Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?

Writers In The Storm welcomes back Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo for some more plot-fixing magic. Look for Kara’s writing tips the first Friday of every month. (Here are the links for  Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)  Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House. AND she’s a 2012 DOUBLE RITA Finalist!

by Kara Lennox

This is the fourth in an ongoing series of Plot Fixer blogs by Kara Lennox.

Plot Problem #5

Weak conflict

As I said in the previous blog, conflict is everything in fiction. (Well, okay, maybe great characters are important, too.) But conflict drives your story. Readers love it.

Here is what conflict is not:

Conflict is not constant bickering. When a hero and heroine bicker all the time, it just gets tedious. Have you ever known a real couple like this? They pick each other apart at every turn, and you wonder why in the world they ever got together, and if they think so little of each other, why don’t they just walk away? If your fictional characters do the same thing, your reader will feel just as uncomfortable.

It’s not that the hero and heroine can’t argue or discuss. But their dialogue must have substance. Or it must be hilarious, one or the other. They must challenge each other. Decisions must be made. Secrets must be revealed. Arguing must move the plot forward. Avoid going over the same ground again and again. Often, the very best conflict scenes contains subtext; maybe the argument appears trivial, but it hides deeper issues.

Conflict is not a disagreement that could easily be resolved with a five-minute conversation. If the hero sees the heroine hugging a strange man on page 20 and concludes she is cheating on him, only to find out at the end of the book that the man was her brother, this is not conflict. (You could, however, make this a vehicle to show that the hero is jealous. But the misunderstanding can’t be any sort of major plot point, dragged out for chapter after chapter.)

Conflict is not something that either party can simply walk away from. If it is, you either have no book, or you have to invent reasons to keep the hero and heroine on the page together. For example, if the hero and heroine both want the same job, that is a conflict. But if one gets the job, the other doesn’t. Logically, the loser will go off and get a different job, and you have no story. Either they have to compete for the job throughout the whole book, or they both have to get the job and be forced to cooperate. (Enemies forced to cooperate for their mutual survival always works well.) Whatever the conflict is, it has to keep those two characters interacting when they would both rather escape.

 So what makes a good conflict?

Conflict stems not just from what characters do or want, but from who they are, what they believe in, their values, their strengths and weaknesses. That’s why it’s hard to separate plot from character, because they must be intertwined.

A good conflict has external and internal aspects. Some people think of internal and external conflicts as two separate things; I tend to see it as a spectrum. It’s all the same conflict, but the conflict manifests on a superficial level at first, then at a deeper level as the hero and heroine become more involved, reveal more parts of themselves, more bits of their history, their secrets.

Here is an example, simple to understand. In my Harlequin American Romance, THE PREGNANCY SURPRISE, the hero and heroine both want to help an elderly lady, who breaks her hip, run her bed-and-breakfast while she recuperates. The hero is a hard-nosed accountant. Everything for him is facts and figures, black and white. He does everything carefully and with precision. He likes routine and doesn’t take risks. The heroine is a free spirit. She is emotional and disorganized. They naturally have very different ideas about how to run the B&B, and at first that is how their conflict manifests. But they grow close as they each come to realize how much the other cares for the old lady. They see each other’s goodness and begin to fall in love. But the heroine has messy emotions. She wants to jump into love with both feet. The hero is much more cautious and doesn’t want to risk his heart. He has to think things through, weigh all of the consequences. So this is a more internal manifestation of their intrinsic differences.

This is a story about compromise. Each of them has to change a little and compromise a little to forge a relationship.

If your hero and heroine seem too happy, you haven’t built up enough conflict. They can be happy together–for brief periods–because you do want the reader to believe these two can live the rest of their lives together in wedded bliss. (Did you ever see HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS? The heroine was a nightmare of a girlfriend–except for those brief scenes where they went to the basketball game together, and when she met his family and showed her true personality.) What makes a “happy scene” work is when the reader knows it can’t last. They know the secret that will tear the couple apart. They know the villain is lurking in the background, ready to strike.

