I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.
In fiction? We must go for the guts.
Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:
What is your character’s true story problem?
I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.
That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?
Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.
She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.
In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.
The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?
The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.
Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.
Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.
If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”
Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer?
As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS.
Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).
Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.
What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, 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 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).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
One major flaw here..”For most of us who aren’t crazy.” As a writer, I’m not ceratin that I am among the sane. It may have begun that way, however now….
We are the cool kind of crazy :D.
Great post! Something to keep in focus when I’m writing! 🙂
I like the questions you ask – What about the conflict will change the character? That’s key in having solid structure. That’s why I love the plotting format Candace Havens taught us with the half circle and tick marks of plot points. That visual worked for me because you saw the story layout, but it also gives you the character emotion changes, really. So helpful!
Looking forward to seeing you at DFWcon again soon! Are you presenting again?
Jess, is this plotting format you mention by Candace Havens posted somewhere? I’d love to see it. 🙂 Thanks!
I ADORE Candy!!! She is an amazing writing teacher and I learned a lot from her (and still do). Yes, I will be on a panel and teaching blogging. Will be fabulous to see you!
“Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable.”
I love this. So true. And while my character in my current WIP has plenty of external conflict I need to make sure the internal is always there, too. Thanks for the reminder!
Reblogged this on richardstephensblog and commented:
I agree, character conflict (and I don’t mean who killed who) and hopefully resolve in the end, is what makes a good story. Without great characters and good dialogue even the best plot fails.
Kristen, This was another great post. I know my story line, but asking that question of my main character has been the toughest part of all. You nailed it for me. I’m going for the guts! Thanks!
You are so right about the desire to avoid conflict in real life and that drifting into my writing. I definitely have to do rewrites where I’m being too nice to my characters. Consistently stepping outside myself and taking the approach of “What new misery can we add into this scene?” is a challenge sometimes, but it can also be a lot of fun.
Gaaaaah! I just knew it… I’m TOO NICE!! My crit group is helping me ferret out the real story question. I’d better go in and amp up the conflict before I go back to the group this week.
Go for the guts. Love it. Sometimes I think I shy away from more and more conflict because I look at my character and think, “That’s going to kill her! She’ll never survive that!” And then I look at my life and the “bad” things that have happened. And I’ve survived them and they’ve made me better. And that kind of redemptive, transformational story is the one I want to tell. Thanks for the encouragement to put our characters through the unimaginable.
Excellent, excellent post, as always. I keep reminding myself to dig deeper, but this is a great reinforcement. 🙂
Great advice. In my novel, it’s “sometimes giving up can be the most merciful thing to do.” We’re biologically driven to survive, and that drive leads to a great deal of unnecessary suffering. The core of my novel deals with this often-avoided issue. I’m also employing a Vonnegut technique that alludes to it and is repeated throughout the novel. Vonnegut liked to permeate his work with “so it goes,” a phrase he coined in Slaughterhouse-Five. My catch phrase is “Who cares, anyway? Not me. Not anymore.” It will turn out to be an ironic phrase because it is hoped the reader will say to themselves, “even though the protagonist continually emphasizes he doesn’t care anymore, it’s quite clear he cared enough to give in and give up. But wait, if you view it from another perspective, he still cared enough but not to give in and give up, but rather not give in by giving up.” I require a lot from my readers. I have high expectations of them. Because I care. Really, I do.
Great read! Now, I’m going back to my story and making sure I’m answering those questions.
The surface conflict comes easy. You just keep torturing your characters with more intensity until you’re ready to bring the plot to a climax. However, you are right on with the deeper conflict. It is harder for me to work this and make it real for the reader. This is definitely an area for me to work on.
This blog shed some light on the story I am writing and editing. I reread it and have a feeling it is too bland. From the core of the story, it should make your eyes bleed. So, I am digging into it to try to increase the conflict, it a timely fashion, (early in the story) and make it exciting to read. As a first book, it is a rough trail.
Yup, my main character keeps getting over her problems way too easily. She is going to prevail because she is so doggone spunky, in the meantime she needs to fail more. 🙁
Oh yeah! I was a bit stuck in my next scene because historically, the situation may have been easier for my characters. I’ve had to make something up. So I’m introducing a small piece of the ultimate conflict a bit earlier than I thought I would. 😀 It took a while to come up with it, because, like you said, I try my best to avoid conflict in my life. But I want an awesome story… I think it’s hard to put your characters within conflict because you grow to care about them as people.
Hi Kristen! As usual, you are spot on. I’ve shared your blog twice now with my Fiction Writing Workshop class, so I hope you got some more followers from it. Is the mystery-thriller out yet? I’d love to check it out.
So true. I’m going back through my manuscript now, doing re-writes of scenes where there’s not enough tension and conflict. This is a good reminder of why I’m doing it.
