Thursday, February 25, 2010

Conflict! with Cara Lynn James

If you forget the C (conflict) in your story’s GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) then you have one boring story. Even more to the point, it’ll never get published. It might put you (and your potential editor) to sleep, and that’s definitely not your G if you’re a writer.

Conflict is sometimes difficult for writers to develop since we love our characters and want to protect them from every kind of harm, both physical and emotional. We yearn for them to live happily ever after. But I’m afraid we have to torture them first—or at least test them by throwing obstacles in their path on their road to ultimate success and happiness. We don’t want our babies to suffer any more than we want our real children to suffer. BUT, as authors we have no choice.

So we develop external and internal conflicts which block our characters success. But sometimes we run into our own problems as we try to challenge our story people.

You have to settle on one Central Conflict. Develop your plot around this one external conflict and don’t add other competing conflicts. I used to toss several major conflicts thinking they were just subplots. But then I had too many hot potatoes in the air and I always dropped a few of them which left a mess to clean up. Often it seemed easier to move on to something new. So watch for too many important story lines in one book.

Lots of complications can and should arise because of the central conflict. When I start a new manuscript I list the central conflict and then add as many complications as I can think up. This shows me if my plot is too thin or if it’ll end on page 100 instead of page 300. You can deal with these minor problems as the story builds. Every complication should relate to the central plot and in some way move the story forward.

Remember the central conflict normally starts in the first chapter and ends in the last chapter. It’s resolved at the climax of the story, not sooner. It should answer your story question.

Without one central conflict another problem might pop up—Serial Conflicts. These are a string of episodes within the story which don’t advance the story or move the protagonist in a particular direction. Think the Perils of Pauline. Lots of action, but the plot isn’t going anywhere. They don’t force your hero or heroine to grow and develop.

Think through these episodes and make the problems part of the larger, central conflict. Use them to challenge the protagonist to grow and change. You don’t want your reader to say, “Huh? What was the point of that?”

Sometimes we have Too Much Conflict. This happens when you add too much inappropriate external conflict. You might want to add tension (a good thing), but don’t throw in the wrong kind for your particular story. For example, if you add a terrorist bomber or a serial killer to your sweet romance a reader could, and probably would, find this jarring. And your publisher would question it, as well! Definitely add some more conflict where you need it, just make it appropriate to the type if book you’re writing.

So don’t plug in any old conflict without deciding whether it advances the plot.

I like to plot and I find that I need to plan many of my conflicts before I start to write or else I get lost. There’s always room for my muse to tap me on the shoulder and redirect my efforts.

Do any of you have problems with these plotting pitfalls? If so, how do you solve them?


  1. Oh boy. This might be me. LOL After I finish the WIP I think I'm going to have to take a big look at it because I might have too many conflicts. Thanks for the great post, Cara. :-)

  2. Thanks Camy. I like the suggestion to write the conflict and then list the ways it can get complicated. Then all you have to do is weave those into the story.

    Camy is an expert at developing conflict and seeing the parts of the story where there is a problem.

    I'm up early and Camy might still be up from yesterday. smiling Coffee's on.

  3. Great post, Camy. I find that one of my main troubles is not showing enough conflict until later than I should.

    I need to start off with a faster BANG, but a central BANG :-) One thing that helps me as a 'newer' writer is doing what you wrote in the post. List my central problem and all the things that could keep my H/H from reaching their goals, or solving the problem.

    I'm learning some of the good points of plotting, but in all honesty I'm a SOTP writer. I've usually played the entire story in my head before I write it, but one of the problems I find with this is that I don't keep the conflict ramped up. So it's helped to make this list :-)

  4. Sorry for the confusion guys. Cara is actually the expert as she is currently working on her three book series for Thomas Nelson. The first one out in June.

    Camy put the post up for her but Cara is the author.


  5. Great post, Cara Lynn--and a topic I struggled with for years. I'm a SOTP writer, or at least I use to be. I got so tired of going down rabbit holes that I took several classes in plotting last year.

    One thing I use to help me is I write the story out on large index cards, chapter by chapter. That way, I have a quick reference to see if each scene builds on the conflict. And it still give me the freedom for the SOTP writer inside me.

    If you're on Weight Watchers like me, I brought the Rice Krispies and low fat milk.

  6. Yikes, I just noticed Cara was the author of this post when I came to log back in.

    Sorry girlfriend. Thank you for the tip on writing the conflict and then listing the complications. I like your suggestions. Very helpful, especially since I'm starting a new wip.

  7. Oops, sorry Cara, I wrote Camy. LOL
    I'm awake now!! AND I brought Belgian Waffles with strawberries and cream

  8. Conflict. I avoid it at all costs in life, but when I sit down to write, Conflict moves to the forefront. And usually, not in a very organized manner, LOL! I'm conflict over my characters' Conflicts : )

    You've highlighted great points, Cara! That whole *throw in everything including the kitchen sink* concept is all well and good if you're color coordinated and style savvy.