As in the above example, sometimes a conflict can be derived from a secret one or the other character is keeping–the old secret-baby plot, for example. The trick is to make the secret come out at the worst possible time–just when they’re starting to overcome whatever conflict broke them up in the first place. The trick with that type of plot is, the characters have to have very good reasons for not telling the secret, or it begins to seem very manipulated. You don’t want the reader screaming, “FOR GOD’S SAKE, JUST TELL HIM!”

Plot Problem #6

Too many conflicts

This is what I call the “kitchen sink” approach to plotting. Lacking a strong, emotional conflict, the writer chucks in every reason she can think of that these two people can’t just get along.

Take a hero and heroine who are neighbors. Perhaps they start out in conflict over a fence. The heroine likes the way all of the back yards on their block open out to one large green space where all the children play. The hero takes his privacy very seriously and decides to build a fence around his yard, spoiling the green space.

Okay. That’s a start. Then the hero and heroine argue because her dog gets into his garbage. Then they disagree because he is a lawyer and her ex-husband was a lawyer who took her for everything in the divorce. Then they disagree because he likes foreign cars and she buys American. I’m exaggerating here, but a whole bunch of small conflicts don’t add up to a big conflict.

Let’s go back to the fence. How can we take this external conflict, and deepen it, to make it strong and internalized and central to the characters’ very beings? Privacy. He doesn’t want anyone knowing his business or watching him. Maybe he grew up in a crowded foster home, where there was no privacy. And maybe she grew up in a wealthy but cold home, where everyone had their walls, real walls and emotional walls, and she longs to share and have everybody be one happy family all around her? Maybe she can’t have children.

Well, you see where I’m going with this. Dig deep to find the roots of strong, emotional conflict. One conflict, many aspects, that will carry your book for 200-400 pages.

Do you have questions about the conflict in your WIP or about conflict in your writing in general? Go ahead, put that conflict out in the open with a comment.

Kara Lennox, author of Project Justice series for Harlequin SuperRomance

Five titles now available in e-book or print!

Taken to the Edge / Nothing But the Truth / A Score to Settle / Outside the Law 

For Just Cause now available!

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24 Responses to Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Kara, I wish I could plot. I could lay this all out ahead of time, and be sure the conflict could sustain the story, the whole way through. Instead I bumble around, finding out as I go.

    My current WIP has a woman, a war-torn veteran, unable to resume her duties as an EMT due to her PTSD. She feels too much people’s pain — it tears her up. But she needs a job, and caring for the wounded is all she knows. She has no respect for spoiled athletes, so thinks she just might be able to work with them. She becomes a Physical Therapist for the PBR (Pro Bull Riding.)

    The hero is an aging champion bull rider on the downhill side of his career, unsure of his future, and fearful to lose his close-knit PBR family. He doesn’t like this woman who clearly has no respect for what he treasures.

    She’s a fish out of water, but it’s a small pool, and they’re thrown together. As the heroine begins to care for the men in her charge, she’s forced to confront her issues.

    Only a 1/3 of the way through, I hope the conflict will sustain the story!
    Thanks for your wonderful advice.

    • Laura, the best part about your conflict here is that as the heroine starts to change and care, the conflict will be worse for her because of her PTSD since she was looking for a job she could do without getting emotional. And maybe the hero, as he gets to know her, will see for the first time internal trauma instead of mostly the external trauma he’s seen in his career. Maybe he’ll find ways to help her through in ways that couldn’t have happened if he’d been anyone else in any other profession. Ways that he and his family have learned to deal with their physical scars, he’ll think of how that could help her overcome her emotional scars. I think you’ve got a great plot for enduring conflict! 🙂

      • Laura Drake says:

        Thank you, Kitty, hope you don’t mind, I’m using some of that! Oh, and the heroine’s name is Katya, and one of the characters calls her Kitty!

        • Of course I don’t mind! I’d love to have helped you! You’ve got something great when solving one important conflict leads to another important conflict – and you’ve really got that! (Love that “Kitty” is in your book! LOL!)

  2. Suzanne says:

    Great post. I love your thoughts on the internal conflict manifesting or being connected to the external conflict. Works better for me.

