The Advice I Needed Most as a New Writer (But Never Got)

Maybe I’m just dumb. But through years of creative writing classes and workshops, it took me forever to understand what lay at the heart of a good plot: conflict, conflict, conflict. Sure, we bandied the word about as we critiqued one another’s writing. But no one ever defined it in terms of how a writer uses it as a foundation for plot. In all those classes, we talked about dialogue. We talked about description. We talked about characterization. We split hairs over just the right word.

All that’s fine. In fact, you have to get that stuff right. But if you worry about those things before you’ve defined your conflict, you’re putting finishing touches on something you haven’t really started.

(Literary terms defined — the uncommon and common.)


Guest column by Thomas W. Young, whose latest thriller is
Silent Enemy (August 2011, Putnam). Young is a flight engineer
with the Air National Guard, and he has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His previous novel, The Mullah’s Storm (September 2010, Putnam),
became a Book of the Month Club Thriller of the Month and an Indie
Next List Selection, and is being translated into Dutch, Czech, German,
Polish, and Japanese. See his website here and Facebook here.


In any fiction, from a war novel to a romance, you have to begin by asking questions like these:

— In my character’s world, what’s wrong that needs to be put right?
— What does my character want, and what’s keeping him from getting it?
— What has messed up my character’s life and sent him on some kind of journey?

Not all these questions will necessarily apply to whatever fiction you’re writing, but at least one of them, or a variation, must.

Novice fiction writers often begin by saying, I want to write about this special place. Or, I want to write about this type of person. Or maybe, I want to write a novel about a certain activity. Sailors in the North Atlantic, perhaps. Race car drivers in the Deep South. Skydivers. (More on that one in a moment.)

That’s just setting and characterization. If you don’t have anything else, you’re better off writing creative nonfiction or even poetry. Fine literary forms, both. But fiction requires a problem to solve, a need that must be met. How your character solves the problem or meets the need–or fails to–becomes your plot.

Even children’s literature fits that template. (Dick and Jane want to go to the park. Dick’s bicycle has a flat. How are they going to get there?)

In fairness to my old creative writing teachers, maybe they didn’t explain it this way because they thought it was obvious. But it’s not obvious to all of the slow learners like me.

(Writer’s Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

Twenty-odd years ago in a college creative writing class, I wrote a short story about skydivers. I was a sport parachutist at the time, and the subject interested me so much I wanted to write about it. But that’s all I had–just a setting at an airfield and characters who jumped out of airplanes. Conflict? We don’t need no stinking conflict. We got skydiving. Isn’t falling out of the sky enough tension? Not if it’s routine for the characters. The professor told me I was, at best, a good reader.

That comment hit me as if I’d smacked into the ground at terminal velocity. And it wasn’t even helpful. The professor never did describe what was lacking in a way I could understand.

Eventually I got to use that old enthusiasm for parachuting when I created the character of Sergeant Sophia Gold, U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division. You can find her in The Mullah’s Storm and Silent Enemy. She has a lot more jumps in her logbook than I do, and she has even bigger troubles than parachute malfunctions. If she didn’t have those troubles, I wouldn’t have a novel.

The ancient Greek playwrights and epic poets pretty much had it wired. If you use some of their classic plot lines, you can’t go too far wrong. (Hero proves himself against a formidable enemy. Hero faces struggles on long journey home. Hero saves his community. Hero uncovers some hidden truth. Hero goes on a quest for a treasured item.)

Those timeless story structures often include a moment when all hope is lost, when the hero nearly gives up. Once he or she breaks through that low moment, there’s no going back, and the main character is acting rather than reacting.

As Homer himself might have put it, you must be a cruel god to your characters. Start by giving them a tough problem to solve. Make it so bad that success seems impossible. Then, stick in a twist that makes things even worse. Say, your hero’s parachute fails. No worries–she’ll pull the reserve. But what if that one’s bad, too? Your readers will really want to know what happens next.

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65 thoughts on “The Advice I Needed Most as a New Writer (But Never Got)

  1. JMcMurray

    I love this piece of advice. The other bit of advice I would like to give that goes along with this is to remember that not all conflict is done with fighting, yelling and screaming, and some conlict takes place solely in the mind of a single character. Play around with that.

