By: Donna Schlachter
Last month we talked about not having too much harmony in our story, and I shared ways to make sure the harmony we do have isn’t boring. Also, I shared about making sure the characters, the storyline, the plot, and the theme need to align so nothing and nobody is out of place. Readers sense that, even if they don’t know exactly what the problem is.
This month we’ll talk about having too much conflict, or tension, and not enough harmony, or downtime. Readers need a break once in a while. And we should give it to them. Not long enough for them to lose interest, yawn, and turn out the light, of course. Just enough to let them think we’re finally going to give the character a break.
Amp it Up!
And then we amp it up again.
But this isn’t about story arc, black moments, or crises. Or is it?
Every element of our story should play into and work on the story arc, the character’s journey, and all the elements of a good book. But too much of a good thing can detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story, leading to confusion and a desire to never read another of our books.
Conflict, as we know, is at the heart of every story. Even a simple romance needs conflict to keep the love interests apart until the end of the book.
That said, depending on which theory you subscribe to, there are five or six kinds of story conflict possible in any book. I’ll list the six below:
- Person against person – the most common type of conflict; can be relational, romantic, emotional, theological, issue-related, political, or a host of other options. Both persons should be strong enough to overcome the other, with the hero/heroine possessing some trait that helps them win in the end.
- Person against nature – often the character is on their own and has to find a way to overcome the situation; if in a group, the sum total of the character’s skills should be able to overcome the natural force, so long as they work together.
- Person against self – could be a fear, an addiction, a difficult past, or a tendency to choose wrong relationships. There must be a desire to overcome their situation, and often a mentor or romantic interest comes alongside to help in the journey.
- Person vs society – the hero/heroine comes to the aid of a victim of a real or perceived injustice
- Person vs technology – we often see this in science-based fiction or world-building fiction; can be real (existing) technology, or futuristic; steam punk is often found in this conflict
- Person vs supernatural – can include imagined supernatural such as shape-shifters, or it could include ghosts, demons, gods, goddesses, aliens, and the like.
I know there are some of you saying, “But I hate conflict, and I don’t like to write it.” I get it. When I think of conflict, I envision prima donas, shouting matches, snippy comebacks, and the like. Seinfeld on steroid.
However, conflict in books doesn’t have to be like that. You can write about conflict between characters while staying true to your character, which is actually very important.
I’ll use an example. We recently went to Lambert’s Café in Sikeston, Missouri. I wanted fried chicken wings, so I asked the server what constituted a heaping platter, as the menu advertised. She said four wings. I said that wasn’t a heaping platter where I come from (thinking ten or twelve wings. I was hungry.) She said she figured I’d be full because of the two sides and the pass arounds. I said I’d be the judge of that, thinking she was trying to fill me up with non-chicken wing things. Well, when the plate came, it had four wings not much smaller than my hand in length. Four full wings, eight pieces. And yes, I took home food that night.
All that to say, there’s chicken wings – which I discovered when I went to a buffet a few days later, and they were obviously substituting sparrow’s wings for chicken wings – and there’s Chicken Wings. Conflict doesn’t have to be a knock-em-down-drag-it-out fight. Conflict isn’t always a fight to the death. Sometimes, you can simply foreshadow that something bad might happen.
Or, you can have a character be really indecisive about a direction they need to take. That creates conflict for the reader as they worry through the choices along with the character. How they deal with this says something about them.
You can use setting (as in people vs. nature) to create tension by placing your character in a dangerous situation, and how they work out of that pickle helps them grow as a person.
End a scene or chapter with a question. That creates tension for your reader and your character. This keeps the reader reading and the character moving forward. If your main character isn’t motivated to solve a problem, you’re going to have a difficult time writing a book about nothing.
Not Too Much Conflict
BUT – and there’s always one, isn’t there?—too much conflict will keep your character reacting instead of responding. Too much conflict will wear down your readers because they never get a chance to sit back and draw a breath, which, as we know, is the perfect place to then put them in more peril. Too much conflict makes the story something it isn’t, perhaps. Yes, thrillers and high concept books have lots of action, but it isn’t always conflict. It might lead to the next tense scene, and readers of these books expect that, but even those stories have moments where the characters settle down, have a meal, reminisce, or make a plan for the next big thing.
For example, while a shootout between the sheriff and the outlaws makes for good conflict, readers don’t want to stick in that scene for the entire book. Something must happen that leads the characters and the story on their arcs to the ultimate conclusion.
There is a difference between internal and external conflict, and each type impacts the main character(s) in different ways. We don’t only want our characters to grow in their skills, we want to see them grow as people. For the scoffer to find something to believe in. For the deadbeat to finally find a cause. For the sceptic to understand the meaning of whatever they’re seeking. For the cynic to find true love. For the loner to find family.
When it comes to internal and external conflict, remember that internal conflict changes the person, while external conflict changes the story world. We need both in our stories, because if there is only internal conflict, you’re making it emotionally harder for the character to resolve the story arc. Don’t focus on the internal conflict except as to how it keeps the character from overcoming the external conflict and achieving the external goal.
Next month, we’ll talk more about character arc and character change, particularly as it relates to Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both. She humbly admits she doesn’t always get the number of characters perfect, so she often spends a lot of time re-writing.
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