What is the one ingredient we MUST include to have great fiction? CONFLICT. No conflict, no story. One of the biggest stumbling blocks I see in new writers is that they fail to understand the difference between authentic conflict versus a bad situation. Bad situations do not make good fiction. Bad situations are boring and probably the largest source of melodrama. Today I am going to give you tools to make sure your fiction grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. The best way to ensure your reader is your captive is to have conflict on every page.
The most important component to creating loads of conflict is that our protagonist must have an active and tangible goal.
Conflict is relative. If we have no idea of the objective, then bad events are just bad events. Bad events must become setbacks. How can we transform bad luck to a setback? Give a hint of the end goal.
Want to know one of the quickest ways to get a reader on the edge of her seat? Show a glimpse of the mountain summit, then throw rocks at the characters and knock them off every cliff. If they get to a nice place for a breather, there better be at least a small rockslide to knock them back a 1000 feet. Yet, these setbacks will mean nothing if the observer doesn’t see the end goal.
Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.
In my Warrior Writer Boot Camp (inspired by Bob Mayer), every participant MUST tell us what her story is about in ONE sentence. I recommend you check out this earlier blog for a more detailed explication.
Yes. ONE sentence, and the number of the counting should be ONE. Not three, not two. FIVE????…is right out! But the number of the counting shall be ONE. Then thou shalt cast off thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and blow thine enemies to teeny tiny….
Oops. Got sidetracked. Okay. ONE sentence. That sentence needs your protagonist, the antagonist, and an active goal.
Recently one of my WWBC participants sent in this log-line.
A teenager must protect the princess of Atlantis from an angry grief-stricken scientist who wants to take her power which will unknowingly release Chaos into the world.
Um, all righty. What is the goal? Protection. This is a passive goal. This is “containing Communism.” It sounds kind of interesting, but do we really get a picture of what this story is about? For all we know the entire story could be an Atlantean Princess stuffed in a human-size hamster ball with the protag guarding her with a shotgun. Not very interesting fiction.
Protection is one of those things that is kind of implied. I recently edited a book for a friend, and her protag’s main goal was “to survive.”
Okay, don’t know about you guys, but survival is my goal every day. In fact, when I wake up each morning, probably my biggest objective for the day is, “Don’t get killed.” It’s why I don’t blow dry my hair in the tub or lick light sockets. It’s why I wear a seatbelt and don’t run through my house with knives.
Duh! Unless we are suicidal, EVERYONE’S goal is survival. Fiction is only interesting when characters have goals that are special and unique, and since most of the world’s population has the goal to stay ALIVE…survival is BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRING!
A main goal to protect or survive is IMPLIED. When Frodo and Samwise set out with the Ring of Power, I guarantee you that they want to protect the Ring. I also guarantee you they want to survive, but these two goals are not what make The Lord of the Rings interesting. What makes it interesting is that they MUST protect the Ring long enough, and stay ALIVE long enough to toss the evil ring into the fires of MOUNT DOOM.
Okay…volcanoes are interesting. Volcanoes named Mount DOOM are super interesting.
So my little writer had a passive goal with his “protecting the Princess.” Boring! After a sound thrashing from the Death Star as my students fondly call me, the participant came up with THIS…
A popular computer geek and the princess of Atlantis must find the last remaining time machine in order to prevent an idealistic Guardian from stealing her power and controlling Atlantis.
Awesome! Now we have a GOAL. The protagonist and allies must make it to a time machine before the bad guys do or BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Those bad things that must be prevented are called STAKES. Great books have HIGH STAKES.
YES, I HAVE HAD A LOT OF COFFEE TODAY AND I AM USING THE CAPS A LOT.
STAKES ARE INTERESTING.
In this new log-line, there is a tangible finish line and a goal that is different than the rest of the world. I bet you woke up today wanting to survive. Did you wake up with the sole notion that you would find a time machine???? Okay, you in the back be quiet, and if you find one, let me know.
I might be going out on a limb here, but I would wager that most of us did not wake up this morning with the goal of finding a time machine. Locating a time machine is an interesting goal.The writer has now provided us with a glimpse of the “summit.” We also know bad things will happen if our hero fails. We will also worry and bite our nails as we get closer and closer to the end of the book and still no time machine and the clock has almost run out. STAKES! TENSION!
When we do not have a tangible goal for our protagonist, this is like dropping him in the Andes and watching him eat his friends to stay alive. Kind of interesting in a morbid way, but we have nothing to root for. It is different than dropping Pedro and his soccer team in the mountains and they have to make it to THAT mountain…THAT mountain over THERE…because there is a shed full of food and a radio.
