Years ago when I first started writing, I hadn't heard this advice and most of my scenes just laid there like a lump of overcooked oatmeal. On one of my first contest entries, I got comments like "Boring!" and "Get to the good stuff now!" Of course that stung a bit. Okay, it stung a lot. But I got over it. And when I did, I realized this was some of the best advice I'd ever had. At that time, I really needed a slap upside my head to make me wake up and admit that my writing needed some conflict!
Of course, the typical reaction to this revelation is to create frustrated, angry characters who go around screaming at each other for no reason. I wrote my share of those. There was more to learn. Sigh. It takes several manuscripts (or maybe many manuscripts) to develop the skill of creating just the right level of genuine, believable conflict for a story.
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I'm a nut for books about the craft of writing. They inspire me, excite me, propel me to get back to writing when I'm in a lull. So I thought I'd take a look at a few and see what they had to say about the C-word.
Break into Fiction
I just got my copy of the must-read, must-have Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love (have you ordered yours yet?) Mary and Dianna have a whole chapter on the C-word called "Conflict: Driving the Plot." In it, they remind us of the difference between Internal and External conflict: "Your character should not be able to reach his or her External Story Goal without making a major internal change. The internal change is the Internal Character Growth, or character arc."
They also include a myriad of helpful templates in this book that really make you think about your story. One from the Conflict chapter asks, "Why can't this conflict be solved with a discussion? What makes this a challenge?" There's an antidote for oatmeal scenes right there. The next chapter, "Power Openings: Grab Them by the Throat," says even more about conflict. But I'll let you read that for yourselves.
The Fire in Fiction
Everyone who's read Donald Maass is familiar with his mantra "tension on every page." In his new book, The Fire in Fiction, there is a chapter on conflict called "Tension All the Time." In one section of this chapter, "Transforming Low-Tension Traps," Maass laments what he calls "weather openings." If you are a writer, you immediately know what he means. We've all heard a manuscript starting with a description of the weather dissed at cold reads and politely admonished among critique groups.
Then Maass goes on to give an example of a bestseller that opens with the weather (The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits). The difference, he says, is that the author infuses the weather with mystery -- "The following might have happened on a late-fall afternoon . . ." The word "might" brings a question to our minds right away. Maass says, "The weather has an effect on us not because it is an outward portent but because it is tied to an inward storm. A lightening flash in the sky is just a cliché until it is fused to a bolt of interior tension."
Wow. It's gems like that insight that puts Maass' books on my must-read list. How about you?
Searching for a third book to include in this post, my eye lighted on the masterpiece from the Queen of craft writing herself, Deb Dixon -- Goal Motivation & Conflict. I turned to her chapter on Conflict and hit the mother lode. Just the title of it is something to put up on your peg board: "Conflict: Caution! Roadblock ahead!" That says it all, doesn't it? But there's more.
Deb says things like "Conflict is the reason your character can't have what he wants." And "Conflict is required in commercial fiction." And I love this paragraph: "Think of conflict as your ticket to the major leagues. If you can master conflict, readers will stampede the bookstore. You'll keep them up at night. And you'll impress the heck out of most editors."
Exciting, huh? If you haven't re-read your copy of GMC in a while, do it now. If you don't have a copy, for Pete's sake, get one!
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Well, now I really am conflicted. Do I run to my WIP and start working? Or do I grab one of these books and learn some more? What do you say? What's your favorite way of pumping conflict into your stories?