilarious. Those stories. LOL! They must make it into a book. I was highly amused by it. I'm glad you didn't get eaten by sharks or dolphins. LOLOL!