  2. MaggieBlack

    Good advice! I feel like I get caught up in what I call “micro crystals” of time, events, places, images, people, and so on…and then I get frustrated because I don’t know what the conflict is. I’m learning to have a good long talk with each of my characters in order to find out what they want, why they are doing something, what is wrong in their lives and what they think will make it better. It helps.

  3. joan1

    What great information…..and to think I heard some of this first hand not long ago. Thanks for crafting your work for others to enjoy, and thanks for sharing hints and tips for all of us who aspire to write.

  4. nicholas

    Conflict defines character. Life, no matter how difficult or fancy free, leaves an imprint on your soul based upon how you handle conflict. With it, you will either establish a path to greatness or conversely allow it to rot your soul.
    Good writers realize that conflict is not just with others…Its is the internal struggle we deal with daily.
    Great writers transfer internal conflict every minute of the day on some level or another.

    Some just call it passion.

  5. Michael1950

    I, too, ride the short bus, Thomas. But slow learners can learn as your successfully published books testify. If youtube had been around 20 years ago you would have seen the clip I watched two weeks ago teaching the lesson you are giving us. It is a clip of Kurt Vonnegut speaking about creative writing. Maybe if I hear the lesson by one more successful writer it will sink in. After all, the short bus doesn’t travel all that fast; does it?

  6. EccentricKim

    I’m editing my first novel right now, and this advice seems great to me! So far my only publication credits are non-fiction, and highlighting the major difference between fiction and non was just what I needed!

  7. amethyst7

    Thank you so much for this article! I recently started my first novel and appreciate the insight. I guess my book started with the idea of a specific conflict, but until I read your article, I never really thought about my other characters. I love your advice for adding a twist too. It really got me thinking and because of you I now have a new twist to develop.
    Thanks so much!

  8. RoyceR

    My writing career is just getting launched. So I am a sponge for information. This article was excellent. In real estate it’s location, location, location, and in writing a good plot it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. Got it! When I think back to some of the best sellers I’ve read you can begin to see the characters and situations and goals get skewed and in conflict; so I have actually noticed that in every book. Thank you for this article!!! RoyceR!

  9. Nishia

    I have heard this said before, but not like you said it. I love the way you emphasise that a good story starts with the conflict and that the rest is just polishing up. It makes so much sense, but no one ever explained it this way. It’s not just about what you have to say, but about the way you say it too. People need this kind of honesty, because what we do matters. Not everyone can be a published or wildly successful author, but I’d like to think that life is a series of moments strung together, that we have to make our moments be as happy and nice as possible, and that even if I don’t ever get published, the joy I get from creating a well-written story is a happy and nice moment for me. Getting honest advice like this can help create many good moments for many writers, and I thank you.

  10. carmen4826

    Amen! Why is that the most important issues of all, either left out, or skimmed over barely. Since I became serious with my writing, taking a writing class has always been the scariest part. Especially if the instructor has never written a book themselves. We need to get the proper tools in order to do the job properly. Thank you for being one of us ourt there and saying what needs to be said.
    Writers Write…Always! – “Throw Momma From The Train.”

  11. GWarnerWilliams

    I too am a good reader, I love skydiving and I’ve lived through several major careers. But, now I want to write my first novel. What I have (on paper and in my head): the place & it’s rules, the cast of characters, the original conflict and a resolution. After reading your blog entry, I find that all I need is the courage to answer your three simple, intimidating questions. The courage to be honest. Thank you.

  12. West15th

    It has taken me so long to get this. Jerry Cleaver’s book Immediate Fiction focuses on conflict, but it has taken me a long time to really “get it.”
    Thank you for making me feel less dumb than I was feeling. But sometimes I get so caught up with conflict I neglect to tell the reader what the character is feeling and thinking about the conflict they are struggling with. A friend just the short piece I am writing for the W-D Short Short contest and she said, “The action is great but I don’t know how your protagonist is feeling.” Emotion – so tricky! Without conflict and emotion there is no story!


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