with guest Jessica Keller
Conflict, both internal and external, is the driving force of your story. Without it, all you have is a bunch of pages about a nice guy who likes a girl and unfortunately, that’s not enough to sell a story. Without challenge, we don’t care about your character—even if you spend a page describing how much he loves his grandma and how broad his shoulders are—we just don’t care about his story.
The easiest way to know if your current story suffers from lack of conflict is to examine the middle of your manuscript. Does the story slow and slump? Consider adding more layers of conflict if you can answer yes to any of the following questions: Is your plot predictable? Does your main character achieve things too easily? Does your story climax happen too soon? Does your story lack tension? Fear not. Conflict is easy to add!
Today I’m focusing only on external conflict, which is essentially your plot. It’s what HAPPENS to your character, whereas internal conflict is what your character feels about how they’re dealing with what’s happening. External conflict often comes in the form of outward roadblocks to thwart whatever the main character wants. Most external conflict will fall into one of these:
1) Person vs. Person – This does not have to mean a physical battle. In the story I’m currently writing its two people battling over a historic building in my fictional town. One wants to modernize it to make it more convenient and then other wants the save the building’s old charm which may make the business lose money. Two people at odds.
2) Person vs. Nature – Storms. Sickness. Power outages caused by squirrels chewing through cables. The second book in my Goose Harbor series starts with the heroine in a deer vs. car accident.
3) Person vs. Society – Are they treated like an outcast in your town? Does the character suffer social anxiety? The board in my fictional town starts to put pressure on the heroine who wants to save the history of the old building—to the point of getting the engineers in town to declare things unsafe. A community ganging up on a main character.
4) Person vs. Technology – Often in fiction this is seen as battling robots and the like, but for Inspirational Romance it could be as simple as a control freak wedding organizer breaking her smartphone, a computer virus ruining a reporter’s front page article seconds before deadline, or a fax machine that mangles the important message saying the love interest in the story is wanted for kidnapping.
5) Man vs. Animal – To borrow the tagline from Sharknado: Enough said.
Those are the main ways external conflict appears in our stories, but we don’t just throw a bunch of conflict at a character and consider the story done. It doesn’t work that way. If the hero wrestles a bear in the first chapter, hijacks a tour bus in the second chapter, and storms the White House in chapter three, the reader still doesn’t care because the stakes aren’t clear. Why is the hero doing these things? Who is in danger? What does the hero want? Why do we care what he wants? Believable characters and logical conflict gives a story purpose. Conflict for the sake of conflict is quickly labeled “episodic” (*shudder*) and we authors fear that word.
For the conflict in our stories to matter the obstacles our characters need to overcome must correlate directly to whatever our character is trying to achieve. So every time you’re tempted to toss a snowstorm at your character, stop and ask if that helps push the story goal or if it’s just wasted conflict that doesn’t serve the plot. It’s a lot to think about, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Pick your horizon.
What does your character want most? At the onset of the story, what is their goal? That goal is now their horizon and as long as it stays out of reach, the story can continue. But it only stays on the horizon because of obstacles—if not for obstacles, the goal becomes easily reachable.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth kills the king because his goal is for his linage to inherit the crown. Everything that happens in the play puts Macbeth further and further from seeing that dream achieved. In Casablanca Victor Laslo is trying to leave Casablanca—thereby gaining freedom. Therefore the conflicts that keep occurring in the movie are all things that keep people from being able to leave Casablanca.
If you have no idea what your character’s main goal is, then neither will your reader which will make conflict feel meaningless. At the onset of writing your story you need to know what your character wants most and then start throwing logical obstacles in their path to keep them from reaching their goal.
So back to our snowstorm—that would be a logical conflict if your heroine’s goal was to make sure her family was safe and her younger sister happened to be stuck in an abandoned lodge at the top of a mountain. Then a snowstorm makes for excellent conflict—especially if our hero is a weatherman who warned the heroine not to go out searching for her sister because he noticed something on the radar. See how we did that?
Do the math.
I hate math just as much as the next writer, but there is a simple equation that will make certain your story never slumps. Ready?
Goal + Problem/Obstacle = Conflict.
At the start of your story something happens to create the story question. For example, in a typical romance its girl meets boy, so the story question is—will the hero and heroine achieve their happily ever after? Conflict: Girl doesn’t like boy. Or girl’s family hates boy. Or girl and boy’s main character goals are at war with each other (think about the building that one wants to modernize and the other wants to keep historical).
Warning. A small author soapbox on romantic conflict: An argument does not equal conflict. Don’t use a misunderstanding that can easily be cleared up by your characters actually talking to each other as the crux of your story. This annoys readers. Greatly. There are Amazon review pages teeming with one star reviews ranting about how the entire book could have been one chapter long if the characters would have just talked together. You can avoid getting those reviews by adding in realistic external conflicts.
I’m a firm believer in the theory that conflict belongs on every single page. If it’s a romance novel it works best if their goals put the heroine and hero in conflict with each other from the get go. There shouldn’t just be one or two moments of conflict, but a string of them that build. Start with the smallest conflicts first and build to the biggest one (climax). Your character should be victorious over some obstacles, but they should also be defeated by some of them as well. The main thing being, they don’t give up.
Readers get to know our characters because of how they respond to these conflicts and that is why they care about them. Write your story and layer conflicts in a way that makes the reader start to doubt that the happy ending they’re hopping for can ever happen. Well done conflict creates doubt. Doubt breeds curiosity. And curiosity keeps readers flipping pages late into the night.
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Learning To Love…Again
Idyllic Goose Harbor, Michigan, offers a fresh start for broken-hearted Paige Windom. In addition to securing a teaching job at the high school, she'll fulfill her dream of helping at-risk teens in a nearby inner-city mentoring program. But Caleb Beck, a handsome yet overprotective widower and the center's founder, doesn't want Paige anywhere near the place. He's afraid she'll get hurt—just like his late wife. Paige knows she can do a lot of good—for the kids and Caleb himself. If only she can show him how to let go of his fear, maybe they'll both find a way to reopen their wounded hearts.
Goose Harbor: Love is in big supply on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Harlequin.
Jessica Keller holds degrees in both Communications and Biblical Studies. She is multi-published in both Young Adult Fiction and Inspirational Romance and has 100+ magazine and newspaper articles to her name. She’s also a contributor to the popular writing focused blog The Write Conversation. You can find her at www.JessicaKellerBooks.com, on Twitter @AuthorKeller, on Tumblr, or on her Facebook Author Page. She lives in the Chicagoland suburbs with her amazing husband, beautiful daughter, and two annoyingly outgoing cats that happen to be named after superheroes.