Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Two Dogs, One Bone. The Fight's On!

I'm revisiting a blog post from several years ago, but the topic is just as relevant with every book I start.

With each new project, I get excited and have a lot of angst and conflict planned for my characters, but sometimes the core conflict between my hero and heroine doesn’t feel strong enough to carry the entire book. Or at least it’s not fleshed out enough for me to see it.

And that's when I start looking around for ways to define that backbone and nail it down. (Ouch, that sounds painful, doesn’t it?)

Insurmountable Odds

The mantra, "If your hero is a fireman, your heroine had better be an arsonist" came to mind. One source attributed this saying to a Sandra Brown workshop. Not that my characters are firefighters or arsonists, but the analogy seemed to fit. I understand the logic behind the above statement, but without some plot details, where do you go from there? Maybe she’s a “former” arsonist? Or someone pressed into torching buildings against her will? Whatever the reason, the reader knows the truth and can root for her, but the hero doesn’t. 

The idea is to make the conflict seemingly insurmountable for your main characters, but figure out how to actually surmount those obstacles by the end of the book.

If your hero is a rich Roman aristocrat, your heroine better be a Jewish slave... A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers 

If you’ve never read A Voice in the Wind, you should. By reading that one-liner, you’d never believe the two could get together. But they do. Torn by her love for a handsome aristocrat, a young slave girl clings to her faith in the living God for deliverance from the forces of decadent Rome.

If your hero is a devoutly Godly man, your heroine better be a fallen woman... Redeeming Love, also by Francine Rivers 

This is the retelling of Gomer and Hosea from the Bible. Gomer is not a godly woman, and Hosea is a prophet. He buys her off the auction block, not once, but twice. Okay, the Biblical story is about Jesus loving us so much that he purchased us with his blood to save us, so it’s a story within a story, but telling the story again in a new era is even more poignant. Francine does a masterful job of taking an insurmountable premise and bringing these two characters together by the end.

Stealing Jake, Tyndale House
July 2011
If your hero is a deputy, your heroine better be a thief and a pickpocket... Stealing Jake, by Pam Hillman

When Livy O’Brien spies a young boy jostling a man walking along the boardwalk, she recognizes the act for what it is. After all, she used to be known as Light-fingered Livy. But that was before she put her past behind her and moved to the growing town of Chestnut, Illinois, where she’s helping to run an orphanage. Now she’ll do almost anything to protect the street kids like herself. 

Sheriff’s deputy Jake Russell had no idea what he was in for when he ran into Livy—literally—while chasing down a pickpocket. With a rash of robberies and a growing number of street kids in town—as well as a loan on the family farm that needs to be paid off—Jake doesn’t have time to pursue a girl. Still, he can't seem to get Livy out of his mind. He wants to get to know her better . . . but Livy isn’t willing to trust any man, especially not a lawman.

If your hero is a conscientious objector, your heroine better be a Civil War widow... Always to Remember, by Lorraine Heath

Another book that does a wonderful job of setting up two characters who are far, far apart in their ideals is Always to Remember, by Lorraine Heath. For refusing to pick up a gun for the Confederacy, Clayton Holland was branded a deserter and imprisoned during the war. When he returned home to Cedar Gove, Texas, he was given a coward's welcome, spurned by everyone in town. To Meg Warner, Clay's presence was a constant offense: a betrayal of the cause for which her husband and brothers died.

As punishment, she commissioned Clay, a talented sculptor, to create a memorial to honor Cedar Grove's fallen heroes, hoping that every name he carved into stone would carve remorse into his heart. But as Meg spent months watching Clay work, she began to see strength instead of cowardice. And she discovered that a hero could be found in the most unlikely of men. That passion could be sculpted from a heart hardened by bitterness. And that sometimes--like courage--whispers instead of shouts.

Some romantic movies with Insurmountable Odds:

Pretty Woman
Far and Away
Gone With the Wind

Two Dogs. One Bone.

This is another bare bones plot premise coming from a different perspective. Your two main characters, (hero and heroine in a romance) want the same thing and somebody’s not going to get what they want. Or are they? Again, you’ve got to resolve this to where they share the bone by the end, at least if it’s a romance. Or maybe they both give up the bone for the greater good of someone else. Just like in the insurmountable odds above, the reader’s got to be rooting for both the hero and the heroine.