    BUT if your mentality shops on a budget, your battered stainless steel sink might not go with your elegant armoire refrigerator,the chipped laminate countertop and astro turf carpeting : )


    Oookay. That image really conflicts with the artiste in me. Let's try this:

    Select a central boulder.

    Throw related rocks at it.

    End up with a polished sculpture.

    Much better.

    Got it. Loved this post, Cara. Thanks for sharing your wisdom : )

  9. Pepper, I think I'll have your Belgium waffles and a latte. Oops! I have to have a cholesterol test this morning, so I'll have to wait.

    I think even a SOTP writer can list the central conflict and possible complications without feeling hemmed in. People often say if they outline their plot in detail they feel they've already written the story and they don't actually want to do the writing. So look at it as just jotting down a few notes. You can always add to your list or subtract from it.

    Since I'm hungry I guess I'll go get this little chol. test over with. See you later!

  10. Hi Cara!
    I was just having my coffee mulling over this very topic. I'm afraid I have TO much conflict. I'm not sure what to do yet. So , more coffee and thinking lol.

    Thanks for the great tips.

  11. Wonderful post, Cara! Succinct and something I need to review often since I struggle with plotting external conflict.

    Not that I don't enjoy torturing characters. Their back stories are proof of that. :-) Coming up with that external conflict isn't easy. Once I find it, I have to work to keep it front and center. I look at every scene to make sure I give my POV character a goal that produces conflict relating to the central story conflict.

    I brought blueberries for Patty's Rice Krispies. They're huge, the size of cherries.


  12. 1. I want a Belgian waffle for real. Anybody got help for me with THAT???


    2. Cara. Have you been reading my mind, my heart, my rejection letters??? I tend to think I can throw everything into a 60K novel and have it make sense.

    Can you guys say WRONG!!!!!

    Oh my stars, Cara, that's so true.

    3. This one I've solved. Being a mom I SOLVE PROBLEMS. Which I did, way too quick, ending up with um...
    no plot. no story. no conflict. Oh my stars.


    Not anymore.

    Now I whap 'em, zap 'em and totally resist the temptation, (well, unless it's a little kid in trouble, then I steel myself to send them into traffic during rush hour BUT I CLOSE MY EYES. TIGHT!!!) to fix 'em too soon.

    That was a huge problem for me, but I've worked to move beyond that, which probably resulted in my current problem of trying to WEIGH THEM DOWN with multiple conflicts, sub-plots, etc that just bog the story down.

    Then out comes the red pen.

    A very necessary red pen.


    Grabbing coffee. YUM.

    Very necessary this AM. We've got that East Coast storm headed our way. Oh my stars, what a crazy winter this has been for my Atlantic coast kids.

    Man the shovels. It's gonna get deep and heavy (Glynna and Mary can relate) by nightfall.

    A good romance writer would be able to make something really romantic out of that.

    Hmm... Worth consideration. :)


  13. Oooo, great post, Cara, and yeah, I've had problems with plotting, particularly in book 1 of my next series, A Hope Undaunted, where I actually had SIX subplots going on IN ADDITION to the main hero/heroine plot. I thought it worked, but my editor made me cut several of the subplots out (actually, I moved them to the next book, so it worked out) because she said NO READER'S mind is that sharp to juggle that many stories/conflicts at one time. In hindsight, I am inclined to agree that two much conflict is almost as bad as none at all.


  14. Great post, Cara! You really forced me to make some notes this morning! And I'm not normally a note-taker.

    For my last three WIP's, my problem seems to be that I have lots of conflict, I'm just not sure how to solve it in a neat, tied-up-with-a-bow way! I need to do more planning. My plots turn out really well when I take lots of time to think them through.

    I wrote notes on my Central Conflict, Complications, and Story Question. I think I'm having trouble seeing all the possible Complications. It makes me nervous that I haven't totally figured those out yet. Or figured out the happily ever after. Maybe I need to do some more characterization exercises.

  15. Ruthy,
    I only offer breakfasts that I'm making in real time ;-) Grab a sled and come on down, bring the kids too. My house is already full - what's a few dozen more. I'll just add extra batter to the mix :-)
    and I'll keep them warm
    Hot chocolate too!
    It's snowing here...again. Lovely,'s AGAIN!!

  16. Wow, I really sound confused in my comment! LOL

    Need to do more note-writing. (I can't let my subconscious hear me call it outlining, so we'll just call it note-writing.)

  17. Great post, Cara! It's going into my "keeper" binder!

  18. Hi Cara:

    As a reader I really agree with your comment:

    “Remember the central conflict normally starts in the first chapter and ends in the last chapter. It’s resolved at the climax of the story, not sooner”.

    I always find it annoying when the major conflict ends too soon. I feel like I did the other night when the Olympic ice skaters would finish their routines and the music would continue for a few more seconds. They may have done their routine perfectly but I still felt like they left something out or did something wrong. It's an uneasy feeling.

    Thanks for your helpful post.


  19. Great post, Cara! Sorta dovetails with my jigsaw puzzle post the other day, because I think I may have a few pieces of conflict left over when I finish this wip!

    I took the day off to write, and as soon as I comment here in Seekerville, I am pulling the plug on the internet and will NOT be back for a couple of hours.

