Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Dreaded C-word: Conflict

How many times have we heard it? Story is all about conflict. If you don't have conflict, you don't have a story. Easier said than done, isn't it?

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 entri
es, 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 th
e skill of creating just the right level of genuine, believable conflict for a story.

* * *

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 t
he 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 c
alls "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 Quee
n 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!

* * *

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?


Sandy Elzie said...

Good morning Linsey,

My problem when I have a great instructional book is that I don't write until I've not only read it, but have studied and digested it.

I went to a 2-day seminar with Donald Maass on the west coast about 5 years ago on Writing The Breakout Novel. When I handed him my copy to sign, it had notes all over the page he normally signed...notes telling me which pages had certain things I wanted to be able to revisit quickly.

My favorite method to interject conflict is to have two very stong characters wanting similiar things,(like how to improve their city) but they have totally opposite views on how to get there...this will also lead to conflict when they are attracted to the "enemy".

Great job and thanks for the recommendations on good resource books. (I totally agree with all three choices!)


Sandy Elzie said...

Hi everyone,

Thought I'd let you all know that you can get The Fire in Fiction on Amazon for about $10.00 w/ $4.95 shipping or on Overstock for $12.11 with $2.95 shipping for your whole order (in case you find other books or even DVDs you want to order)


Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Linsey! Thanks for the great post. After I read it, I immediately flashed to a couple of scenes in WIP that, while they don't describe the weather, seem more like placeholders. Well, duh! No real conflict in those two scenes. So, either I cut them like I was contemplating, or add in conflict.

Maxine Davis said...


Great post and so timely for ME. I love 'How to" books, but every time I start reading, it reminds me of my WIP. I put down the info book and charge into my book. I've got to take time to go through and digest it (good words Sandy) and learn what they are telling me it takes to be successful.

Good information Lindsey. I'm ordering books today.

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks Sandy, I write notes and underline in my books, too. My husband hates that. :) I'm sure Mr. Maass appreciated that you were taking in his words.

Wow, Debbie. I didn't think my post would work so fast -- or maybe it's you who work so fast. Thanks for the compliment. :)

Thanks, Maxine. I do the same thing. Once I finish the first draft of my wip, I'm going to read these books and apply their advice to the revision.


Linsey Lanier said...

Oh, and you can purchase these books online by clicking the links for the titles in my post. :)


CiCi Barnes said...

I too love reading the books on writing craft. They give us such great insight and I thank all of those who share their knowledge with us. I just ordered by Break Into Fiction and can't wait to get it in my hands. I may stand at the door wathching for the mail lady.

I haven't read The Fire in Fiction, but Amazon suggested it as I was putting in my order for Break Into Fiction. I may have to make another order.

Conflict is so important in our writing. Sad as it is, we're not satisfied with everything being rosy and perfect; we need flaws and disturbances on the path to HEA.

I tend to want my characters to have everything without the pitfalls, so I have a lot of readying to do on conflict.

Thanks for sharing some works to get us going.


Marilyn Baron said...

Great post. I'm familiar with two of the books you cited but not The Fire in Fiction so I'll have to get that.

Marilyn Baron

Sally Kilpatrick said...

I have GMC and attended the Break into Fiction workshop--both were just the kick in the pants this conflict avoided needed. Thanks for adding the new Maass book; I'll check that one out next.

Loved the description of scenes as oatmeal. I think I've had a few of those in my time. : )


Donald Maass said...


Thanks for mentioning my book The Fire in Fiction. Glad it's been helpful.

On the subject of "micro-tension" (the line-by-line tension that keeps us reading every word of a page turner), I'd like to add a thought.

Any piece of any page in a manuscript can be turned into tension. Any part of any story can too, even a dead moment (call it an "oatmeal moment") when nothing is happening.

How is that done? By reaching inside the POV character for their inner conflict in that moment, and then wrapping that up with oblique (unexpected) details of the time and setting.

For more on that folks can check out my book or try out one of my workshops. Or just read a novel that you can't put down while wearing a tension filter over your eyes.

Once you get tuned to the presence of micro-tension you will see it everywhere in successful fiction--and notice is absence is passages that you skim.

All best,
Donald Maass

Debra Dixon said...

Great post! And not just because you mention my book. (g) Although I do appreciate the vote of confidence in it.

I'll add to conflict that true conflict equals "moments that matter." What you want is conflict which has consequence, changes the game plan, alters thinking, and creates opportunity for decision.

As Donald Maass just mentioned, conflict is effective on the micro as well as the macro level.