Before, our soccer team was just stranded. Every blizzard and rockslide was merely a BAD SITUATION on top of a BAD SITUATION. Yet when Pedro and the Halfbacks set out for a particular mountain the quality of the situation changes. NOW there is a specific objective that we, the observer can SEE. Every avalanche that takes them farther from food, blankets and a radio makes us squirm in our seats and worry if they will make it in time.
But still, as I just said, that is just a Bad Situation layered on a Bad Situation. Not really genuine conflict…yet. To ensure GREAT fiction, we need a CONFLICT LOCK (via Bob Mayer again :D). A conflict lock can only happen when two parties disagree. If you have a scene with only one person, there ain’t conflict. Sorry. Navel-gazing is therapy, not great storytelling.
And don’t try to cheat with the She is her own worst enemy. Who among you LIKE those people let alone want to see them win? Seriously. I know a lot of people who cannot stand prosperity and will sabotage every good thing in their lives. They are annoying. Readers want to follow heroes and heroines…not losers who can’t get their act together.
If you have a scene, there need to be two people (minimum) and they cannot agree…ever. In fact, it really has to get bleak before they can work as a team. I find it so funny that I get all these novels and everyone just works together. No one questions authority. Yeah, right.
Great fiction mirrors life and I can tell you from experience that if you have more than three people with the same goal, they will almost never agree. Go run a committee for ANYTHING and tell me I am wrong.
Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
Back to the Andes….
If Pedro and Juan are the only two living soccer players, Pedro will want to keep climbing and Juan will want to lie in the snow and die. And the reader will be screaming and hoping that Pedro can convince Juan to keep going…despite the avalanche that just knocked them back 1500 feet down the slope and took their shoes.
Every scene needs a problem that needs to be solved so that protag and allies can make it closer to the goal.
Big Goal: Make it to top of Big Mountain where there is a shed of supplies.
Scene Problem: An avalanche sweeps Pedro and Juan 1500 feet and takes their shoes.
Pedro wants to continue barefoot to the top of Mount X no matter what.
Juan has given up. He wants to lie in the snow and die.
Stakes: If they don’t keep going they will DIE.
Every scene needs a conflict lock, which means every scene needs an antagonist. The scene antagonist is whoever is in opposition with the protagonist. Juan is interfering with the main goal of getting to the shed on Mount X, ergo he is the antagonist. Refer to last week’s blog for clarification. His refusal to be on board with the party plan is what injects genuine conflict into the story. It makes the reader worry. Worried readers can’t quit turning pages until they get relief from the nail-biting tension…the conclusion.
THAT is good fiction.
Why must our characters never agree? Because if they do agree, there is only so much we can throw at them before it is just wash, rinse, repeat. This happens in a lot of bad action movies. We only can endure so many car chases and explosions before we are bored. Same with our stranded soccer players. Great, there have been 12 avalanches. We get it. Oh, but this is a bigger avalanche? Oh, a bigger blizzard? Yeah. Sorry. Really don’t care. That is bad luck, not good fiction. For more about bad luck versus authentic conflict, I HIGHLY recommend Les Edgerton’s Hooked.
1. Goals must be active and tangible.
2. Bad situations are not enough. Tragedies are not fiction, they are news headlines.
3. Every scene needs a conflict lock. (Seriously check out NYTBSA Bob Mayer’s workshops to really learn how to do this technique)
4. There must be high stakes; either physical or emotional annihilation.
So what are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite stories? What kept you glued to your seat? What are some books or movies that fell flat? Was it because of one of the reasons I just mentioned? I want to hear from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last week’s winner of 5 page critique is Tim O’Brien. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Congratulations!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!
I agree with every word. When I’m at the bookstore or persuing Amazon.com looking for something to engage my low attention span, I often roll my eyes at the descriptions of books.
Maybe books should follow the leads of movie trailers and reveal something that will hook you into spending 7 or 27 bucks.
When I’m waiting for my teenage daughter to get in the car after cheerleading practice, I write little blurbs about what my stories are about to interest someone. “A character study of a female rock musician that follows her from rags to riches.” isn’t as interesting as, “The gritty tale of a female rock musician who sacrifices morality and artistic integrity to make it in the music business on her own terms.”.
Then again, maybe the second one needs work. There’s a basketball game this afternoon, My kid’s cheering.
What a fantastic post! Timeless information, yet information I have found myself forgetting as I chug along the word count trail.
Now, I think I’ll go lick a light socket or two just to get the creative juices going this morning.
Thank you again for this great reminder!
I like how clearly you stated this. I am not finished with my WIP and yet I am rewriting in my head already with this advice in mind. Thanks!
