Conflict: The Heart of Your Story

One consistent problem most writers – new or seasoned – have when they’re developing their stories (present company included!) is to bring enough conflict into the story.

It’s normal to want to protect our characters from conflict. We like these people. We want them to have happy lives.

But do you know what you get when you give your characters happy lives that are free from any conflict? That’s right.

Boring fiction.

You need to bring conflict into their lives!

But how?

The first thing to remember is that conflict can be defined as goals that are blocked or defeated. So before you can have conflict, your character needs to have goals.

I hope you’ve all heard of Debra Dixon’s book, Goals, Motivation and Conflict. That’s a great place to start learning to develop your character’s GMC.

Conflict in the back story

As I develop my characters’ GMCs, I begin to discover their back story. What happened in their past that is affecting them now?

For example, in the proposal I’m working on now, Samuel and Mary’s story, Mary and her sister move from Holmes County, Ohio to Shipshewana, Indiana to live with their elderly great aunt. But why would they move away from home? What is at home that they want to get away from?

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It has to be a conflict strong enough to force them to take this life-changing step. For Mary, it’s a tragic event that happened to her two years earlier.

A Conflict within the story for each character

So the next step is to find Mary’s story conflict. I had to ask myself: What is the worst, the absolute worst thing that could happen to my character?

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In my proposal, Mary’s past tragic event is that she had been attacked by a man two years earlier, and since then the attacker has been threatening her and intimidating her–blackmailing her into keeping his secret.

So what is the absolute worst thing that could happen to Mary? That’s right. Her attacker finds her in Indiana and starts the intimidation and threats all over again.

The story conflict is more powerful if it has ties to a past conflict in your character’s life.

Of course, both characters need to have a conflict, so you need to do this exercise for both your hero and your heroine.

Let the Conflict in your story increase toward the crescendo of the Final Battle

In my proposal, the hero, Samuel, is an alcoholic. He’s fighting his addiction throughout the entire story. That’s his first level of conflict.

His battle becomes much worse when he feels inadequate, threatened or guilty. When he sees Mary with her attacker, he assumes that they have a romantic relationship. That’s the next level of conflict for him.

But when he finds out he’s wrong and Mary is in danger from this man, he faces the “dark night of the soul,” the Black Moment, and is on the verge of taking that drink he’s been fighting throughout the story…and the conflict tension ramps up.

Your characters’ individual Conflicts work against each other, driving your hero and heroine apart

Ramping up the tension raises the stakes; the characters’ relationship is in danger.

Samuel’s alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy make him pull away from Mary just when she needs him most.

Mary’s fear of revealing her secret–and of being close to any man–makes her pull away from him just when he needs her most.

Levi Zook's farm, Eden Township, Lagrange County

I want my readers to question how these two can ever overcome their conflicts and have a happily-ever-after ending!

So the most important part of the story comes when the characters need to fight against this force that is driving them away from each other. The satisfying ending to the story comes when they triumphantly stand firm, fighting this final battle together.

Share with us!

Are you guilty of letting your characters get off easy? What can you do to help ramp up the conflict in your story?

Jan’s newest book is “Hannah’s Choice,” the first in the series Journey to Pleasant Prairie from Revell Books.285198_HannahsChoiceDrexler_FBHeader

 

Idiosyncrasies of the English Language

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Don’t panic. I’m not going all-out academic linguistics on you, but we need to take a moment to consider the quirks of the American English language (as opposed to British). More to the point: what is said vs. what is meant.

When I say: “Wow, that garbage can is full.”

It means: “Get off your butt and lug out that Hefty bag, would ya?”

When my husband says: “Can I help with dinner?”

It means: “Have you been on Pinterest all day or what? Why isn’t the food on the table yet?”

When the sales clerk says: “Have a nice day.”

It means: “I don’t care a rat’s behind what kind of day you have as long as you fill out the survey on the bottom of the receipt and make me look good.”