Claiming Mariah, Tyndale House
January 2013
One ranch. Two owners....Claiming Mariah, Pam Hillman

After her father’s death, Mariah Malone sends a letter that will forever alter the lives of her family. When Slade Donovan, strong willed and eager for vengeance, shows up on her front porch, Mariah is not ready to hear his truths: her father’s farm, the only home she’s ever known, was bought with stolen gold. With Slade ready to collect his father’s rightful claim and force Mariah and her family out on the streets, Mariah must turn to God for guidance. Though Mr. Frederick Cooper, a local landowner, promises to answer her financial woes if she agrees to be his bride, Mariah finds herself drawn instead to the angry young man demanding her home.

With the ranch now under Slade’s careful eye, he unearths more than he ever imagined as a devious plot of thievery, betrayal, and murder threatens the well-being of the ranch, endangering those who hold it dear. As the days dwindle until the rest of the Donovan clan arrives at the Lazy M ranch, Mariah and Slade must rise above the resentment of their fathers and see their true feelings before greed changes their futures forever.

Two gals. One guy
... A Passion Most Pure, Julie Lessman

Julie Lessman supplied me with her pitch for A Passion Most Pure, saying she wasn’t sure if it fit a simple formula: Rival sisters with strong faith—one in God, the other in herself—turn the head of a heartbreaker who proposes to one and falls in love with the other.

If your heroine is a devout Christian, your hero better be an unbeliever.

This story is somewhat more multi-layered than a tradition romance so we get two for one. Not to compare poor Collin to a bone, but we could say that Faith and Charity are fighting over Collin. Another layer to this book is the insurmountable issue of Faith’s faith in God vs. Collin’s lack of faith. One or the other must give in from their stance at the beginning of the book.

A few movies with two dogs, one bone:

Princess Bride: the princess is the bone
Pirates of the Caribbean: the Black Pearl and the treasure are the bones
Shrek works for both Insurmountable Odds (Shrek and Fiona) and two dogs, one bone (Shrek and what’s-his-face both want to marry Fiona.

I’ve outlined two basic premises, the “if he’s a firefighter, she’d better be an arsonist” where total opposites meet in the middle, and the “two dogs, one bone” idea of fighting over something tangible.

One other thing. A great story will have more layers than just one. I’m sure if we get into a discussion of Pirates, (and we probably will, especially if Captain Jack stops by!) we’ll discover several layers, but I’m looking for that main thread woven all the way through the book. The backbone, remember? That’s the thread you’ll come back to over and over, and the one that the reader wants to see resolved satisfactorily in the end.

What are some other catch phrases that might jumpstart story ideas? Also, what books or movies fit into one 
of these categories? Share a good "Insurmountable Odds" story or a "Two Dogs, One Bone" story.


  1. Cinderella - Royalty and servant
    Alladin - Royalty and streetrat
    Um, are all Disney movies Royalty against peasants? :)

    My Novella works well with that:

    Novella: Dyslexic school drop-out and Lady genius

  2. What is the difference between common plots and boring plots? How do you know if your book has good conflict or is just overworn plots?Intresting points.

  3. Wow, you've got me thinking but the caffeine hasn't had time to kick in.

    Thanks for sharing today. I'm going to review my stories and see if the dog (or dawg if you're a Georgia football fan) fight is strong enough.

  4. Pam, thanks for this list of potential conflicts for our characters and the wonderful examples you gave!

    Finding a conflict that is booklength--that backbone of the story you talk about--can be hard, but makes writing the story far easier and keeps scenes from feeling episodic.

    Usually in inspirational stories the characters misdeeds happened in their pasts, before they found faith. That past can be a powerful conflict for them in the present, often involving secrets and resulting in the other characters lack of trust. Love how external conflict produces internal conflict and vice versa.

    Feeling bad for our poor characters. :-)


  5. Okay, I can see where this would definitely add conflict. Thanks for the examples. They make it so much easier for my tired brain to process.

  6. Thanks PAM for reminding us of story premise ideas.

    In LOVE's MIRACLES, Psychologist can't fall for a patient. Very unprofessional.