--Debra Dixon

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, everyone. And welcome to Donald and Deb. We are honored that you stopped by to comment. Please visit us whenever you can.

I'm glad you share my passion for these books. I felt that way when I was waiting for my copy of BIF, too.

Marilyn and Sally,
Glad you liked the post and my oatmeal analogy. You'll love The Fire in Fiction.

Thanks for the tip on "micro-tension." More insightful words to ponder. I will have to remember to reach for the character's inner conflict at the moment. And to look for it in the books I read.

Thanks for the compliment. "Moments that matter." Another phrase for the pegboard. :) As well as "has consequence, changes the game plan, alters thinking, and creates opportunity for decision." I'll have my work cut out for me when I revise my wip, but I think it will be my best ever with all this great advice.


Nicki Salcedo said...


I'm working on something that is a little more literary than popular fiction and I'm so happy to hear about micro-tension. There are tense scenes and dialogue, but no "traditional" conflict. It is also good to know that the advice from Dianna, Mary, Deb, and Donald apply to a variety of genres.

I like to read the technique books between projects. They give me motivation (thanks, Deb) to get back to writing.

Thanks, Linsey for taking us to school today! I'm about to go shopping for some more books on your suggestion.

Linsey Lanier said...

Hi Nicki,

Your project sounds exciting and a good fit for you. I'll bet it's beautiful. Glad my recommendations could be of help. I aim to inspire. :)


Tami Brothers said...

Wow!!!! I ALWAYS get the best advise on this blog!!!

Thanks a ton to Mr. Mass and Ms. Dixon! I have the GMC book and Break Into Fiction Book and LOVE them. I will definitely be grabbing Mr. Mass's book now, as well.

Thanks for bringing this to light.

And THANK you to Mr. Mass and Ms. Dixon for the extra hints. I also want to THANK Dianna Love who has been awesome about posting little hints in the comments section throughout the last several months.

Did I mention how much I love this blog???


Nicki Salcedo said...

I agree with Tami. This blog makes me want to write. I'm signing off for the night!

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks Tami and Nicki. I love our blog, too.

Happy writing, everyone. :)


Tammy Schubert said...

This is the first time I heard about micro-tension. I'm going to have to pick up copy of The Fire in Fiction. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Pamela-reader said...

Humm Linsey... if your article made you conflicted, then I guess that means it is a success. (grin)

I love the comment about "frustrated, angry characters who go around screaming at each other for no reason". I've read my share of books where the main characters have waaaayyy too much conflict. While often the book may be hard to put down, I do notice that I start snapping for no reason at my hubby... not a good side-effect!

Great article.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have read all the books mentioned except The Fire in Fiction which I will now get. Thanks for the recommendation.


Linsey Lanier said...

You're welcome. Hope you enjoy the book.

Thanks for stopping by. What you're reading might not be too much conflict, but perhaps the wrong kind. :)

You're welcome, too. Glad you stopped in.

Here's to better writing for everyone. :)


Mary Marvella said...

I need to buy 2 more books! WAH! And then I need to read 'em? Please say it isn't true. Could i just sleep with them under my pillow?

Barbara Monajem said...

Late as always... Thanks for a really helpful blog. The book I'm reading now --The Invasion of Falgannon Isle by Deborah MacGillivray-- is just great because although there's plenty of internal and external conflict, the characters' reactions are not the angry, screaming kind. Right from the start, even before they realize how or why, they're looking for ways to compromise, to get on, to solve the conflict.

Jamie said...

Loved this blog, it reminds me that even though I want my character's lives to be mundane and stress free...the way I like my life...the reader needs to have conflict jump off the page to keep them intrigued, interested, and turning the page. It helps to add a little drama to their days without having to live with the pain and frustration that living conflict creates.

Jamie S HIll

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, Mary, Barbara, and Jamie for stopping by. Better late than never. I've been know to comment pretty late myself at times. :)

Yes, Mary. You have to read them. Though I keep my copies next to my bed. :)

The Invasion of Falgannon Isle sounds like a good book and a good model for conflict. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks for the compliment. You are right. No pain, no gain, no story. :)


Dianna Love said...

Hi all -

I've been on the road again - am in NY and going to DC - and missed this post.

Thanks so much for posting about Break Into Fiction. Mary and I both appreciate the review and the great support we've received from all of you. This program and book grew from working with talented writers like this group.

Miss all of you and can't wait to get home again to see you.

thanks again for mentioning Break Into Fiction.