Mastering Conflict—Hook Readers & Never Let Them Go

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sharon Mollerus

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.

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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.


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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?


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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?


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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!


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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.

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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.

Upcoming Classes


Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

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?


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.

Sign up early for $10 OFF!!!

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

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.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

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.

Blogging for Authors

September 16th

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook



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  1. Okay, so after I wipe away the tears from the video . . . I showed it to DH. He also laughed hard. He might be looking for one of those coffee tables!

    In our house, we have a scientist that lives with an accountant. My version of clean is not even close to his!!

    As for conflict, this is something I struggle a bit with. I have a couple of bookmark points in my stories. Yes, there is still an over-arching conflict to resolve, but the momentary danger has passed.

    Something I need to look at, but not quite sure a romance novel needs to be constantly on the edge of your seat. Something for me to consider.

  2. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Great writing advice as usual from Kristen. Reblogging on Archer’s Aim!

  3. The classic movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was on TV last night. Believe it or not, I have never seen the whole movie. My husband, however, had seen it multiple times, so we flipped back and forth between the movie and other shows. What hooked me was the conflict between the main characters. We had two strong willed, egomaniac leaders in conflict — one British the other Japanese — and then the William Holden character, the reluctant hero. No wonder the movie won so many awards. Not to mention the plot conflict: British soldiers building a bridge to further the Japanese war effort. A great example of a conflict driven story!

    • lanettekauten2016 on August 31, 2016 at 8:13 am
    • Reply

    Ha! I’m a freakishly laid-back person who doesn’t even care if I’ve brushed my hair when I leave the house. Shoes? My feet are so claustrophobic, the only time I want to cover them is when it’s 20 degrees outside. My house slippers are a lot more comfortable than my tennis shoes. Yet, I begrudgingly take off my warm, fuzzy slippers and shove my feet into uncomfortable leather because my husband, a government affairs director who would live in thousand dollar suits if he could and would never wear shoes that didn’t match his suits, stares at my fuzzy slippers and tells me if I get into a wreck wearing those he’s not going to visit me in the hospital. It would mortify him if strangers actually knew he married a woman who drove while wearing house shoes.

  4. Always on point. Thank you.

  5. Laughed at the video, so hard. Had to share. 😀

    And here’s another data point on the writer-engineer pairing. Hubby was born for engineering. He never could have been anything else.

  6. Very helpful–especially, develop your character’s worldview to create tension.

  7. Lol all so true. My sister? 5-10 year plan. Wants kids at 28. Wants to be married for a year before kids. Wants to be living together for a couple of years before marriage. Wants to be engaged yesterday. Me? What’s for lunch today? I madden her; she maddens me… The trilogy I’m writing at the moment revolves around a pair of sisters and hopefully conflict’s there on every page!

      • lanettekauten2016 on August 31, 2016 at 11:04 am
      • Reply

      Sisters are amazing sources for conflict. I once wrote a story about two sisters as adults dealing with the abuse they suffered as children. It’s not too surprising that one went to jail for slamming the other sister’s head into a wall at a hospital.

      Even though my sister and I grew up in a perfectly normal, non-abusive family, I could hear my sister’s voice every time one of the characters in that story spoke.

      1. Absolutely – my sister & I are best pals now, despite our differences, but I don’t think I’ve ever fought with anyone the way I’ve fought with her! We grew up in a good family too – but there’s definitely fodder for fiction in the relationship!!

  8. Reblogged this on Jens Thoughts and commented:
    Great post about creating conflict and what it really is.

  9. Thank you. You just explained what was wrong with one relationship in my WIP. Can’t believe I didn’t see it. Guess it was like a too comfortable chair. You don’t question it.

    The video? Is it possible to want to strangle someone, but you can’t because you’re laughing too hard. Hard truths can be funny.

  10. I’m a mechanical engineer writer married to an aerospace engineer. What does that mean?

  11. Pleased to see I already incorporated some of this into my current work, but there are a few things I missed, so helpful to pick those up too.

  12. Lovely! The end of the video made me laugh out loud.

    • JC Martell on August 31, 2016 at 3:59 pm
    • Reply

    The world would be so boring without conflict – but a book without it would be a complete snooze.

  13. Kristen, I know that women have appropriated the term sexist but as I have sons, grandsons and male friends who don’t fit into the stereotypical view of that video clip, I’ll take a risk and call it sexist and hope you get my point.