I’m one of those people who avoids conflicts at all costs in real life, so it’s sometimes tough for me to remember that we can’t just let characters have nice discussions– at least, not unless there’s some seriously tense subtext there!
Loved your advice, took it to heart, and put it to work. Yet, I hypothesize that novels are complex tapestries woven twixt waft and weft threads (conflict intersections). Further, that the author woven threads are driven not just by the protagonist’s problem, but by the intersections of protagonist’s problem, with those of the antagonist(s) – internal and external, real and imagined – and those of the supporting characters, etc. All must be known, work, and be worked in series. The resultant higher level product is filled with multi-level emergent properties, problems, and opportunities –the story level tapestry problems, morals and themes. Managing the mix at all levels of indenture is not for the faint hearted, and many an author been lost in the intersections of the matrix.
Reblogged this on maureenjenner and commented:
This sums up so much that is at the heart of most writers and those who just love to blog.
In my WIP, my main character is an anti-hero who simply wants to be left alone. A former war vet, he’s a contract killer now, and he just wants to get his money, do his kills and drink and eat and smoke and be left to his own devices. He gets pulled into a broad conflict because he has the skills needed for a grand job. The underlying theme is apathy, or a lifetime sense of feeling disconnected from the world around him; he will eventually change his attitude, but they’ll have to drag him kicking and screaming to get him there. The parallel in the movies, I just realized, is Riddick from Pitch Black/Chronicles of Riddick, or perhaps Sean Connery’s character in The Rock.
You have just nailed for me why writing that “act 2” feels so impossible sometimes! I mean, I know I have to create obstacles of rising difficulty that need to revolve around human conflict, but as a human who avoids conflict, it’s par that my second nature wants to avoid it in fiction writing as well. I think I need a sign over my computer that reminds me to go for the GUTS.
As far as movies go, “Thelma and Louise” will forever be a favorite. Great outer conflict – great inner conflicts with both characters with amazing “big questions,” and with an ending that was both sad yet fitting. That was the only ending that made sense, as far as I’m concerned.
Wonderful post. In my WIP I know I’m doing good when I put it down and my brain is in the same place as my heroine. I’ve tossed her some awful s**t and she’s dealing with it. I think I’m falling in love with her,
Again, very wise advice and thought provoking as well.
Inspired! That’s how this post makes me feel: am so getting a post-it note and writing ‘Go for the Guts’ to go on the desk! GREAT questions – and just what I need in my month of revising the first draft of my novel….Must keep them in mind throughout the rest of the process! Thanks Kristen x
After reading that question that Les asked, I looked at my mc. I had never really thought of what his true problem is, just how he’s responding to what I throw at him and why he would respond the way he has. After delving into the question of what his true story problem is I discovered I had unintentionally already answered it. He feels guilt, because of something horrible he did as a teen. His rage and defiance is a result of that guilt. He gives in to the punishment he receives for crimes he’s innocent of because he thinks he deserves it for past crimes. Mind blown. My story is about to o onto a whole new level as I explore and integrate his real problem into all the drama he’s facing already.
I like to get inside my character’s heads for a little while to see what makes them tick, then throw them to the wolves. I give them hope then snatch it away, give them love and see how they handle deceit, put them in physically and morally challenging situations and watch them flounder, the list goes on. At the end there is some measure of happiness but to get it there is always a price. Hmm, one feels like a demi god inhabiting a novelist’s Valhalla.
TY – My idea of writing is simple romance similar to the movie Mannequin (1987) with an unforgettable song called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, by Starship. But “character arc” is new to me by definition. I looked it up on Wikepedia. Falling in love with a mannequin, who came to life because of ancient mystic arts, will probably not be a runaway best seller. It will make Les throw up his breakfast and it is not even blood and guts serial murders, but it is what I want to write. I am glad that I decided to read your blog because you convince me that the Social Media can find our readers for our style. Developing a platform and following is the key to finding the readers interested in how we write.
You have given me something to think about. Thank you.
l have never been accused of being too nice to my characters, lol. Many are lucky to just get out of a scene alive. However the concept Les began last week and to which you just referred once more that “every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable”… while much of the dialogue fits that advice… certainly “every bit” does not. There are places and situations where they need to relay information (no not the price of their coffee…more like what lies ahead and who needs to kill what) and the less muss and fuss, the more quickly l can return them to the action.
ls there a balance we might strike between the two?
And l was delighted to see that the biggest ‘conflict’ of the story can be the personal/internal arc.
Thank you for your wonderful blog. lt is much loved.
Just as your character is trying to fit in, so is mine. However, mine is a MG fantasy. Wishing you success. 🙂
I think this principle is behind the brilliance of all of Joss Whedon’s work…it was never about the vampires and the demons that jumped out of the alley. It was about the demons and the monsters inside us all. There is ALWAYS something so much larger going on behind his stories…he has long been my go-to teacher for story crafting.
