The Tips to Maximize Conflict in Your Novel
Whenever I blog about craft, I’m coming from the perspective of a long-time editor. I do understand that the creation process is vastly different from the editing process. I know this because I’ve been on both sides. But, if you want to minimize revisions and rewrites, it helps to have some basic editorial skills in your toolbox.
Since many of you might want to pursue self-publishing, you’re wise to hire an outside editor. The cleaner the text, the lower the bill. Even if you want an agent or to traditionally publish, the tighter the writing, the better the odds your work will earn positive attention.
Line-edit is important and no longer my area of expertise. I put commas everywhere and pay other editors the move them where they need to be. Typos happen even to the best of us. Right now, I’m editing my almost 100,000 word mystery-thriller and *head desk*. We all need a good editor. In the past 12 months, I’ve written well over 600,000 words. Yet, even with all this practice? I oops. You will oops. It happens.
Today, we’re going to talk about ways to up the tension and conflict. Conflict is what draws a reader in, what keeps them turning pages. When the conflict lags, so does the reader’s attention span. A good beta reader or content editor is a great ally for spotting these literary doldrums. I’m here to offer some guidance how be your own content editor before you pass your work onto another pair of eyes.
Tip #1—Perfect is Boring
Everyone has baggage and people who don’t aren’t the mettle of great fiction. Decisions are driven by life experiences good and bad (for fiction, bad experiences are more interesting). We don’t need to have a character who was beaten in foster care to have “issues.” We’ve all had our hearts broken, been betrayed, or even been around people who measure us against impossible standards.
A character can be impulsive because she came from a household that was far too structured. He can refuse to trust because his last job brought him in for a glowing quarterly review, only to fire him the next week. She can refuse to give in to love because she’s been self-sufficient so long she fears losing freedom.
Never underestimate the little things that can propel decisions (particularly bad ones). Many readers can’t relate to fifteen years of horrific sexual abuse, but they can easily relate to a parent, guardian or former love who was never pleased and withheld affection. They can connect to a character who’s deeply insecure because of being compared to a sibling.
I’m not saying we can’t have characters with nightmare backgrounds, but it isn’t mandatory. What is mandatory is that a character arc. If we begin with a fully actualized protagonist, then there is no way to grow, thus no crucible. The plot problem should be what fires away character flaws (refusing to be a team-player, unwillingness to trust, blind loyalty, etc.) and transforms a protagonist into a hero.
Tip #2—Some Personalities Naturally Clash
Every scene should have conflict. Conflict doesn’t need to be aggressive. Allies are often the best source of conflict in our arsenal. Think of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Captain Jack Sparrow isn’t the protagonist, but he creates a lot of tension because he’s utterly unpredictable. Allies never know if he’s going to sell them out to the bad guy, and often when he does, he comes to the rescue. He’s completely selfish, or is he?
If your protagonist is a paladin—embraces order and predictability, follows the rules, doesn’t like surprises—then a natural ally would be the maverick/loose cannon, the character who believes rules are “more guidelines.”
According to the Myers-Briggs, I score dead-even as an ENFP or INFP. While the MB jury is out as to whether I am an introvert or extrovert, I am off the charts on intuition. I make most of my decisions based off my gut. This gives my mom and brother—both ESTJs—a twitch. Why? We are polar opposites. I could care less about graphs, numbers and charts. My mantra?
There are lies, damn lies and statistics. ~Mark Twain
But? My mom, brother and yes, my husband, looooooove charts, Excel and bar graphs. Those closest to me process information and make decisions very differently than I do. This means, if I want them to be on the same page as I am? I have to write lists, show numbers, etc. Otherwise? We might as well be speaking two different languages. I speak the heart and they speak the head…and trust me when I say this has lead to a lot of conflict and misunderstandings.
Think Captain Kirk (all instincts) and Spock (all logic). We don’t need a ship of ticked off Klingons for all the tension. The dynamics between Kirk and Spock also propel the story and generate dramatic tension.
If your character is a homebody? Pair her with a nomad. If he’s a rebel? Pair him with a rule-follower. You get the idea :D.
Tip #3—Nothing Worth Having Comes Easily
There is a difference between a “bad situation” and “conflict.” I recently beta read a book and part of my feedback was, “Everyone gets along too much.” Always run this simple litmus test:
“My character wants X, but then Y happens.”
It can be big stuff. Your character finds a key piece of evidence but then bad guys show and torch the place along with the proof of murder before a CSI team can get there. It can even be little stuff. Your protagonist needs to be able to unravel some problem and can’t think with noise, but one of her allies babbles like an idiot when nervous. Setbacks and roadblocks will intensify a story. Get your protagonist so close to what she wants she can taste it, then take it away.
Also, by mixing big problems with small problems, you will be able to better control the pacing of a story. If everything is a fight scene or car chase, it not only wears out a reader, it can quickly get boring. That is actually my complaint with the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Great stories, but another sword fight? I could only watch Sparrow swinging from ropes so long before it became tedious.
Whenever I do content edit, these are some of the areas I hunt for. A
victim writer might get comments like “Too perfect” “Okay, I’m asleep” “Nothing happening” “Why does everyone get along so well?” Yet, whenever you do your own revisions, these are areas you can easily fix yourself. Even I am slashing through my novel looking for the Doldrums of Nothing Happening.
Do you have personalities that just hit you like industrial sandpaper? Maybe you are highly organized, but have a sibling couldn’t find her own butt with a flashlight and Google Maps? Can you think of people you know, but there is conflict because you process information differently? Is your partner (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.) a person you like, if they didn’t drive you NUTS?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, 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).
I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!