Once again, thank you thank you thank you. Oh, and if I forgot, thanks! What GREAT advice (I’ve had WAY too much coffee this am too)! I started thinking about the ONE sentence thingy and I will use that now BEFORE I even begin the book…when I am working on the outline. I never thought how one sentence could and should shape the entire book. Hope you have a better week than the last.:)
Excellent post! I plan to re-read it before every future revision of my story.
All so true about the conflict, which is why Twilight (and it’s sequels) mystify me structurally. In the latest first half of a book as movie, there isn’t even a formal antagonist! The first half of the film includes two half hearted arguments as the lone signs of conflict. I’m not trying this myself, but occasionally people glom onto things other than the conflict. I’ll take the real (fictional) drama.
Excellent! As often happens, this one came at a perfect time as I’m revising a novel and your blog is a checklist for me. I had an epiphany of what was missing just now! I let them off too easy toward the end. Time to drop a set back/reversal on them. Thank you for your sage advice.
I am reading this again because half way through I shouted, “that’s exactly what I need!” and skimmed the rest as I frantically scribbled “active goal” across my laptop screen in black marker. I’m realizing that wasn’t such a good idea. You hit me (and my WIP) right between the eyes with “Tragedies are not fiction, they are news headlines.” Marvelous, intuitive and painful.
I am thinking now about the movie “Castaway.” Tom Hanks character was alone on that island but the movie was riveting. At first blush, one might think his goal was to survive – but it wasn’t and I see that’s what makes the movie. His goal was to get home, his conflicts with nature and himself via “Wilson’s” general negativity (can I just say right here that I never imagined a volleyball as an antagonist?) were the bad situations, right? Without that active and tangible goal of getting off the bloody island, the movie would have flopped. Getting back to Helen Hunt was a nice addition, giving humanity to the circumstances, but even she wasn’t the ultimate goal – only the impetus/constant reminder. In the end the goal of getting OFF the island is even *more* important than survival for the hero because the island – which he manages to subdue well enough for survival – will destroy his soul, and his sanity. We don’t want to survive our lives, we want to live them and we want our characters to do that too.
Does this same principle explain why the ending of the TV series LOST sucked? I think it does, but I’d like to know what you think, Karen.
Thanks for yet another terrific article!
Crap. Just when I think my WIP is progressing, you throw another wrench in the monkey machine. Every scene? Yeah, back to edits for me! I never really thought about the antagonist being one of the protagonists, but in a scene where they argue and one wants to do it different from the other, then they become the antagonist. Gives a whole new perspective of the scene. In a good way.
Lance cracked me up this morning. Now I have something new to do while my son is at piano and archery ~ work on my one liners. Thanks Lance!
I so agree, Kristen. Once I’m able to answer the “what’s at stake” question, the rest of the story gels and takes off. Thanks for another entertaining and uber practical post!
Thanks for the refresher on conflict in every. That’s something I need to make sure I have as I plot out my new MS!
and by “every,” I meant every scene. It’s Monday, lol!
Heh heh heh! Just found an old unfinished children’s book of mine where the protag’s goal is…restore the empire to a republic! Wow, I bet the readers are on the edges of their seats for that one, eh?
Is there any way to feed novels as much coffee as you’ve had today?
Writing the logline had a benefit for me to identify what the core conflict of my stories are. It’s amazing how it forces you to get at the root of things.
Good advice here all around, thanks for posting it!
You’re amazing. That’s all.
I was wondering why i loved the story that I’m currently working on more than my first novel. After reading your blog, I can see why. The conflict is much more active, and the characters’ stakes are higher than in the first book. I like what you said about conflict not just being about bad things happening. It’s more of a journey where there are obstacles, yes, but also where there is a goal. It’s what makes a football game interesting. Not only are there bodies blocking you, there is also a goal to reach.
I was trying to figure out in one sentence what my current novel is about while I was still reading this blog. The first sentence I created contained passive action, much like your description above. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t hard to rewrite the sentence creating more active goal-oriented conflict.
I could spend good money for less content than you have here in your blog. Maybe I’ll dedicate one of my novels to you.
Brilliant. All writers of narrative need to read this. No, on second thought, they shouldn’t. Think of all the book doctors and editors who would be out of work.
Excellent! Setting goals for the main character really makes a difference. And I can describe my books in one sentence. (I learned about taglines from Save the Cat.)
LOVE THE COFFEE-INFLUENCED CAPS! And thanks for the fabulous advice all rolled up into one hilarious post. I shall now have to tweet it. ;0)
Great point about active goal being mandatory. The verbs in the one sentence about your book signal the goal. ‘To protect’ and ‘to survive’ are quite of vague and passive. The protagonist needs to be proactive and try to stay one step ahead of the antagonist.
