Conflict: Don’t Avoid It

Welcome to DecemBlog, Day 1!

Okay, that name isn’t great either. We’re working on the name.

Last time I told you that for my new novel (which is about 3000 words away from completion!) I’ve been using Jim Butcher’s methodology as outlined on his LiveJournal. Today we’re going to talk about how he—and I, at least for the moment—start building a novel, from the bottom up.

I’m not going to talk about his Introduction or Story Craft. Maybe I’ll get to those later, but for now, let’s jump right into Conflict, because this is a big one.

Jim says:

Conflict is the single most important facet of writing fiction. Conflict should exist in one form or another in every scene. In a previous article I said that stories are about following a character in pursuit of a goal, and who is opposed by someone with an opposite or conflicting goal. That’s the overall shape of a story.

But that format of Goal-Conflict is also the basic model for any scene. ALL of your characters need to have a goal. If they don’t have a goal, then what the hell are they doing wandering aimlessly around on stage?

Every story needs a goal and a conflict. Obviously. Say you want to write a story about me, and how I want some frozen waffles. If you just write a sequence of events in which I go to Marsh, find my frozen waffles, buy them, and go home, that’s not a story. Well, it is a story, but it’s a really boring one, and if you don’t see that, I probably can’t help you.

But if I head out to get my waffles, encounter a band of ninjas, find out the lead ninja is actually my dad, and then have to accept my ninja heritage and battle a band of pirates to eventually get our family waffles, that is a story. A really weird one, but it’s a story. It has a goal and a conflict.

Here’s the kicker, though: you need conflict in every single scene. Otherwise, why will someone keep turning the pages?

This is where my first novel has issues. For the first big action-packed scene, Eva, my main character, and her partner Joe are stealing some jewels from the richest guy in the country. That’s not an easy job. I didn’t make it easy for them, but there was no real conflict the way I wrote it. Their plan worked. They got in, got the jewels, and got out. Yay.

But the reader isn’t going to say, “Yay,” because the scene isn’t satisfying. There’s no holding of breath, no wondering if they could really do it. My fiance read it and said, “Well, that was easy.”

I undervalued conflict in each individual scene. I have other scenes I could give as examples: conversations that are agreeable and friendly and everyone learns what they need to know; romantic scenes that are just about as exciting and sexually tense as the original story about me getting waffles from Marsh, sans pirates. (Don’t pirates always add at least some sexual tension?)

I focused on the overarching conflict, and every scene was a step toward reaching the characters’ final goals, but I didn’t impede those goals often enough to make the story into a page-turner.

So when I started out on Shaken, I actually sat down and listed Mitzy’s goals. I also listed her partner’s goals. And her relationship character’s goals. And the serial killer’s goals. And… you get the idea. After I did that, I listed the conflicts to those goals.

And then I did it for each scene, which I’ll talk about tomorrow when I look at Scenes.

Take away for today: even if you start out with a character and not a plot idea, like I did, you need to think about conflict. Give your fabulous main character a goal, and don’t let her get to it.

And “hijinks happen” does not count as a conflict.

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4 thoughts on “Conflict: Don’t Avoid It

  1. I like your closing! I’ll be curious to see your entry on scenes because while I’m in complete agreement about stories needing lots of conflict, I’m not sure every scene does (Damned philosophy major rears its head), but I’m prepared to be wrong.

    1. Actually… I agree with you. Who would have guessed? 🙂

      I think perhaps a better term for the scene-by-scene “conflict” is just plain ole “tension.” Anything to keep the reader turning pages. But plenty of authors I love (Diana Gabaldon, for one), writes gobs of scenes that aren’t strictly conflict laced, but–for some reason–I keep reading and rereading. There’s something nebulous there not covered by the Butcher method, and that’s probably one of the flaws of the method that I’ll look at at some point this month. Hopefully. 🙂

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