By Jeanne C. Stein
What is conflict? Why is it important in your writing? Those are redundant questions, aren't they? In fact, you've heard them so many times, you're sick of them. They are mentioned in every article, every class, every discussion on writing.
Why? Because conflict is crucial to good story telling.
A dictionary definition says conflict is a continued struggle or battle between opposing forces. Sums it up pretty well. Without it, there’s no story. If our protag slays her demon in the first chapter, if Sleeping Beauty meets her prince and he whisks her off before she takes a bite of that apple, we have no story.
Conflict has to be built into your plot in such a way that from the first page to the last, tension builds and grows. How to do it? Let’s see if we can figure it out. For our purposes, I’m going to divide conflict into two categories: external and internal.
We’ll look at external conflict first. In most genre writing, the external conflict usually involves the main story question. It’s our protagonist’s quest. It’s set up in the inciting incident that calls our protag to adventure. It involves the tests and obstacles she must overcome. It’s the action that propels the story.
Let’s look at how we do it. Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer broke it down for us in a simple and beautiful way: Scene and Sequel. Even better, he told us what to include in each.
Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster
Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
What does this mean? The easiest way to explain it is to show it. Our protag for this simple example is a vampire. She is after a potion that is believed to hold the secret to regaining her mortality, something she desperately wants. She knows where it is (goal). She gets there. The potion is guarded by a supernatural determined to keep it from her (conflict). They fight. She wins. When she opens the bottle, it’s empty (disaster.)
Disaster is the hook that keeps the reader interested, keeps him turning the page when he knows he should turn off the light and go to sleep. You want a hook at the end of each chapter. In the next lesson, we’ll look at ways to do this and what elements you want to include in every scene to make it come alive. Right now, I want to continue with the discussion on constructing that page-turner.
Here’s where I’m going to differ from the common school of thought. Swain suggests after every scene there should be a sequel. A time for our protag to react to what happened, assess what she needs to do next and make a decision how to proceed. It’s introspection. It’s a place for back story. It’s where the reader can catch his breath.
Do we want the reader to catch his breath?
I say, no.
If you look at how thrillers are constructed, it’s ALL scene and very little sequel. Don’t we want our books to be thrilling?
Okay, you ask, but if all we show is action, where does our protag do the things the sequel is designed for? In our example, how do we show her recovering from the fight, facing her disappointment at finding the bottle empty, deciding what to do next?
We can do it all in a few short sentences. We can do it by having her describe what happened in a conversation with a secondary character. We can do it by showing it in the following chapter: our protag in bed the next morning physically hurting from the fight (reaction), distressed because she’s no closer to her goal than before (dilemma), determined to hunt that potion down regardless of the cost (decision).
And we do it in a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most and we’re off to the next scene. Often, we don’t need a sequel at all. We can do the things I described above while our protag is on the road hunting down the next clue to that potion. Keep the action moving forward.
Now for internal conflict. This is harder because it can be seen as contradicting everything I’ve said above. Actually, it doesn’t.
Internal conflict is what our character feels and thinks about what is happening. There’s very little “scene” in internalization and yet it’s a vital part of our writing because it gets to the core of our characters. We want the readers to see them as real. We want to understand their thought processes. We want to feel what they feel. And we want to do it all without long narrative passages. How? We do it exactly how we described “sequel” above.
Here’s an example from my book LEGACY—
Mom doesn’t acknowledge my leaving. Dad resumes his place at the table. Trish follows me with her eyes.
There’s a fissure, cold and brittle as ice, forming in my chest. It expands until my heart aches from the pressure.
I shouldn’t have worried so much about breaking their hearts. I should have worried more about breaking my own.
End of Chapter 25. Then Chapter 26 starts:
I spot Williams’ tail for the first time when I leave Mister A’s….
Right back into the action but there’s no doubt how Anna is feeling at the end of Chapter 25. It’s internal conflict presented in three short paragraphs.
Naturally there will be times when our protag has a problem to think through or there is back story pertinent to what’s happening now. I’m not saying eliminate ALL internalizations. I’m saying make them relevant to the present and don’t use ten paragraphs when one will do.
A word about unsympathetic characters. Think Dexter from the John Lindsay series and the Showtime adaptation. How do we make a police blood splatter expert by day and a serial killer by night sympathetic? By spotlighting his inner conflicts, his constant battle to “appear” normal, to “feel” what others feel. And he does care intensely about his family. All these conflicts come into play and make us as readers care about what happens to a protagonist who probably should have been locked away in the very first book. He’s the ultimate anti-hero precisely because he has people who love him and who he loves in return…and who he will do anything to protect.
Next month, we look at ways to keep our reader engaged—the building blocks to creating and maintaining suspense: stimulus/response.