And it’s amazing how you plan every scene to have meaningful conflict but when examining the first draft the conflict in many scenes isn’t urgent enough. The stakes need to go up.
Awesome post! I am revising my novel and want to have it looking pretty by next month so I can pitch it to agents. I don’t think this post could have been more…timely. I will probably have it open next to me while I do my revisions today, and it inspired some great (I think) ideas in how to up the conflict in my story.
Great post! I’m saving this so I can go back to it before I edit so I know what to watch out for. (In fact, I may have to just bookmark the whole blog for editing advice.) 🙂
If I wasn’t already hooked by your stellar advice… your Holy Grail reference would have locked it! Thanks for information AND entertainment this Monday morning!
Okay, well, I’m currently rewriting my first vaguely decent novel (and when I say rewriting, well … it’s traumatic. For me and for the characters.), so I decided to write a logline before I start. Here’s what I came up with – any tips?
“The estranged son of the King of the Fairies must convince him that the race known as the Watchers do not deserve, before he loses the girl he loves yet again.”
Goal is weak. Can you visualize this as a movie? Pleading with Dad? Don’t know what Watchers are, so means nothing. Good start, just keep pressing and refining. You will thank me later ;).
Hmm, good point. Makes sense in my head because I’ve rewritten the bloody thing so many times and I know what he means by ‘convincing’ (it involves swords) – I’ll keep that in mind.
Kristen, your points are so well taken. Conflict and conflict lock really get the readers attention. Help me understand something, though. I understand the gripping scenes that cause nail-biting, etc. in suspense, mysteries, and thrillers, but how do you work conflicts into romance (not erotic) and romantic comedies?
Even just something as simple as disagreeing about a course of action. For instance, in Romancing the Stone, protagonist Joan Wilder wants Jack to take her to Cartejena and he wants to go collect his birds and for her to leave him alone. Later, Joan wants to take the map to the crooks who have her sister, but Jack challenges her to go look for the stone first. Make sense?
This is a wonderful post with CLEAR examples. As I’m working through the pitfalls in my MS, I will keep these tips in mind. Thanks for sharing. Consider yourself followed and linked, and your book mentioned. 🙂
Fabulous post, Kristen, packed with many punches. And humor. Caught myself cackling throughout.
Romancing the Stone, one of my favs. A suspense thriller I LOVE is Running Scared with Paul Walker. Keeps me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it. The stakes are high and the conflicts are nonstop. I’m not usually into lots of violence, but it’s part of the story and amps up the tension.
I always enjoy your adive. I have this logline that I honestly thought was okay. Now I’m not so sure. What the hell is wrong with it?
A man is so driven by revenge and righteous anger, that the line between good and evil becomes blurred, and he all but destroys the woman he loves.
I mean advice LOL
Thanks for this post Kristen! I laughed soo hard, I cried!
Seriously, I love the way you teach with humor.
I took Bob Mayer’s class and I love the conflict lock. And now I’m in the hands of poor Donna Newton. She’s so sweet. I look forward to learning a lot from her!
See you soon. I’ll be back! 🙂
I’ve also had a fair share of coffee but wanted you to know that I AM TOTALLY BOOKMARKING THIS POST. 🙂 Great explanation. You explain things better than Forrest Gump’s mama.
Okay, my tagline goes like this:
A young human girl fights to reach a new city while being dragged into the middle of a war between a shape-shifting race and all the other creatures of her world.
Goal: Reach a new city.
Protagonist: Young human girl
Antagonist: Shape-Shifting Race (of which there is a specific representative within the novel)
Conflict Lock: She wants to reach a new home. Everyone else wants her to help fight against the shape-shifters. (Actually, there’s a lot more than that, but that’s the simple theme)
Stakes: If she doesn’t reach the city soon, the shape-shifters will kill her and her friends.
How’s that? Anyway, awesome post. I will definitely be reading it again when I reach my editing stage. Thanks for all you’re work. Have a great day, and happy writing!
That’s a scene not a book. Think of LOTR. They are going to Mount Doom to DO something. It is the only place the Ring of Power can be destroyed. Right now your girl is just going from point A to point B. What I see is a passive goal. She is “staying alive.” You are close, but not quite there.
Sound advice as usual. I loved the comparison to a committee. Made that point so well about conflict.
I’ve struggled with loglines for ages and thought I had the concept nailed until I read this post today. Now it is back to the drawing board, but better to go back and get it right than have a weak logline out there: “A mother risks everything to end the drug trafficking that played a part in the death of her son.”