    Enjoyed CLAIMING MARIAH btw

  7. Definitely food for thought -- and something I had to rethink in my wip. Hopefully I got it right now.

    I'm thinking another great example of sustainable conflict is found in Ruthy's Try, Try Again. Conor and Alicia are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their failed marriage and it took them the whole book (a delicious read, by the way) to sort themselves out. :-)

  8. Tex Ritter had a song called Greedy Old Dog. Two bone story... Don't think it was a big hit but us kids used to listen to the album...(Yes, my parents were a fan of Tex.) And I still sing it sometimes.

    Okay, I think my conflict fits, but can't put it as simple as Melissa does.
    In Husbands May Run, but They Can't Hide...
    a girl wants someone to fight for her and save her from bad guy (because her Pa never did)
    And ex-Confederate captain doesn't want to be responsible for anyone after losing 11 "boys" under his command.

  9. Pam, Perfect timing!

    I've been prayerfully considering how to market the second book in my series. After reading your blog, I've got the right angle.

    Prominent Attorney vs. Indicted Drug Dealer

    Thanks a million.

  10. BTW. I loved Stealing Jake. And can't wait to read Claiming Mariah. It's on my TBR list.

  11. Pam, I love, LOVE this. I "got" it when you talked about the two MC's want the same thing but perhaps for different reasons. I'm not explaining it well, but a lightbulb just went off in my head when I read, "This is another bare bones plot premise coming from a different perspective. Your two main characters, (hero and heroine in a romance) want the same thing and somebody’s not going to get what they want. Or are they? Again, you’ve got to resolve this to where they share the bone by the end,..." LOVED this. :)

    1. Dropping in using my amazing iPhone!

      You know, the two main characters might NOT share the bone in the end, .... If it's the protagonist and the antagonist. Somebody will lose in that case. Hopefully NOT the hero!

  12. I sound like a broken record... I needed that, I needed that... I needed...

    But really, Pam, I needed your post this morning. I don't like conflict in my own life, and so I have a hard time putting my dear characters in situations of conflict. I know it must be, for the sake of a good story. :-)

    I liked your examples!

  13. Great post, Pam---and if I may "Ditto" Mary Hicks' comments (thank you, Mary!): I NEEDED that! I have a very difficult time adding that essential conflict (I attribute this to being a former Kindergarten teacher who wanted everyone to "play nicely" together *sigh*) but I know I MUST have that conflict in my stories. So your post was very helpful for me. Thank you!! (and please enjoy the Peach Cobbler and muffins I just took out of the oven).
    Hugs from Georgia, Patti Jo

  14. Good morning Seekers! Sorry to be running late, but I had to back up my "old" laptop, and I'm trying to set up my new MacBook Pro. So excited!

    Also, I'll be in and out unexpectedly today, but will be checking in from my iphone. Yay for technology!!

    Melissa.... Great examples! I Love Alladin, and especially the newer version called Prince of Thieves. Except for the scary snake guy.


  15. Wow, Elizabeth, great question! I know that when I read a book or see a movie, something new, but believable catches and holds my attention.

    Again, the new twist in Prince of Thieves where the hero does the "wall-walking" thing. That's cool, and really gave an old plot a new twist.

    How to bring it home and write it for ourselves? Experience, reading widely in your genre, and listening to feedback from your first readers/critique partners come to mind as a few ways for us to up the ante with our plots.

  16. Hey, Jackie, Go Dawgs!!! works for MS as well! If nothing happens, I'll have a MSU Dawg come January. :)

  17. Sandra, great example of insurmountable odds. That's what you want...a setup that intrigues the reader and makes them say "No way!"

    But with enough explanation that they truly wonder...what if???

  18. The Princess Bride! An all-time favorite. What I especially appreciate is it shows there can be conflict in a basically comedic story.

    I'm stalled at the ending of a story right now. There is plenty of conflict for the heroine/hero, and I thought I knew how it ended. But now that I'm at the ending ... It doesn't end that way. I've never had this happen before, so have put it aside waiting for inspiration :-)

    A thoughtful post, Pam. Thanks!

    Nancy C

  19. Kav, yes, Conor and Alicia's story is a perfect example of insurmountable odds. But LOVE overcomes, doesn't it? :)

  20. Connie, I love your premise. It sounds like a perfect example of insurmountable odds.

    She needs a hero; He's terrified of responsibility. With good reason!