  3. Jann says:

    Kara, I have been following your posts on WITS and today’s post on conflict is arriving in perfect timing with my WIP. Good Luck at the Rita’s!!

  4. karalennox says:

    Laura, that sounds like you have plenty of conflict. I can see all sorts of stuff you can mine, lots of emotion, lots of stuff beneath the surface.

    Thanks, Jann and Suzanne!

  5. Thanks so much, Kara. Another great post.

    I fly through the first draft … the layers of the cake. Next I add the frosting and hopefully this includes the conflict of the MCs, the source and with a bit of exposure from both … an increase of tension.

    The cherry is when the internal and external conflicts converge …then I can take the reader on the last part of the ride to find resolution🙂 So, the truth is … I don’t know what the heck I’m doing until I’m in the middle of it … that is the life of the so-called panster.

    Plot backwards … get hindsight after the fact, and pull all those loose threads into a cohesive fabric. Yikes. Maybe plotters do have it easier !!

  6. Calisa Rhose says:

    I’m the ‘green space’ girl when it comes to writing. I like the wide open freedom of pantsing. In my latest wip my hero is a music producer, the heroine a singer. Perfect match? Not when she has been repressed by men her whole life and hero helping her career might be misconstrued as more manly manipulation, or lack of faith she can do it alone, without a man that is to say. Then again, she might want his help but she doesn’t know he could do it for her. He hasn’t told her, because he’d been burned once when a singer “fell in love,” as he did with her, and as soon as she was on her way up the ladder to success she dumped him, the useless rung. The other conflict in this story is that her father is an alcoholic and she meets hero in a bar she’s singing at. That is the lesser conflict.

    Great post, Kara.

  7. marsharwest says:

    Great post, Kara. I got the idea first of external conflict. It was a couple of books (and classes) later when I plugged in the internal part of the pattern. I am a plotter, and all my little charts listing out each character’s internal and external conflict really help move the story along for me. And you pantsers out there? You must be truly inspired! Don’t know how you ever get a book written–or more accurately–get it to tie together. But you do. LOL So glad we have the freedom to do what works for us.

  8. taristhread says:

    Kara, your previous advice on conflict (thank you so much) reinforced my own thoughts on the conflict in my story, so….I have been working hard to make the conflict stronger in my story, I feel much better about what I’ve done in my rewrites. Thanks for your fabulous advice and this great post, which I’m printing up right now to add to my writing notes!!

  9. karalennox says:

    Florence, I also plot backwards sometimes. I usually know the beginning and the end, and sometimes it’s easier to ask, “Where do they have to be just BEFORE they get HERE?”

    Calisa–Actually, two people in the same industry where one has some “power” or “leverage” over the other can make for some great conflict. Because they both know about the industry, they will have differing views on how to approach their work. (Which is why engineers make such great husbands for romance writers. Neither understands what the other does, so they have to find other common ground and they never argue about work.)

    Marsha–I share your bewilderment as to how pansters get a book written. I wrote my first book that way and what a mess it was. I tried it again recently, and though I did finally finish the book, it was on and off for about two years because I kept writing myself into corners! Give me my charts!

    taristhread–you’re very welcome!

    Kitty–wonderful observations about Laura’s conflict.

    Kara

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  15. Roz Fox says:

    Kara, great site. Really good tips. Roz

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  18. Nena says:

    I am finding this entire series very compelling. Thank you so much. There is a lot in the posts I have read so far that I am trying to take in and decide how to work into my writing. I am a bit of a hybrid pantser/plotter.
    My current WIP is coming to me fast and furious and I am loving all of the plot twists and ideas I have. I have two concerns. The first is, I sometimes feel like I have a thousand great ideas, but if I added them all, it would be way too confusing. The second, I feel like my hero has these great goals, my secondary characters have some great goals. But my heroine, who is the really the main protagonist, doesn’t really have compelling enough goals. I am writing and writing and just hoping it will come together nicely. But I want her “quest” to be about more than “finding her lost love.” And it is, there are more compelling parts of the plot, I just haven’t really gotten the sense of a deeper motive for her. Any ideas on how I can come up with this?

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