  20. Great Post, Cara,

    I think I get the main conflict down, but perhaps there are times I find myself juggling conflicts because of the story line.

    My question is this, aren't there stories or certain genres that have running conflicts and lots of them? I'm thinking of futuristic stories or spy novels, in some of those there is so much happening you have to go back and check it out.

    I guess I just wonder if some readers aren't prone to wanting more to juggle and enjoy it.

    those Belgian waffles sound really good...Pepper

    Can you freeze some and send them under dry ice? ;0)

  21. Plotting pitfalls abound for a writer who doesn't plot.

  22. Be quiet Mary.

    Pantsers know that.

    Plotters will run in fear.

    And pantsers KNOW they sometimes write themselves into corners. That's why we have back-up lights and a sound system warning people when we're in reverse.

    Around here it sounds kind of like a snarling cat as I hurl useless pages across the room.

    And that's on a good day.


  23. Ruthy ...

    And pantsers KNOW they sometimes write themselves into corners. That's why we have back-up lights and a sound system warning people when we're in reverse.

    Tina... so that's what I've been growing on my behind all this time. Back up lights and a horn.

  24. Great comments! I have both panster and plotter tendencies--I have to leave room for inspiration. But I panic if I come to the end of a chapter and I don't know where to go next.

    Right now I'm writing romance, but I love women's fiction with multiple story lines. I have trouble handling too many, though. It's hard to work everything together, not have too many characters with too many stories, interesting backstories etc.

    Well nobody said writing would be easy. Actually I can think of a few who might say that, but it isn't.

  25. I think a big part of why I have trouble plotting is because I try and do too many details. Like you said, Cara, leave room for inspiration. That's just part of my an artist you know.

    (pardonnez-moi while I don my beret and cape)

  26. Popping in on a quick break.

    1023 words so far.

    Not great for 2 hours, but not horrible either.

    Logging off now...

  27. I'm 2/3 thru on rewrite 847. :)

    Or I will be if I quit piddlin' and get to it. Haven't written a word on it since a couple weeks ago so - this is it. I'm with ya Pam H.

    GOOD timely info today Cara. Thanks. Need to make sure the timing is just right on the conflict. I think it's ok but... ackckkkk... This writing thing... Not all hot chocolate and bon bons is it?

    Back up horns, at the ready. Have a good afternoon y'all!

  28. Great post, Cara! I've been working on this the last couple of days. So your post was really timely for me!

    I spent yesterday reading over the half a book I have written to see if there's drive to the story. To see if it'll keep people reading to discover the answer to the story question.

  29. I can usually come up with an interesting initial situation for my hero and heroine, but sometimes I don't have a clue where they should go from there. If I leave it to them they'll stay still and talk themselves to death.

    So I do have to list all the possible complications I can think of. Otherwise, I quickly get stuck.
    Of course each story is different. Sometimes I want to add things that don't belong. Like Julie I have to save them for another book.

  30. KC, get it in gear, woman.


    I have your e-mail and I KNOW HOW TO USE IT!!!

    Do not think I'm kidding.

    Ask the girls. The whole Tyrant thing????

    It isn't a misnomer. I expect to hear from you that you've muscled down and gotten into it.

    Jeepers creepers, how am I supposed to ever buy something that's unwritten????


    Using ideas in a different book. I do that too. Because the ideas sometimes come too fast and overwhelm the story, like Cara said. And Julie. And every other smarter-than-me person on the planet.

    And Pepper bought Winter's End today.

    And she's half-way through it.

    I love Pepper. Have I mentioned that Winter's End is in stores NOW????


  31. That's right. I bought that book, Ruthy keeps talking about and (sorry to correct you Ruthy), but I am now on chapter 16 and soaring.

    Very good. Very very good. On my stars... ;-) Dear me, Ruthy's influence comes by osmosis ;-)

  32. Did y'all hear that whip CRACK?!

    I've been busy - Yes I have... Not as busy as I could have, granted, but busy so...

    Ruthy - step away from the whip please. You do give me hope though. You mean I'm doing all this so I can get published? Oh. Yeah... I remember. :)

    I've been cogitating on this whole plotting index card thing too, wondering if it'll help me here at the end. I think I'm ok but might do that instead of SOTP through book 2.

    Thx again all (YIKES. I'm expecting the 'long arm of Ruthy' to come thru the screen here and thwack me. Do y'all have experience with that?)

    Back to the grindstone, my nose has had a little rest.

    Pepper, you'll have to give us the run down. Very exciting!!!!! We'd best keep on her good side huh?

    Cara and all, thx again for a great post today. So much useful info.

  33. KC,
    Ruthy's book is wonderful. Seriously. JUst finished it in between cleaning up after supper and pulling a fresh baked batch of chocolate chip cookies from the oven.
    Here's to cookies and Winter's End.
    And about Ruthy (whispered with hand cupped against my cheek), I think she puts on a great front, but she's a softy down deep ;-)
    as soft as a mother of six and sibling of nine can be. Hmmm...
    Okay, maybe you'd better watch out for the whip ;-)