Conflict In Fiction Isn’t Argument

I get some questions in my mailbox that just HAVE to go out to a wider audience than the person asking them, and this question from Shanice is a perfect example. She writes:

Dear Holly,

I am a beginning writer, who on the recommendation of a friend of mine, subscribed up to your “Holly’s Tip” email… thingy… (Sorry at the moment I cannot think of a better word than thingy) and I would like to say that it has helped me so much I cannot begin to describe it (well I could but it would bore you to death).

However, one problem I continually run into, when writing, is conflict. I cannot write anything above a minor argument, I just don’t know how to. I’ve tried looking over conflicts that have happened in my life, and I’m lucky to say that they have only been minor, which doesn’t help my writing unfortunately.

Whether it be a fight between two friends, or a fight which leads to a war, I just can’t seem to write what would happen, and if by some chance I do manage to write a conflict, its so easily resolved it essentially becomes useless for me to put it in there in the first place.

So, I was wondering, would you be able to gave me a few tips on writing conflicts?

Yours Sincerely,

Shanice

The first thing you hove to know to write good conflict is that while arguments and fights are conflict, conflict in fiction is not argument.

On a sheet of plain paper, draw a huge circle—the biggest you can put on the page. It’s okay if it’s lopsided.

Now, somewhere inside the circle, draw a tiny, tiny circle. Tiny. You can see a little bit of white on the inside of the circle, but an ant could not turn around in it without crossing outside of it.

Label the big circle CONFLICT.

Label the little circle ARGUMENTS AND FIGHTS.

Arguments are the worst and least interesting form of conflict to put into fiction. They’re rarely relevant, they’re frequently bitchy, and they almost never move your story forward.

If you’re looking for conflict, you address the following three points.

 

POINT ONE: What does my character NEED to do more than anything else in the world?

This question is the heart of whatever story you’re writing—if it isn’t the actual summary of your story, you’re either writing about the wrong character, or you’re telling the wrong story.

(In scenes featuring secondary characters, you ask the same question, but the need will be different, and generally less directly connected to your main story).

 

POINT TWO: Who or What stands in the way of my character right now to prevent him from doing what he NEEDS to do?

You ask THIS question on a scene-by-scene basis, and it will cover everything from:

  • direct attacks by your primary antagonist to
  • the woman on the subway having a baby to
  • your hero’s bad head cold

depending on your scene and its circumstances.

POINT THREE: Why does your reader care?

You can also ask this question as “WHAT are the stakes?” but you can convince yourself to hang on to a pointless, boring scene with that question. From personal experience, I’ve discovered if you ask why your reader should care, it’s a lot harder to lie to yourself about needing the scene.

A QUICK EXAMPLE

Bob NEEDS to rescue his girlfriend Kate, who has been kidnapped by a wacko admirer and would-be rival.

Three potential conflicts for the scene:

  1. He’s spotted her in a crowd, and is racing to her. A woman stops him to ask him the time, delaying his pursuit and causing him to lose sight of her.OR
  2. He gets the phone call from the kidnapper, and afterwards argues with his buddy—who was with him during the call—over whether he should go to the police or not.OR
  3. He’s taking ransom money to a designated drop point when he realizes that the drop point is a trap and the kidnapper wants to kill him to get him out of the way.

Your Turn

Write down why you would or wouldn’t use each of these conflicts. I’ll wait. 🙂

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. . . . These dots are me waiting, and giving you some white space
so you won’t read ahead and see my answers. . .

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Okay?

Conflict #1 just sucks.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character does something stupid/ Bad thing gets worse BECAUSE character does something stupid.

You don’t sell a story using stupidity as your plot device.

Your hero sees the love of his life in a crowd, being dragged away by a lunatic, and he actually allows himself to be stopped for a pointless question from some equally pointless stranger?

How can your reader care about an idiot whose priorities are so obviously nonexistent?

He can’t, he won’t, and you’ll lose a reader.

 

Conflict #2 is irrelevant.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character does nothing/ nothing changes.

Heroes take action. They do not sit on their butts arguing with their friends about whether or not they should take action.

TALKING IS NOT ACTION, no matter how many bull-session yakkers think that arguing the future of the world over pizza is going to actually affect the future of the world.

Any argument that does not happen while characters are doing something that actually moves the story forward has no place in your story.

Your reader will watch these two fools sitting on their couch arguing, and he’ll think, “What’s the kidnapper doing to his victim while they’re doing nothing?” And he’ll close your book and go shoot evil aliens on his X-Box.

 

Conflict #3 is solid.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character takes action/ Action takes character deeper into trouble.

Bob does SOMEthing—and it’s something that should fix the situation, if the kidnapper were an honorable man.

But kidnappers aren’t honorable, and as Bob and his bag of hard-earned bucks are walking into the dark alley, Bob’s sudden realization that the kidnapper can have his money and his life, and get his girl at the same time, will give your reader something to care about.

 

WHAT your character needs.
WHO stands between him and it.
WHY we care.

 

Write with joy,

Holly Lisle

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Tell A Writer
Holly Lisle
 

Novelist, writing-nerd, dissector of thought processes, writing course creator and site owner here, Holly Lisle has a cat that plays fetch and a whole lotta stuff on HollyLisle.com for both readers and writers.