Thank you for this! I’ve been working on giving my WIP more depth. Remembering to focus on the bigger character issues will help.
Great advice! There’s always more than meets the eye to the best stories.
So true, Kristen. I have found that it helps me write the novel if I know what that burning question is early on. I don’t necessarily know it in the first few chapters, but once things start developing, I determine what the character’s main issue is and how the situation challenges that. Knowing the “guts” helps to focus the story.
Character starts with a name. I have to name my characters. I just sent a submission of a historical romance and when I was trying to plot the heroine, I saw a bottle of creamy Italian salad dressing so I thought of Italiana and then it became Liana because the character lied at the opening scene but the more I thought of it while writing, why not just Ana. But the process helped me in developing the scenes and character. The names are important to get me in writing the story. My fictional American president in my political action suspense thriller novels is Calvin Woodrow. My too favorite American presidents based on historical accounts are Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson, because of business instead of politics. I decided to create the same president in various novels. He promotes market economy as a way of improving the American economy and global economy. Knowing the two presidents keeps me reminded of the political theory I need to include in my novels. Nothing published; the novels are going through the traditional gauntlets and I have several WIPs with the same president. But I am glad that I am learning the self-pub route.
sometimes I think I do too much revising, but recently I made the decision to self publish a short series. I hired an editor made my plan and got two critique partners. I had started the story ( its urban paranormal romance) and decided no cuss words , critique partner two her main critique was, Cathy this is a grown up story, a vampire story, these people done go around sawing awe shucks and heck all the time, so Had to grow up the story and break down and let my characters say hell instead of heck. She was right , it made the story more believable and not so silly sounding.A kick butt vampire chick saying I’m going to kick your tail t heck and back just really doesn’t work. Thanks for all the great advice I have learned a lot from you.
Great post Kristen. So true. Our instinct as humans is to try and be nice to people (well, most of the time, at least when they’re nice to us) and it can be so easy to be too nice to our characters and not have anything too drastic happen to them. I did this in my first novel – made my character sweet and placid and that novel is still sitting in the drawer. In my next manuscript I created a feisty female protagonist and kept telling myself “make it worse’. That mantra helped me create a plot and gave my character more dimension. The novel was accepted for publication, came out last December and I’m about to sign for my next book. Now I just have to try to pull it off again!
I don’t know if our instinct as humans is “to try to be nice to people.” What is considered nice? Not stabbing someone or blowing their head off? Pretending not to see the needle marks scatter-plotted across someone’s arms? Saying it’s a nice day when the Little Murders are all about us, staring us in the face and tapping us on the shoulder? I do see the avoidance of controversy and conflict, that’s for sure, but one person’s “nice” is another person’s indictment. Ironically, that avoidance of controversy IRL is what leads to so much deferred conflict. You can pay now, or you can pay later, but when you pay later there is vig attached in droves. Bukowski, as loathsome as he was, was spot-on with this characterization entitled The Genius of the Crowd. For anyone who has ever dared to get on the wrong side of “The Crowd,” Bukowski’s words will surely resonate. They do with me, that’s for sure.
there is enough treachery, hatred, violence, absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day
and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace
those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love
beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man, the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect
like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
their finest art
I never said our human instinct was to “be nice.” I said it was to avoid conflict. Avoiding conflict is often what creates bigger explosions in real life. The husband and wife don’t divorce over the “big stuff.” Often it is an accumulation of the “little stuff” and the big event is just the match that lights the kindling of small things. They failed to confront when this issues were small. The parent fails to give boundaries to the toddler, then is powerless to restrain an out-of-control teen who’s lived a lifetime of being allowed to rebel.
And frankly, as a person dedicated to teaching love and community, I find this poem myopic. But, he has the right to his opinion and I choose to focus on what is good about people. We get what we look for. It’s why geologists see only dirt and astronomers see only stars.
I didn’t say you said that, but another commenter did. In particular, the comment right above mine. You underscore my point with your first paragraph, so we’re not in dispute there, but I would say your characterization of Bukowski’s poem as myopic is an example of your indictment that “we get what we look for,” meaning where I see the shattering of pretense, and consequently liberation, you see cynicism and myopathy.
We are all looking through the lenses of our experiences. It’s what differentiates us from the robots ;).
Agreed. So many realities, so much time. Yeah, I know, it usually goes “so little time,” but if you consider reincarnation as a possibility, time is eternal. An endless well that just keeps giving. My wife proclaims she was a Killer Whale in her former life. Whenever she gets frighteningly angry with me, I say “please take a deep breath, Orca, I’m not a seal.” Conflict can be fun if you approach it with the right attitude. It doesn’t have to end in annihilation, even though sometimes it does.