  21. Prominent Attorney vs. Indicted Drug Dealer

    Wow, Bridgett, that IS powerful!

    Jeanne T...glad to share my bone with you! ha

  22. This is so interesting, Pam. I don't actually think this way when I plot, but it is a great question to ask myself. In the book I'm working on now, the heroine is a privileged "princess" who talks too much, and the hero is a serious, intense guy who doesn't even speak the language and is completely lost since leaving his homeland to track down a killer, and everybody thinks he's mad. It's my version of the Frog Prince story. :-) So they are pretty much total opposites. But they are forced to work together to save the heroine's entire family from the guy the hero is trying to bring to justice. So they are working toward the same thing through the second half of the book. The conflict becomes survival and the antagonist is not only the villain, but also the elements and environment around them.

    It's really a lot of fun writing stories where the premise is the "Two dogs one bone" concept. It makes for great tension as well as comedic opportunities. Thanks, Pam, for getting me thinking about this! I think it will help me with my plot!

  23. Mary Hicks, I think we all have to grow into mean, old (not that kind of old) authors who delight in throwing tons of conflict at our characters...

    ... sickness, death, financial disaster, fights, war, kidnapping, desperation, hail, snow, tornadoes ...

    all the stuff we hate to see in real life, we have to be willing to just put them through it.

  24. Nancy C...keep working at it. Sometimes you have to dig for that bone. :)

  25. Pam, great blog about conflict, which IMHO is the key to writing a successful story.

    You've made it sound so easy. :) Of course, it isn't.

    If folks are looking at their own stories and realizing they don't have enough conflict, may I add my two cents? Don't throw the story out the window. Tweak! Often just a small shift can bring about the needed conflict.

    Some years ago, I had a completed manuscript that just didn't work. I re-looked the story and the conflict and realized the hero and heroine weren't at odds with each other. By making minor adjustments to the plot, the much needed conflict developed and the story came to life.

    Writing tip: Revamping the back story can be a rather simple way to enhance the conflict.

    1. Debby this is so true! Claiming Mariah became so much stronger and richer when I fleshed out Slade and Mariah's backstories.

      I didn't show it all right up front but let the circumstances of particular scenes bring it all out bit by bit.

  26. Pam, I LOVE my Macbook Pro. Jus' sayin'. :) Enjoy it!

  27. I hope so, Jeanne. I used Macs for years before switching to a PCM at work...so far so good. :)

  28. Debra Dixon does this so well in her Loveswept Romances.

    Arsonist and Arson Fire Investigator

    Make Believe Nun and Bar Owner

    Corporate Workaholic Female Executive and Relaxation Professor.

    1. Ok...I don't want to write about the relaxation professor, I want to BE her! Ha

  29. llmarmalade! What I always hear at conferences is GIVE US A NEW SPIN ON AN OLD PLOT. Go at it from a new direction.

    Instead of a male bounty hunter in the old West. How about a female one.

    Take a theme you love and switch it up.

  30. CatMom, I agree. The hardest thing for me about writing is including conflict.

    Um, yes, that IS a problem.
    Wanting everyone to get along does not make for exciting storytelling.

    Thanks for the post, Pam. It's particularly helpful for those of us who are conflict-challenged.

  31. Conflict challenged.

    Sounds so odd out of context, doesn't it?

    Only a bunch of writers would understand.

  32. Pam, I love these examples!

    Melissa, I love your premise, too!

  33. Oh, no! Jackie mentioned the GA Dawgs! And my son is about to head to GA Tech--arch rival! :)

    1. GA dawgs, MSU dawgs, GA Tech... Talk about conflict... Uh oh!

  34. Connie Q I think that conflict sounds nice and strong.

  35. Wow, Bridgett, that sounds like a powerful story!

  36. I'm the same way about avoiding conflict in real life. I wonder why so many writers are that way??

  37. Hey, I posted this morning, around 8:00... and it's gone...

    Did I really do it?

    Was I dreaming? Interrupted? Anyway, I said that I love putting together conflict, but that some of my favorite conflict is the deep, invisible divide, the line that no one dares cross and for good reason. It goes beyond the obvious, into the heart, and that kind of conflict... struggles with the dragons within or the dragons without... Pulls me into a story, kicking and screaming for justice...

