Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.
Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.
However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.
Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:
Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.
So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.
If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.
Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.
Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.
Let me state this clearly: conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.
Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.
However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.
Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.
Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.
Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.
Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.
Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.
That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.
Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.
If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.
Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.
What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?
External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.
The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.
Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.
Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.
Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.