What you’re talking about makes the difference between plot-driven and character-driven fiction. If we hook our readers with our protag’s emotional dilemma, they’ll stick around for all the plot twists to see if the real problem can get solved. Thanks for giving me something new to ponder.
I agree with you that humans want to avoid conflict – it is painful. But without conflict, we don’t grow and change. By trying to avoid conflict in our lives, we are avoiding the inevitable. So, even though we may avoid it sometimes in our lives, I believe we are drawn to conflict in fiction because we want to know how others overcome conflict successfully. We are looking for role models because ultimately/subconsciously we know it’s inevitable. Conflict is also a page-turner in fiction because we know people do not successfully arise from conflict at all times. Does she successfully integrate with her family in this scene? If so, how does she do it? (So I could learn from this scene & apply it to my own life, etc. Ultimately, conflict is that double-edged sword for us: it’s painful & we want to avoid it, but to succeed in life we must arise to the challenge and fight to grow into ourselves.
p.s. Sorry if this sounds so stiff – bad health day, so mind is off. But I enjoyed this post so much I wanted to participate
No apology needed. Brilliant insight and thank you for sharing. I completely agree.
Love this. I had the hardest time fleshing out what my female protag REALLY wanted. Once I found that, the rest of the story came much easier. Thank you for this post!
I whole-heartedly agree! In my own WIP, my main character has been floating through life doing what everyone expects of her and not what she wants to do to make herself happy. It sort of just happened that way with the flow of the story as I was writing, it was not anything I intended at first. Once I realized that about her, I started to dig into that aspect of her more, and I feel it has really brought her to life. I have been able to add in more details of why she is that way and what she is going to do about it. I hope it gives my readers a reason to care about my character rather than just observing her story. Thanks for a great post!
How do you avoid being so close to the story that you can’t see the big central conflict? Especially with thematic conflicts like the ones you’re talking about, it feels like the actual plot can get in the way more often than not.
Hi Kristen, I am reading Les’s book “Hooked” at the moment and asked myself the same questions you did. I will be *sneaking* it into my suitcase on Saturday when we go on a weeks holiday to Spain. I *loosely* promised hubby no work but research doesn’t count does it? lol
You just cannot turn away from Hunger Games, Catching Fire or Mockingjay. It’s that unsettling…
This is extremely difficult for me. Fight scenes are almost impossible for me to describe and I can procrastinate for days when one comes up. Regardless of how pivotal they are to scene/story.
Kristen, I was so impressed by this posting that I went straight to my blog and posted about it. I had already bought your book and love the Bookshelf Muse blog, so I promoted them as well. http://www.rryalsrussell.com/2013/04/whats-your-problem-i-may-have-clue.html
Go for the guts, that’s a great bumper sticker. Just as Les helped you formulate your story core, PJ Reece helped me do the same with my WIP. It was like a light went on.
This post reminds me of that familiar Eleanor Roosevelt quotation–“You (or in this case your character) must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Groundhog Day question: Why must one let go of the goal of love in order to be worthy of love?
Pan’s Labyrinth question: What is the key to belonging–biology or ideology?
”You (or in this case your character) must do the thing you think you cannot do.” It is why I tell people that I write fiction. My James Bond character is six-foot tall and a handsome blonde blue-eyed superior athlete who has mastered the Martial Arts. John Pate has a gorgeous five-foot ten blonde blue-eyed girlfriend/wife with a great body named Samantha Radford. – Bewitched
“Why must one let go of the goal of love in order to be worthy of love?” It is the reason that I am still single. The happiness of a woman is more important to me than my own happiness. The ladies are better off with that taller and better looking and better athlete with a steady income. I have to let them go or I expect them not to stay because I have no money. They have to decide that they want me as I am. My romance novels become predictable.
“What is the key to belonging–biology or ideology?” For me it would be ideology because why would I want to belong to a social organization if I do not like the members. I would rather be alone. Thank God for Social Media. You can tell women on the Internet not to date me because I am not really an athlete or I cannot afford things and I will be a bum for the rest of my life. I will not care because I do not have to hang out with you in the same fraternity house or eat at the same cafeteria table for breakfast and lunch and supper. I will not be expected to play golf with the members or poker on weekends while wearing those alligator shirts and Top-Sider loafers. It does not include trying to get me to smoke that weed to have friends or tell me not to date women I would marry because I am not worshiping Jesus Christ. It would be Ideology. I would surf for better friends.
Answering your question about movies with great conflict, I settled on “Saving Private Ryan.” The conflict: How far are men willing to go in risking their lives to save a man they don’t know or otherwise care about? That question is complicated by the additional question: How far are men willing to go to obey orders at the risk of their own life?
Pretty powerful questions and conflicts. Excellent post, Kristen.
Hello there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look
forward to new posts.