Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Conflict–the Essence of Good Fiction


How do you keep a relationship story from getting boring?  They meet each other. They’re attracted.  They fall in love.  They live happily ever after.  What keeps the reader turning the pages?

As in any good genre fiction, the plot must serve up problems the hero and heroine must overcome.  There must be enough happening in the book to keep the reader interested.

Here’s a quote from an article John Irving wrote long ago in Publishers’ Weekly:
"Plot' isn't what compels many novelists to write or some readers to read.  But if you choose to write a novel without a plot, I would hope three things for you: that your prose is gorgeous, that your insights into the human condition are inspirational, and that your book is short.  I am directing my remarks, of course, to those writers (and readers) of long novels.
I’ve taken his advice to heart, and I make sure there’s enough conflict in my story to keep the plot moving along.

Conflicts are divided into internal and external problems.

If you’re writing romantic suspense–you’ve got a whole spectrum of psychotic killers, evil overlords and dangerous wiseguys to threaten your hero and heroine.

But conflict is also essential to a romance without these danger elements.
You might for example write about a heroine who’s an environmentalist, and he’s a slash-and-burn developer.

Or she has a small business that’s in competition with his big hairy conglomerate.

Or what if she’s a homicide cop, and he’s a famous mystery writer who wants to tag along on her cases because he’s writing a female detective?
Those are external problems, but the strongest romances give the reader the emotional impact of gut-wrenching internal conflicts that make it look like these people can’t possibly end up happy together.

Suppose the heroine’s husband was accidentally killed by a cop, and the hero’s the man who shot him?  He knows who she is, but he can’t stop himself from falling in love with her.  But he’s terrified of what will happen when  she finds out who he is.  And, of course, she will.  How can they possibly overcome that?

Or he’s a detective who’s been hired to find a serial killer, and he thinks it’s her brother.  Or he thinks it’s her.  He gets to know her because he’s investigating the murder, yet he can’t help falling for her.

Suppose you have a hero whose parents were each married and divorced several times, and he was shuffled around from home to home.  Now he’s fallen in love with a woman, but he thinks that his background has made it impossible for him to be a reliable marriage partner.

Those are some conflicts that make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to make a commitment to each other.  But during the course of the story, they will have reasons to reevaluate and change.

As you plan your story, you must give your characters life.  The readers must like them and identify with them.  Yet they must have flaws that make them three-dimensional and human.

One of the best examples of a famous flawed character is Scarlett O’Hara.  I don’t even have to tell you the name of the book she’s in.  You know.  She's so well drawn that we understand her goals and desires--even if we don't like the ways she tries to achieve them, including marrying her sister’s fiancé.  We may hate her reasons for marrying, but we understand her need to save her family home.

Then there’s the hero of my novella, Chained, who thinks he’s dead, which makes it difficult for him to imagine an ongoing relationship with the heroine. <g>


In a romance novel, the hero and heroine’s internal problems will make them afraid to reach out for love.  And the conflict can’t be easily solved.  It must be strong enough to carry through to the end of the novel.
In Mary Kirk’s Embers, the heroine’s been sexually abused by her brother, which makes her afraid to have a physical relationship with anyone–even the man she loves.

In Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, the hero was thrown into a savage boarding school environment, where he was bullied and taunted.  Now rich and powerful, he’s vowed never again to let anyone reach him emotionally.  Then he falls in love–only he’s too damaged to admit it.  I said in one of my previous posts, “Who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?” That’s a question you must consider if you want to keep the reader reading.

How do you think about character conflicts in your own work?

21 comments:

  1. It's hard for some writers, especially new ones, to understand that without conflict there isn't a story. You can't have a string of incidents, where all of the characters are interesting and appealing, who simply go along with their lives without involving strong conflict--and call that a novel. Even literary fiction is dependent upon conflict to carry a story forward.

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  2. Oh, this is such a great post. I am struggling with this very issue right now with a proposal. While I am very good at coming up with lots of external conflict, I'm terrible at internal conflicts for people that are supposed to be in love by the end of the book. My editor is demanding a rewrite with a LOT more internal conflict and I'm having such a hard time. I will be re-reading this post to find inspiration next time I work on that proposal.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. One of my rules is: never create a problem in a chapter and solve it in the same chapter. Keep it going. I think one of our problems is that we WANT things to work out for the h/h, so we want to rush the solution.

