Mastering Conflict—Hook Readers & Never Let Them Go
Last time we talked about how, if we want to sell more books, we need to give readers what they want—an excellent story. Very often writers believe they need to be clever and deep and super different and while all of that is excellent, it must all be built around delivering a terrific story…not simply being clever for the sake of being clever.
This said, we must always remember the beating heart of every story. Conflict. No heart? The story flatlines.
Conflict is not simply a bad situation.
I often get pages where it is almost like, “And this bad thing happens then the next bad thing oh and another bad thing.” It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad action movie.
Oh there’s a fight scene, then a car chase, then another car chase and then another fight and OH! An explosion.
If you have ever been to any family event, you have all you need for writing great fiction. Lots of personalities, baggage, history, and agendas all piled into one spot and BOOM!
Conflict is what hooks readers and keeps them turning pages. Every single scene needs conflict. Every page should have conflict. One of my personal mottos, is:
We should strive to never ever leave a logical spot to slip in a bookmark. No, we want to torture our readers and keep them up all night and sleep-deprived. We do this with conflict.
Humans don’t like unresolved problems. It is in our nature to want everything sorted out before we can relax. How do we keep readers up all night? Never let everything get completely sorted out.
Conflict obviously will happen internally and externally. The internal conflict gets center stage in the sequel and external conflict steps up during scenes.
Scenes are defined by action (an outside tangible goal).
The protagonist wants X but then…
Sequels are the spaces between scenes where there is a bit of a breather and the character is internalizing what happened and making a plan of what to do next.
By eventually spacing out the sequels and then removing them altogether is how we as writers can control the pace and ratchet the tension as we careen into the third act. For more on scenes and sequels refer to Anatomy of a Best-Selling Story Part One.
But whether it is a scene or a sequel it must have conflict.
Obviously the outside situation might generate conflict (and frankly should).
Fifi simply must get the deposit into the bank before end of day, but then she ends up trapped in a traffic snarl and gets there right as the motor bank closes.
Question: Are you making it too easy for your character to get from point A to point B? Can you dangle what she wants just beyond reach? Can you insert more misdirection/setbacks?
Sure the situation can generate conflict, but our protagonist does not exist in a vacuum. His or her decisions will happen around other people and thus be influenced by them.
Fifi is a very plain, no-nonsense gal who is Type A and if she isn’t fifteen minutes early, in her mind she is already fifteen minutes late. Unfortunately she opened her cupcake bakery with her little sister who always looks like she fell out of a fashion magazine, who would never dream of going out not looking like a model and who, as a consequence is pathologically late.
Fifi loathes being late.
So not only did Fifi have to get to the bank, she was forced to take her sister because she needed something to be notarized with sister’s signature for the business. Sister was just going to “take a minute to freshen up.” Of course had Fifi’s sister just gotten in the damn car, they would have missed the fender bender that caused the traffic snarl and would have made it to the bank on time.
Question: Who have you cast with your protagonist? Are they too similar? Do they get on too well? Opposites often attract, so who could you cast against your protagonist to make life all that much messier?
Clearly you all have baggage (and I don’t mean carry-on only) or you wouldn’t be writers. Great characters have loads and loads of baggage and often that baggage appears during conflict.
Remember that sane and well adjusted people make for lousy fiction unless we cast one of those types and that becomes the source of conflict. But if both people disagree in healthy ways? Snoozefest.
Fifi: When you choose to do your makeup and hair when you are aware we need to be somewhere, it frustrates me. Your chronic tardiness makes me feel as if you don’t value me or my feelings.
Sister: Well I feel that when you insist on looking like a hopeless frump all the time that you don’t value me. Lord, I have to be seen with you and we could be seeing potential customers for God’s sakes. And for the record, I feel like throat-punching you when you use your therapy speak on me. Is this garbage what you pay all that money for?
Pretty clearly we see there is a lot of baggage here.
Question: In your scenes can you ramp up the tension with barbed mentions of any chronic behaviors? Unhealed psychic wounds? Most people don’t completely operate in the present, the past likes to bum a ride. Are your characters both dealing with disagreements like healthy well-adjusted people? If they are? Stop it!
Remember that there are all kinds of sources for conflict all around us that are natural and organic and don’t seem forced. Age can be a factor. A parent won’t see the world the same way as a child and won’t have the same priorities.
When I am trying to get out the door, my main priority is not whether or not I have packed enough Hot Wheels. For Spawn? That is critical and trust me it creates conflict.
I am a Type A control freak and I loathe being late with the power of a thousand suns. Yet my husband, when we are going somewhere? He has three speeds. Slow, slower, and DEAR FREAKING GOD ARE YOU EVEN ALIVE?
Granted he is good for me. He makes me slow down, pay attention to detail, maybe even *shudders* enjoy the ride…but in the meantime, he’s maddening.
Yet there is some unspoken law that writers must marry engineers. Seriously, it is freaky.
Opposites attract and yet they also drive each other bonkers.
Question: Can you look at your cast then, using their worldview (age, personality, occupation) use that to create tension?
If you want a REALLY GOOD LAUGH???? Check out this quick video that perfectly illustrates differing world views.
I hope all of this has helped. Remember that yes, we must have a core antagonist who generates the singular story problem in need of resolution, but along the way we will need all kinds of micro-tensions and micro-aggressions to add depth to our story and keep readers riveted.
What are your thoughts? Are you a writer married to an engineer personality? Do you see all kinds of tensions flying about that you now can add to spice up your story? Are you leaving a lot of tension on the table?
If you want to become a master at plotting and tension, check out my Bullies & Baddies class below.
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Check out the other NEW classes below! Including How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis/Query Letter!
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.
Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?
***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.
Good question. We will cover that and more!
But sometimes the query is not enough.
Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.
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All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.
This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.
Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold
This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.
If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.
In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.
The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.
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The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.
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