    So the obvious conflict set up and mapped out is the central bone, but it's that deep-seated angst or secret within that tugs me into a story. The "why" of the character.

    I think that's why I fell in love with Deb Smith's books years ago... and LaVyrle Spencer.... because they had that maverick style that adds a layer within.



    It's late and I've worked today, submitted manuscripts, worked on a cover and just painted the new entry way and closet ceilings... Now I'm jumping into Chapter One of the continuity for 2014.

    SWEET!!!! :)

    Pam, thank you for that reminder of how important conflict is.... Always timely!!!

  38. Hi Pam:

    ALERT: Fox is doing a report on the Amish Mafia tonight! Who will write the first book on this? Talk about conflict. From Bonnets to Bullets.

    One Dog.
    Two Bones.
    One bone poisioned.
    Dog starving.
    Can't tell bones apart.

    One heroine.
    One hero.
    One heroine’s husband.
    (Sorry Mary, writer not allowed to kill off husband.)
    Emma’s story, Julie

    One job.
    Hero and heroine both desperately need the job.
    Two books by Glynna.
    One book by Tina.

    Even similarities Can Cause Conflict:

    Hero’s wife died of breast cancer.
    Heroine has had and may still have breast cancer.
    “Lawman’s Second Chance”. Ruth

    Two good heroes.
    One heroine.
    “Light in the Window”, Julie.

    Heroine wants to win race to capture father’s respect.
    Hero wants to help her do that.
    Dozens of racers stand in the way.
    “The Price of Victory”, Sandra.
    (A great love story.)

    Stranded hero and heroine need the same mountain cabin. He’s an experienced lover. She’s a virgin ex-nun. She’s a romance writer. He’s the CP for his RITA winning sister. He offers to give her the romantic experience she only writes about. She’s afraid she’ll fall in love and lose her heart. Bears and drug dealers roam the woods near the cabin. “Stranded in a Cabin with a Romance Writer”, Vince

    I love conflict. : )

  39. I'll go look in the spam box for any missing comments.

  40. I was on IMDB.com and saw the headline Amish Mafia. I think it's a TV show, Vince.

  41. This post is an eye popper for me. I'm looking at some of my story ideas and tag lines - hmmm, that two dogs, one bone thing is sort of missing with some.

    whoa! as Gru(Despicable Me) would say... "Liiiightbulllllb..."

    thanks for the lightbulb moment post. UBER helpful.

    1. DebH, the two dogs, one bone analogy helps me boil the story down to the uh....bare bones. If I can't find either an insurmountable odds or a dogs/ bones connection pretty quickly, I might need to keep digging.

  42. Just watched the movie "Mirror Mirror" (again), a fun retelling of Snow White that has both The two dogs, one bone, and The Fight's On! themes. Evil queen wants to marry the prince, as does Snow White, of course. Prince is driven by justice, but snowballs--er--I mean, sparks fly when Snow White becomes the leader of the dwarf bandits in order to take back her father's kingdom. :)

    Also I'm having my kindle read "Making Waves" by Lorna Seilstad to me. It's definitely got a "two dogs, one bone" theme with the villain engaged to the heroine against her will and the hero unable to properly pursue her without looking like a cad. :)

    My WIP is both a "two-dogs" and a "impossible odds" story.
    Hero accidentally shot and killed someone as a teen after his friends convinced him to drink, and heroine is a temperance activist. Hero's brother is engaged to heroine, who is still in love with said hero. Hero's brother is also book #2 hero, so I'm trying to pull off the "two dogs" bit without writing him as a TOTAL jerk and also sacrificing conflict.

    1. Wow, Natalie, your characters sure do have a lot to chew on. Ha!

      Great job on ratcheting up the conflict.

  43. One of my favorite 'two dogs one bone' stories I can't even remember the title, but I remember thinking it was a classic, brilliant premise.
    An elderly woman leaves a building to two people, her lovely young neighbor lady and her absent grandson.
    The neighbor lady wants to save the old building and get it on the National Historic Registry.
    The grandson

  44. Oh, Pam, I just LOVED this post -- then and now, and especially your tagline for Claiming Mariah, "He came to claim her land ... and claimed her heart instead."

    That is, hands-down, one of the best taglines EVER!!

    ALSO love the title of this post, Two Dogs. One Bone.

    SOOOO clever and what a great picture!!