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  4. If the H/H don't drive each other crazy, it's going to be a short story. Just sayin'! ;-) Creating a back story for a character is imperative for creating internal conflict. Sometimes, I get really lucky and a character will surprise me with a fact deeply buried in their past that I had no clue of until writing the scene where they reveal it. In my current WIP, the hero dropped a bombshell on me--which turned that scene into the black moment and the definitive turning point in the story. What began as external conflict became internal conflict which added depth to the story. Kismet when that happens.

    Your comment above also contains some great advice. Creating a problem and solving it immediately (or easily, or as an afterthought) rather negates the whole point.

    I don't always comment, but I'm really enjoying your topics. Great stuff for both beginner and more experienced writers. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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    1. Thanks, Silver. Yes, sometimes the best stuff comes when you're in the middle of the story. In the book I'm writing now, I had a revelation about the villain after I was half way through writing the book.

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  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Lately I've been trying to make the internal conflict of my heroine the opposite of the hero's so they repel and attract at the same time. In my latest WIP my heroine looks for security and predictability but needs and fears the hero's adventurous nature. He longs for but fights against the belonging and sense of family she represents. Developing external ones which expose these internal ones is where my learning curve lies. Thanks again for another great post.

    Anna T.S.

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  6. I'm with Randi. I have no problem with external conflict but coming up with internal conflict is like wrestling with alligators. Reading your posts is great, imparting information I wish I'd had years ago. I feel like I'm attending a class and getting all the basics, stuff that wasn't spelled out for me when I needed it. Thanks loads.

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    1. Anna, I like your approach. And Chassie, I agree. I wish I'd understood this stuff years ago.

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  7. Lord of Scoundrels is one of my all time favorites. I think that the internal conflicts make for the most interesting characters. As they begin to confront these issues, there is an aspect of two people who heal and complete each other that makes the possibility of a relationship seem more of a "reality." I have read far too many stories where the prospect of the hero and heroine living happily ever after is extremely unlikely once the contrived plot devices that have thrown them together are resolved. He is still a macho jerk; she is still an impulsive airhead and there has been no real change in them over the course of the book. When I get to the end in a book like that, I feel annoyed.

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    1. Love your comment. "He's still a macho jerk; she'll still an impulsive airhead." Something to keep in mind while writing!

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  8. Great post! Conflict is always difficult. We writers are human beings first, and as human beings it's in our self interest to avoid conflict when ever possible. But as writers we need to overcome our personal instinct and pile (believable) conflicts on our heroes and heroines.

    Ruth, you do this extremely well. When I read your books I always worry that maybe "this" time you won't figure out how your characters will overcome the obstacles you've thrown in their paths, but you always do. :-)

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    1. Thanks so much! I worry that I'll solve the problems too quickly, since I WANT them to be happy.

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  9. Interestingly, I didn't figure out what worked for me until I'd written several Intrigues. I liked all my stories, but a few I loved. Why did I love some of them, but only liked the others? I sat down and analyzed them all to figure out what made a story really work for me. Of course it was the internal conflict and whatever happened to my characters in the past that made them who they were. It was the thing or things they had to overcome to have a happily ever after that worked for me. I keep that in mind every time I start a new story.

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    1. Right. The past makes the characters what they are now.

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  10. In "Writing the Breakout Novel" Donald Maass contends that even the briefest scenes should contain an element of conflict. Internal or external, it's what drives readers forward. He gives some wonderful examples of scenes turned from prosaic to propelling by the tension created by even a small amount of conflict.

    Really enjoy your posts, Rebecca. They get the creative juices flowing.

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    1. I agree, and I try to do it! If I write a scene and see there's no conflict, I go back and put it in.

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  11. Love this post. "Who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?" I'm putting this on a Post-it note and sticking it on my computer screen.

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    1. Thanks! Tweet it or put it on FB too, and tell people where it came from. I'd like to figure out how to get more people to know about this blog.

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  12. Rebecca,

    Another great post. Finally made it here.

    I wish internal conflict came easier to me. I'm always working on it and often struggle. With my RITA nominated book, I had to go back during revisions and layer more in because my editor didn't think my hero had enough internal conflict. I think that's the hardest thing for me to figure out. How much is too little? How much is too much? I really want the reader to believe these two will live HEA, but tend to go a little to light on the hero time after time! Sigh...

    BTW, I RT'd you when you mention this blog. It just took me a while to get here myself!

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    1. I know. Maybe I go the other way and give him too much baggage. And thanks for the RT. I did see it.

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  13. Conflicts can be about perceived issues, but sometimes they seem too obvious and easily fixed. When a character has too much baggage I want to say, "You're right. You don't deserve her. BANG, you're dead!"

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