What are the stakes? How about, “A grieving mother must find and stop the source of the drug traffickers who killed her son before blah blah blah (insert a consequence here).
I just finished editing a book with a lack of tension and conflict and all the characters got along. I will definitely pass along your hilarious, yet honest advice. Thank you, Kristen.
Oh my – such good words, but so hard to accomplish! One sentence? Right. Can you condense your final 4 reminders into 1 sentence? (I’m being a smart ass.)
This was an awesome reminder post to all new and established writers. I’m still working on it. I’ll get it. Practice makes perfect after all. Conflict is my friend!! Got it.
Thanks Kristin for another great craft post.
w/a Jansen Schmidt
One sentence makes my teeth hurt. I’ve never gotten below three. You’ve got serious talent lady…you make me want to finish the non-fiction pregs memoir ASAP and return to fiction and WHINE under a blankie at the same time!
My first visit here. Wow! This was just what I needed to read. Thanks.
Definitely the most entertaining advice post I have come across, much more interesting than the blocks of “dont do this”, “must do this” that is usually passed around. Especially loved the part about everyone having the goal of survival. Will be browsing through other wise words you have to offer…
Wow! Kristin, I think you may have saved my first book. I wrote about how you influenced my writing in my blog at http://mysticwyngarden.blogspot.com/2011/12/blog-that-changed-my-writing-thank-you.html (And did mention your books–I so want a critique from you!) And I also twittered my blog about your blog (@MysticWyngarden) Now back to the drawing table to make some changes! Thank you!!!!
Another comment, now that I’ve read everyone else’s and know I might get immediate feedback from Kristin!
How dies this sound?
As Hadley rushes to sell the boat inherited from her deceased mother so she can leave the bitter memories of her childhood behind, she hires the perfect man for the job, but begins to suspect that he knows dangerous secrets about her mother’s life and death
This is what I figured out for my first chapter:
Scene Problem: Hadley must get her mind around the problem of selling her boat
Conflict Lock: She and Kain actually have the same goal, but he is there to help her under false pretense, and is obviously keeping secrets and is not who he seems. (Is that good enough–need to think about that)
Stakes: She doesn’t realize that she’s being played.
Antagonist: I think it’s Kain here. We don’t know why he dislikes her and wants her to leave quickly. We know why she wants to–she’s open about that.
Now I need to do the rest. Thank you again!
I fell in love with an asylum seeker, he was removed when his protection visa was denied, I flew to Nigeria and married, lodged a partner visa, it was denied, appealed, won the appeal and he came home with four children on June 3 this year and I am now writing a book about the battle, Love versus Goliath.
I’m guessing that is too long a sentence?
Seems so simple, but I’ve read books this year that didn’t apply this principle. Most of them were boring, and unfinished by me.
Excellent post, Kristen. I always take time to read your blog and I learn so much. Thanks for being so helpful.
You are most welcome!
I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled across your blog, but I am so grateful that I did. Your posts are FANTASTIC. I keep sharing them with friends.
Might I test out a log line / pitch on you, as well? I would love the feedback.
In a world where magic is outlawed, a retired courtesan must uncover the secrets held within a forbidden manuscript in order to save magic from total annihilation and return the Gifted to power.
Actually that is pretty strong, but who is endangering magic? That needs to be part of the log-line.
The People of the Creator and their untouchable Inquisitors have outlawed magic. They are a political/religious group that has risen to power in the 7 years since the Cataclysm wiped out a large portion of the Gifted population.
The challenge I run into here is how do I incorporate this into the log-line/elevator pitch successfully, without raising more questions / confusion. Do you have any tips on how to successfully integrate this tid-bit into the pitch?
So grateful for your help!
Just add it to your log-line.
…must save magic from a religious/political group bent on its destruction and return the remnants of her people to their rightful power.
Says a lot with a little :).
Wonderful! Thank you. Amazing how we have such an easy time over-thinking EVERYTHING.
Might I try this on for size:
In a world where religious fantatics rule supreme and magic users have been hunted to near extinction, a retired courtesan must uncover the secrets held within a forbidden manuscript in order to save magic from total annihilation and return the Gifted to power.
I believe I’ve finally cracked the elevator pitch for my novel.
Or perhaps this is more concise:
“In a world where religious fanatics rule supreme and magic users are hunted, a retired courtesan must uncover the secrets within a forbidden manuscript to save magic from total annihilation and return the Gifted to power.”
lol, Monty Python reference. we can learn somthing from that, cause that certainly interested me. if everyone puts a Monty Python reference in their books, i’m pretty sure that would get a reader’s attention.