The Toolbox

The Writer’s Toolbox #6: Conflict. (No Pain, No Gain!)



“How are things going?”                                              “How are things going?”

“Very well, thanks!”                                                    “Not so well, actually.”

                        =                                                                                 =

End of conversation.                                                        The beginning of a story.

 In life, most of us avoid conflict. We want to get along and we want everything to go smoothly. However we also know that other people’s conflicts are fantastically interesting. We watch shows called “Desperate Housewives, not “Happy Functional Women.”

This doesn’t make us sadists… it makes us story-lovers. We don’t go to brunch on Sunday to hear about how calm everyone’s Saturday night was—we go to find out about scandals, secrets, surprises, and spectacles. Conflict requires action, and inspires triumph.

Pin this over your desk: NO PAIN, NO GAIN. Both in life and in narrative.

As a fiction-writer, CONFLICT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND. Does this mean your characters should always be throwing half-finished martinis on each other’s dresses, staging battles, or balling their fists and shouting to the heavens? No, of course not.

The whole notion of conflict is to give characters an issue to resolve, aka, to give them a trajectory, a goal, a forward motion of some kind.


Why is this such a big deal? Too often, our early drafts of novels are boring !!!!

Ever secretly worry that your story is only interesting to YOU? Well conflict is your cure. As readers, we’re compulsive about conflict—we love it, and the more we get, the more we hungrily read along. “How the heck is she going to get out of this one?!” we exclaim, eagerly flipping the pages.

Though of course there are always exceptions to a rule, most people would prefer to read a completely unoriginal story with great narrative drive than read a fantastically inventive, beautifully written book with no direction or point. How do you ensure your novel is the conflict-filled, compulsively readable kind?

First, examine your novel chapter by chapter. How many beats make things harder for the main character? More specifically, does it get more difficult for the character to achieve her established goal? If not, try out PLL’s five tried and true conflict tricks:

 1) ADD STRANGE FRUIT TO FRUITLESS SEARCHES. First draft: Character A asks around for information but comes up with no answers. Change to: Character A does a search and comes up with utterly surprising results that set her on a new course.

  (Throw in a curveball that even YOU weren’t expecting!) For instance, a girl searches files for information on her adoptive family. She discovers—gasp—her parents were part of a magical circus. OR she discovers—gasp—her parents are the parents of the boy she loves. She’s in love with her own brother! As you can see, these reveals can pull the plot in extremely different directions

2) ESCAPE ISN’T SO EASY. First draft: Character A narrowly escapes harm. Change to: Character A gets injured, captured, or forced down an unexpected path.

-How can this lead to new plot potential? How will the character get better, what will the injury require him to do next or prevent him from being able to do next? How will he break out of captivity or what will he learn from being held? Where will the unexpected route lead him? Who will he run into there

3) HOLD GRUDGES! First draft: Two characters argue, but come to reconcile their views or agree to disagree. Change to: two characters argue. The disagreement becomes explosive, leading to violence, a drastic measure, or swearing allegiance to a third party.

-How can this open new possibilities for the story? Force the characters to work through the conflict by making more mistakes and truly grappling through the book rather than resolving quickly and cleanly.

4) WE LIKE BIG BUTS AND WE CANNOT LIE. When in doubt, insert a BUT. She tried to sneak in undetected, BUT… She planned to kill him, BUT… She asked him to the dance, BUT.

5) MAKE MISTAKES. Are all the character’s difficulties coming from external forces (bad timing, storms, coincidences, society, other characters’ evil machinations/ villainy) or internal forces/ character-agency (making mistakes, overreacting, wanting something too much, essentially making a dangerous, risky or bad choice)?

-When in doubt, try to use more character-agency to create hurdles. The most interesting problems to solve are the ones we’ve in some way created ourselves!

-A few storms and bad guys are often necessary for good story-telling too, though. 🙂

So go ahead, awaken the Inner Demon/Diva/Desperate housewife. Don’t worry—you’ll get to save your characters in the end… Just don’t let them off the hook before then!

2 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox #6: Conflict. (No Pain, No Gain!)

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