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
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.
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