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5 Ways To Increase Conflict

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns, What's New.

The curse of a vivid imagination is that you can almost always imagine something that would make the situation worse. This is why if there is a sudden lurch on a flight, you can count on me to grip my armrest, mentally picturing the wing suddenly falling off of the plane.   Strange noise in the middle of the night? Zombie apocalypse.  Hacking cough and sniffle? No doubt the beginning of Ebola.  It makes my life anxious, but it’s great for writing fiction.

(What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?)

Most fiction suffers from not enough conflict, not too much.  With every book and every scene, ask yourself “what would make this worse?”  One way to do this is to take common conflict resolution techniques and turn them upside down.

GIVEAWAY: Eileen is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: sefmac20 won.)

 

 

    

Guest column by Eileen Cook, multi-published author with her
novels appearing in six different languages. She spent most of
her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere
else, which is great training for a writer.  Her latest release,
UNRAVELING ISOBEL, came out in Jan 2012, and Kirkus said of
it: “Cook gives readers a fast-paced plot, a likable narrator, and
interesting characters.” Learn about Eileen, her books, and more
on her website and her Twitter. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her
husband and two dogs and no longer wishes to be
anyone or anywhere else.

 

 

# 1 Pick the Right Atmosphere:
In real life you want to choose the right environment to have a difficult conversation. You want to choose a place where the individual can focus on what you are saying and not instantly feel defensive or uncomfortable.  In fiction, try and have the conflict happen in the most uncomfortable place possible for your characters.

  • Imagine a man telling his fiancé that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony, or as the flight takes off for their honeymoon.
  • Look at your manuscript’s conflict scenes.  Do they happen at the worst time? Is there a more uncomfortable place?

#2 Allies, enemies, and the art of bringing others into the fight
In real life we don’t want to pull others into an argument. In fiction ask yourself, is there another character you can add who would make the situation worse?

  • Who does your character want on their side in an argument?
  • Who is the person your character least wants to oppose?
  • In the wedding example above it’s bad if the groom is in love with someone else, it’s worse if it’s the maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man.

#3 Avoid Accusations:
In conflict resolution we encourage people to focus on what is said, not what they assume is the meaning behind the words.

  • What meaning does your character put on things?  We all filter what happens to us through our experiences.  For example, there are two teen girls.  One finds out that the other went to a party with another group and didn’t tell her. What might she accuse her of? You don’t want to be my friend. You’re embarrassed by me.
  • Look at your manuscript, what meaning does your character put onto what is said/done? What can they accuse the person of?

#4 Don’t Hit Below the Belt:
Why do we hurt the one’s we love? Because we can.  We know the hot buttons. We know what will rile them up.  Fighting dirty always increases conflict.

  • What do your characters know about each other? How can that be dragged into the current fight?
  • Look at your manuscript and make notes where the characters can have an “oh no you didn’t” moment.

(How do you make money writing articles for magazines?)

#5 Creating Win-Win Situations:
In real conflict resolution situations we try to search out areas of common ground. This allows each party to gain something from the solution. In fiction, we want to keep our character’s focus on not what they have in common, but what sets them apart. If your character perceives giving ground means they lose something, they will fight to win rather than compromise.

  • What does your character stand to lose if they lose this conflict? What is at risk?
  • Can you set up two characters with opposing goals?
  • Do you have a character that wants two opposing things at the same time? I want the big promotion at work and I want to spend more time with my family.

Readers aren’t interested in happy people leading content lives. Readers read for drama. To see characters in difficult situations who either triumph (or don’t) over those conflicts.

When in doubt, go big.  Drop a plane wing, add a zombie, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time.  Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it.

GIVEAWAY: Eileen is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: sefmac20 won.)

 

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19 Responses to 5 Ways To Increase Conflict

  1. That was a great post! I like that rule: do everything you shouldn’t do in real life! I’m adding your post to my blog roll on my blog!

  2. sefmac20 says:

    Thank you for your insight. Awkward, stressful, face to face conflicts…coming right up!

  3. tevye says:

    Thanks for the tip! I’m always looking to “up the ante” on my characters. They hate me for it, but they’ll love it, when they’re immortalized in print for all time!

