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

 

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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!

Hands and Knees Navigation

“Perhaps the greatest achievement of writing is to become less sure of oneself.”
~ Brian Doyle

The aged rarely hurry. Time and use and strain deplete muscle and bone and marrow of youth’s vigor, suffusing the void with a dichotomy of uncertainty and wisdom which beg measured steps.

Writing likewise begs an unhurried pace. My fingers manage about 70 words per minute when I transcribe the exact words of someone else. My own thoughts might read in my mind with equal clarity and run toward a clear destination, but they’ll crowd over one another and onto a page at a somewhat slower WPM.

What’s more likely is a meeting between a sheet of white before my eyes, strands of understanding and feelings in my mind and heart, and a gripping compulsion in my soul to bring concrete shape to the altogether abstract. My fingers then wander and grasp for each word as they crawl across the page.

For fiction and non-fiction alike, whether my outline and components are defined with precise or rough edges, the navigation of crawling requires the use of both hands and knees. Whatever gift I have, however developed my writing craft, no amount of raw talent and polished skill can bridge the spiritual and mortal without divine empowerment.

“I am like a little pencil in God’s hand. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it.”
~ Mother Teresa

Do I believe I can present some worthy work that originates with me? Or do I simply offer myself to God, asking Him to use me for His work?

If our writing is His means of conveying stories and ideas and a purpose bigger than the entertainment or information transfer we’d otherwise compose, then allowance must be made for God to be actively engaged in our writing.

The suggestion to pray throughout the process of writing may be stating the obvious to you, or it may be a great new idea. Either way, this reminder comes with a few practical pointers:

• Before sitting down to write, check with the Lord for other priorities.
• If writer’s block strikes, be still and wait for the Lord’s leading.
• Allow God to take an idea in another direction than you had in mind.
• Edit with a spiritual eye, asking God’s Spirit what is pleasing to Him.
• Work toward deadlines with intentional room for chats with the Lord.
• Seek God to resolve conflict (with schedule, editor, outline, etc.).
• Prioritize time with God’s Word to sharpen your power with words.
• Shelve preconceived ideas of God’s intent and timing for the end product.
• Recognize, thank, and praise the Lord for every blessing along the way.
• Before considering a work complete, ask God if you missed anything.

[May God] make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.
Amen.
~ Hebrews 13:21 (NKJV)

What other specific elements bring the Lord into your writing?
Do you have a testimony of God at work through your words?