When words are spoken face to face, it’s easier to decipher because of body language. But when the written word is your medium of choice, it’s all the harder to convey what a character actually means. On the up side, this can be used to an author’s advantage by choosing words that convey characterization via dialogue.

Or it can leave your reader scratching their head and relegating your book to the bottom of the stack on their nightstand.

What to do?

The best way to make each of your characters say what they really mean (and not give the reader a different expectation) is to know your character well before they speak. This requires some groundwork before you begin a new manuscript. Yes, this takes time, but in the long run it will pay off.

Know your characters. Know them well. Then use the words that flow out of their mouths to solidify who they are in your reader’s mind. Those are the kind of characters that stick with a reader long after they’ve closed the book.

But Don’t Overdo It

I love sarcasm. Give me a character who’s snappy and snippy with their dialogue and bam—instant like fest as far as I’m concerned. So it surprises me when my snarky personalities aren’t always well loved. What’s the deal?

Apparently I’m in the minority. Surprisingly, sarcasm doesn’t head the list of likeable traits, which can work against an author while crafting characters. It is your job as a writer to make your reader fall in love with your characters . . . or at least want to have coffee with them.

What authors do you know who have mastered the art of dialogue?

10 Ideas for Tension Filled Writing

It was 10:30 at night. Not just any night, but the night before school started. Not just any night-before-school, but my first day of my first year back teaching high school full-time after a decade spent home being a full-time mother to my four precious blessings.

StressedOutWomanI was supposed to be in bed, but instead, I was on the front porch, armed with Rid spray, Rid gel, Rid comb and Rid shampoo angrily picking nits out of my second-born’s hair. She was sobbing. I was sobbing, too. Tears ran down my face making my nose itch. Even my kneecaps (recently shaved, I might add) itched at the mere thought of those hideous creatures.

Arriving home late from a city council meeting, my police chief husband discovered us thusly sobbing, picking and spraying. Without saying a word, he went inside, changed and took over the flashlight holding as we shampooed, checked and double checked until the wee hours of the morning. I flopped into bed exhausted and angry. Why hadn’t my daughter’s friend noticed this illegal immigration into her hair while on a mission trip sooner? Why had my daughter had a sleepover two nights prior, thus accidentally inviting them into our home? How could any of this work out for the best? Surely I would never last an entire school day on four hours of sleep!

That same week, both bathrooms sprung leaks causing a waterfall in my office and falling drywall in the laundry room. I attended Open House with my skirt caught in the back of my belt. My husband kept later-than-usual hours with murder suspects, stabbing suspects and hit-and-run accidents. Wasps made their home under our porch and the upstairs air-conditioning went out. I was hot, tired, cranky and spent my days in fearful waiting for the next plague to strike.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing. And everything. For it gave me ideas for those times when the ill-timed equivalent of lice arrive on your scene!

1. Remember that the best plots involve conflict, action and drama. If everything in life went according to plan, it would make a boring book. Nobody would read past page two.

2. When life falls apart around you it often provides a forced clarity. Priorities become real. We are reminded that God is as necessary as breath. We invite Him into our lives and into our writing.

3. Every irritating situation has its flip side. Look for the humor and use it to make an unusual tweak in a character or an unique twist in your story line.

4. Listen to real life dialogue and take notes in your head (as if you’re not doing this already!) Sometimes what is being said in response makes a great jumping point for dialogue in your novel or a superb illustration in your non-fiction work.

5. Most likely, you didn’t expire from the stress of these multiple irritations, and your character won’t either. Rather, they can grow, change and develop. It can be a point of humor or a highlight of your character’s movement toward your desired ending.

6. What scriptures, friends, or soothing rituals helped you to cope? Might your characters borrow some of them for their problem pages?

7. Taking a walk or a laughter break can help alleviate stress. Send your character on an imaginary walk, or take note cards outside with you on a real walk and see what happens. Let your characters talk to you about what’s going on in their lives. What tickles your characters’ funny bones?