  4. LilyTomlinson says:

    I loved this article. I’m excited to bring more depth to my story. I have a very vivid imagination but I too often over think what I am writing and then cut back on it. The article made me realize that I have been writing too safe and need to leave my comfort zone to create a more emotional book. I want my readers to laugh, cry, and completely be in sync with my characters. From now on I will try to go at least one step further to heighten the drama and garner reactions from my readers. Thank you so much for the article, delightful read.

  5. electric-lime says:

    Thank you Eileen for the insightful advice. It truly made me rethink a few “conflict” situations in my story-in-progress. Your fifth point and the questions you proposed are definitely great ways to access my writing. Thanks again for the advice!

  6. jincomt says:

    Timely advice as I work on this aspect with my MS revision. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Theresa Schultz says:

    Perfect timing, Eileen. We’re just going over ways to create/increase conflict in my creative writing class!

  8. calicocat88 says:

    Eileen,

    This artical has made me feel so much better about not only my writing, but my life in general. It’s true that having a mind that is always drifting to the “worst that can happen” senario is an extremely anxiety driven ride. Thanks for showing me that I’m not the only one with this crazy mind and that I can actually use it for good in my writing.

  9. Briana says:

    Thank you, Eileen! This was so helpful.

  10. Thanks for this great article. I love crankin’ up the volume on conflict… makes things so much more interesting.

  11. Rendon iii Candy says:

    Thank you Eilleen!

    I am working on some sci-fi horror scenes right now, and I honestly thought i had too much going on throughout. It will take some more time now, but I think the scenes will wrap up much more fittingly with a bit more character tension. What’s the point after all the lead up if it seems the protagonist gets to point B safely, right?

  12. Lozierlit says:

    Great tips, Eileen. Thanks! UNPREDICTABLE was such a fun read. UNRAVELING ISOBEL is on my to-read list!

  13. Lilia F says:

    I love it when characters hit below the belt, Makes me feel better for when I do it for real-sies.

  14. CVenzon says:

    Now I understand better why some of my stories fall flat. For years I wrote about personal growth and development for high school books. For fiction, I have to let my characters do just the opposite of what I told the students. Let them act like children.

  15. liltinybee says:

    Hi there, great article and great tips! I think your book will be immensely helpful go many people out there trying to write their first book!

    Cheers!

  16. tracelessway says:

    What I find, when reading or writing, is that when there is conflict it becomes a delicate dance up to the line of conflict. For example

    the protagonist is in a diving bell, the air is just running out and consciousness is not far behind. There is just enough air in her lungs to swim to the surface if she can find a what to get out. Suddenly, cracks appear in the view port and water, high-pressured and dangerous, starts pouring in as it gives way. OK, she could start filling her lungs with whatever oxygen might be left in the air and once the sphere fills with water (and the pressure is equalized) open the hatch and struggle to the surface.

    But here’s where the common sense of conflict creation needs to kick in (and I re-read and find it should have but didn’t on occassion.) There is enough she has to deal with, the reader doesn’t know she might be able to make it but she could. Then you add an octopus clinging to the outside of the diving bell just waiting for her to emerge.

    At this point the reader’s saying “oh, come on, are you kidding me?” and suddenly reality hits them square in the face and they are unceremoniously kicked out of the narrative to become an objective observer who doesn’t believe for one minute anyone could survive that.

    So I try to temper my conflict, I worry there is not enough so tend to add too much at times (breathlessly hammering my characters with adversity)…I am still learning. Thanks a lot for the tips.

  17. sefmac20 says:

    Thanks, Eileen. Reversing conflict resolution – why didn’t I think of that! I will keep this close at hand as I bring my characters to hell and back.

  18. Nemohotatse2 says:

    Great ideas and tips for looking at ways to increase the drama in writing. They will definitely be something I keep in mind as I write since I often find myself wondering how some of my favorite writers create such wonderful conflict in their stories.

  19. CLKone says:

    Eileen,
    Thank you for your eye opening advice. Reverse the rules of conflict resolution!

    Growing up in a family that majored in conflict, I presumed to be an authority on the subject. As the peacemaker in the relatives arena of real life, these strategies will help me take the kid gloves off in my writing. Thanks for the straight forward tips.

    I can’t wait to create some real guilt free chaos.

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