Monday, December 5, 2016

Paper-Thin Conflicts

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

Want to annoy your reader?

One of the best things you can do is to have a story that, structurally speaking, might as well be a sitcom: it's episodic. That means every chapter has its own new (shallow) problem that gets resolved by the end of the chapter (or so).

That kind of weak plot is enough to make this reader want to throw a book across the room.

While it's common to have chapters that have their own sub-conflicts and sub-plots getting resolved, you always need a bigger, over-arching problem that carries the book from beginning to end.

Yes, we want to know if Luke will get out of the trash compactor alive, but we also have that Death Star thing to destroy by the end of the movie.

Yes, we wonder what Harry will do with Norbert the dragon, but if he doesn't save the Sorcerer's Stone and face Voldemort at the end of the book, we have no story.

And sure, it's nice that Belle and the Beast have a beautiful date in the ballroom, but if the spell isn't eventually broken, who really cares?

If you don't have a big conflict, one that's complex and, well, BIG, I'm sorry, but you aren't writing a novel. Or at least you're not writing a good one that readers will care about.

Conflict is the engine that drives the plot. You need enough of it to push the story from page one to the very end. That means the problems must be deeper than, "Dang. We had a misunderstanding."

At a workshop several years ago taught by Janette Rallison, she made a point that's stuck with me: If your conflict could be resolved by a single conversation, it isn't big enough.

Of course, stories with these kinds of paper-thin conflicts never do have the two characters talking it out, even if they could solve the problem in about fifteen seconds by doing so.

A common place for these kinds of thin conflicts is in romance. The basic romance formula requires the boy to get the girl and then lose the girl before getting her back again for good. Too many would-be writers use a thin excuse for getting the hero and heroine apart: a simple misunderstanding.

So the story has a series of misadventures that drag the story on, one minor blip at a time, for a couple hundred pages or so, until the sad little misunderstanding is fixed.

Misadventures and misunderstandings work for episodes of Hannah Montana, but they aren't going to work for your book.

With a thin conflict or series of thin conflicts, you'll lose your reader, because there's nothing driving them to keep reading. They lack the, "Oh, no! What's going to happen next?" or, "How will they ever fix that?"

As our own Josi likes to put it: Get your character up in a tree. Throw rocks at them. Throw bigger rocks. And even bigger rocks. Now set the tree on fire. Then make your character find a way down.

Ask yourself:
Is my character simply up in a tree?
Or have I set the tree on fire?

Get your conflict blazing. Keep us wondering whether (and how!) your character will find a way down. Intense conflicts don't have to be of the James Bond action variety. A solid internal conflict can do the job just as well.

No matter what it is, the conflict must be big enough to carry the story and keep readers interested so they won't chuck your book against the wall.


Anonymous said...

I once said on my blog, "Chase your character up a tree, throw rocks, plant dynamite around the base, arm missiles, get a witch-hunt going, hire a lumberjack, and shake your head with disappointment."
Not that I'm great or anything...or am I? Just kidding. Yeah, I'm a firm believer of putting your characters through the refining fire.

Jordan McCollum said...

Oh man, my sequel is shot now. Here's how the conversation would go:

Hero: "Thank you for all meeting me here."

Villainess: "What happened to your accent?"

Hero: "Ooh, you're a quick one. I'm not really who I said I was. I'm an FBI agent."

Villain and villainess turn to heroine. Villainess: "Did you know about this?"

Heroine nods. "I'm FBI, too. We're not really engaged."

Hero: "And we have it on good authority that you're terrorists."

Villain and villainess: Silence.

Hero: "So, if you wouldn't mind, we're gonna cut to the chase. You confess and we'll arrest you."

Villainess: "Fine. We're goin' to blow up a float in the parade on the thirteenth."

Hero: "Now, don't you feel better?"

Heroine: "I do, now. You're under arrest. . . ."

Hm... maybe that axiom doesn't work for suspense? ;)

Fiauna said...

That's something to think about. Now I'm wondering if I've written a novel or a soap opera. Hmmm.

annie valentine said...

This is a good one, Annette. Do you know how many stupid books I've never finished reading because the conflict is idiotic?

Annette Lyon said...

Jordan, You might be fine--is there any way your characters would ever reveal those things in conversation? I'm guessing that they have bigger motivations and reason to withold that kind of information. But you know that, right? The bad guy isn't going to just confess. :J)

Anonymous said...

Funny, that's exactly what I emailed about complaining about the Jayson Wolfe story and what a waste of paper the last two books in the series were-NOTHING HAPPENED!

I got two replys, one from Kathryn Jenkins and another from the great Antia Stansfield herself, both woman chewed me out good for my impertinence. "If you don't like the writing then stop reading the books!"

I don't get it. The first ten pages of The Best of Times contained no hook and no conflict. I suppose winning a lifetime achievement award automatically exempts an author from everything taught at boot camp.