8. Was there a nemesis involved in your frustrating situation? Maybe this can be a starting point for a quirky or irritating companion to your main character. What did people say about your week/day of crisis that got on your last nerve? Serve it up on the page and make it fit your story.

9. A clump of events or disaster in your character’s life can likewise point him or her to a God who is very real and present. Recall the touch points in your frustrations that made you reach out to Him almost in spite of your determination to be angry or bitter.

10. If you’re stuck in a louse-y situation just now, either in your personal life or in your life between the pages– remember, just as chapters end, this too shall pass. If you’ll likely laugh about it later, try to laugh now. Almost everything, sooner or later, makes its way into the writing craft!

Jumping in the Deep End With Your Characters

Fiction writers write stories, and the best stories are the ones that bring the reader into the characters’ lives. As writers, we want our characters to take on lives of their own, to seem real, to bring the reader along on the journey.

The best way to do that is to give our characters identifiable goals that move them from one end of the book to the other, propelling them forward until they reach their dream.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it isn’t quite that simple.

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Our hero doesn’t just need a goal – the “what” of what he wants. We need to dig a little deeper. For example, your hero wants to become a doctor. That’s a worthy goal. But what makes it an important goal, one that the readers care about, is that he wants to become a doctor because his younger brother died of a mysterious disease. He wants to identify the disease and find a cure for it. That’s his motivation, the thing that keeps him moving toward his goal.

What keeps the reader turning the page, though, is that there is something or someone in conflict with the hero, trying to keep him from attaining his goal. Perhaps it’s a lack of money that keeps him from going to school. Perhaps it’s another medical student who competes with him at every turn – cheating whenever he can. Perhaps your hero has the same disease that killed his brother, and he knows he has a limited time to find the cure. Or maybe it’s the hero’s daughter who has the disease…that ramps up the tension a bit, doesn’t it?

This concept is covered well in one of my favorite writing books, Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I try to read it at least once a year, and I learn a bit more about ImageGMC every time I read it.

But I recently found something else to use to bring my readers deeper into my characters’ lives. As we write, we often ask ourselves, “What would my hero do in this situation?” To go deeper, you need to know not only what your character would do, but what your character would never do.

Let’s look at our hero who wants to be the doctor. He’s smart, good-looking, dedicated, compassionate, honest. We know what he would do in most situations. We also know he would never murder anyone. How could he? He’s dedicated his life to helping people.

But think how the tension would crackle if you put your doctor-to-be in a situation where he has to make a choice between the life of a stranger and the life of his daughter. What would he do? Could he do the unthinkable?

Taking your readers through your hero’s thoughts and emotions as he wrestles with that decision brings them deeper into his character than anything else you can do. They sweat with him as he realizes he’s in a no-win situation. They feel the dread of making a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. And they celebrate with him when he comes upon the only solution – the perfect solution that preserves both lives.

So think about the hero or heroine in your work in progress. What is the one thing he or she would never do?

And what situation will guarantee they’ll have to contemplate taking that step?

Jan Drexler lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota with her husband of thirty years, their four adult children, two rowdy dogs, and Maggie, the cat who thinks she’s a dog. If she isn’t sitting at her computer living the lives of her characters, she’s probably hiking in the Hills or the Badlands, enjoying the spectacular scenery.

Jan’s debut novel, The Prodigal Son Returns, was published by Love Inspired in May 2013.

Creating Characters that Count

Think back to the last good – really good – story you read. The one you couldn’t put down, the one that made you cry in the middle of the fifth chapter, the one you finished late at night because you couldn’t go to sleep until you found out how it ended. And then when you finished it, you closed the cover of the book and ran your hand over it with a sigh.

There’s a good possibility the biggest thing that drew you into that book and kept you there was a memorable character.

Oh yes, story is important, but unless your readers have someone to care about, even the best story will be flat.