    1. I do and frankly, if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t put it on.

      • lanettekauten2016 on August 31, 2016 at 5:42 pm
      • Reply

      It’s the reverse in my house, and I thought it was hilarious. My poor husband just shook his head. How did such a perfect man end up with a slob like me?

      1. It’s not a perfect world, never will be. But I can compare my father’s generation to men that I know now. They pull their weight. My son works from home and cares for his children while his wife works outside the home.

  14. Meaning that as this stereotypical pic doesn’t fit in my case, I should ignore it? The people I know aren’t the exception. Flip it around and make it something that puts women on the back foot and experience the full force of the twitterati law. Name calling does hurt.

    This morning I hear in the news (it’s newsworthy no less) that a woman was offended by a batgirl t;-shirt that had a list of to do items. It reads: “Batgirl to-do list: Dry clean cape, wash batmobile, fight crime, save the world,” As a result, a major retailer has taken the t-shirts off the shelf. I think it’s PC gone mad,

    I know it’s your blog, Krtisten, I thank you for allowing me to have my say. I do enjoy your posts, always. They are thorough and informative. Your clip distracted me this morning.

    1. Yes, exactly. When they make fun of women who are “princesses” I ignore it because it doesn’t fit me. It isn’t relevant. As adults we are supposed to be capable of discernment.

      Our sense of humor is different. Plain and simple. The video was a demonstration of how different world views collide and frankly, that world exists even if it has nothing to do with your “boys.” It was a humorous demonstration. Nothing more until you made it so. And if you were really all that concerned why the public comment and not a private message? Hmm, food for thought.

      Comedy exists in poking fun at generalizations and if I worried about every delicate soul I might offend I would never write. If it doesn’t “fit” with your boys, it doesn’t fit. Move on. It is not my job to fritter over everything that might “distract” someone on my blog. I am not PC. I laugh. I poke fun at myself and others. That is how it is. If I worried over every person I might “offend” I would never write anything meaningful. You had your say and I respectfully disagree. I am glad my blog is helpful. I love that you visit, but this is not a place any of us can take ourselves too seriously. It was never meant to be.

  15. Now I get it. If I want to write better all I need to do is go find a magic table. You make it so easy to understand that a cave man can do it.



    1. I want a magic table.

  16. There’s a novel in that coffee table video.

    How do you know if you’re overdoing it with conflict? (Or is there such a thing?) I worry that I forget that everything makes sense to me because I have access to all the details in my head, when my reader was lost three steps ago.

    I guess that’s more a question about good writing than conflict.

  17. Husband and I watched that YouTube video last weekend. To his credit, he got it. I knew there was a reason I married him.

    I want a magic table too. I also want Hermione’s handbag, the one that you can fit EVERYTHING in. And a time-turner. Am I asking for too much?

    Slightly disturbed that someone felt it necessary to add subtitles to the Australian accents.

    1. Yes my husband and I had a good laugh. We had a running joke about The Sock Fairy who delivers clean socks and t-shirts into his drawer. In fairness he has tried to help with the laundry and I threatened to stab him if he did it again. I get that I am uptight about how I like the laundry done and I accept that I am a controlling neurotic and I know if I am going to be that persnickety I just need to do it myself A girl can only take her shirts being washed with towels so many times before she snaps. He does other things like wiring outlets and fixing the water heater and it works 😀 .

  18. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  19. Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.

  20. Perfect timing! I’m in the planning stages of a 15 installment serial and this will really help pull together a plot full enough to last that long and keep readers chomping at the bit for the next week. Thank you! 😀

    • R.C. Thompson on September 2, 2016 at 7:59 am
    • Reply

    A good book on this topic is from Debra Dixon, POD at Griffin Press, called Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Readable, concise and well cited with examples.

  21. Thanks! I wish I had read this when it was first posted. It really helped me in my rewrite. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the rewrite has enough conflict and grabs the reader’s attention. 🙂

    • robintvale on April 14, 2019 at 2:19 am
    • Reply

    I must be doing it right if the last few critics I had read a few chapters kept demanding I add in more answers to the whys I put in. Right? Well either I messed everything up and gave no information or I did it just right and am driving them batty wanting to know more? Hope it’s the last one please let it be the last one.

  1. […] those with the love for writing: Here is how you master that tricky thing called […]

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