Here are some ideas to make your readers care:

  1. Give them a likeable hero or heroine.  Make sure she’s someone you want to spend time with, and your reader will, too. Give her a sense of humor, deep feelings for her family and friends, and someone who likes her. Make her smile once in a while, even if she’s going through adversity. Make her strong enough to stand what you’re going to put her through in the next 250 pages.
  2. Give your hero/heroine a past. Everyone has a past that affects them. He’s trying to live down mistakes – or hope no one finds out about them. He’s lost loved ones, had a crush on the girl next door, still misses his favorite dog, or burned a bridge he wishes he hadn’t. People are affected by their past. Your hero’s past determines his actions today.
  3. Give your hero/heroine a future. Give her dreams. Dreams motivate us and make us do things – interesting things. Every decision your heroine makes today is weighed with the future in mind.
  4. Make your hero/heroine three dimensional. There’s nothing interesting about cardboard. You say he’s tall, dark and handsome? Don’t let him be caught in a stereotype. Make that tall, dark and handsome guy scared of heights, but he still rescues the heroine’s kitten from a tree. Make him brave in the face of gunfire, but a wuss when it comes to spiders. Know what makes him happy, what makes him angry, what delights him, what scares him. Make him real.
  5. Give your hero/heroine someone to love. When we identify with a character’s emotions, we’re drawn into her story. We want her to marry the guy, or reconcile with her sister, or forgive her mother. We want to feel her longings and heartaches on the way to her happy ending.

Characters are what make the story – make them count!

What are some of your favorite characters, and what makes them memorable?

What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature

I used to think I knew all about right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villainsIt was all black and white to me. When I bothered to think of it at all, I pretty much knew how to bucket things and, I’m sad to say, sometimes people. Then I started writing, and I figured every character central to my plot would be a good guy or a bad guy, an ally or an obstacle. I quickly learned that wasn’t the way to build a character-driven novel. All-good or all-bad characters are flat, boring, and unrealistic. No one wants to read about them, and it wasn’t fun to write about them, either. I realized, like real people, characters must have a little of both in them.

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This concept was easier for me to grasp with my heroes. After all, if a hero doesn’t start out flawed in some way, how can they ever hope to grow? This was something I embraced early on in my writing. The fundamental change that occurs when a hero is tested through a series of internal and external obstacles is half the fun of writing, in my opinion. The villain was a bit trickier. Even understanding no one is perfect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing a finger at a blatant wrong-doer and summing up their person as ‘bad’.

As I spent more time delving into the psyche of my villains before casting them in a story, I realized who they are is more than what they want, their flawed reasoning or perspective, and even what motivates them to do the terrible things they sometimes do. Villains, like real people, can have a backstory wound too.

What is a backstory wound?

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One of my favorite resources for character-driven plots comes from Martha Alderson, often referred to as the Plot Whisperer. A backstory wound can be anything impressionable in the character’s past that interferes directly with their success at achieving their goal. It’s worth pointing out this isn’t always something you’ll reveal to your readers, but it’s something the writer should know. Essentially, backstory wounds are how characters sabotage themselves, whether they’re aware of it or not. Heroes have them, and villains have them. (Don’t we all, really?) The main difference is, at the end of the story, the hero has changed somehow to overcome their backstory wound to the extent they can achieve their goal, whereas the villain hasn’t.

But they could.

Villains have the same capacity to grow and change as heroes have.

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When I realized that little nugget, I was able to start writing better villains, and I also had a slightly altered view of human nature; I became a little more understanding. Like our characters, real people face conflict and make choices every single day—choices often colored by their own backstory wounds. The fights we pick, the words we say, the grudges we release, the big dramas and little thoughts and actions that shape us every day—these help us grow in character…or not.

I still have my views on right and wrong. However, now I try not to assign those characteristics to people, but rather to their behavior at any given point in time, often framed by the choices available to them.

What about you? What has writing (or reading) taught you about human nature?

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?