Editors Blog

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.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)


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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?

    freelance@lamka.us

  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!

    deannazachrich@gmail.com

  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!

  13. eveningrose818

    I agree with you completely. Conflict becomes key in a story because it allows readers to escape their own personal conflicts and enter a world where they overcome or are overwhelmed alongside the character. The reactions of the character to his/her conflicts and scenarios fuel the reader’s interest, hopes, and expectations. Thank you for your wonderful advice!

    cindymm818@gmail.com

  14. Naitsirhc

    I think this is a great help for me. I’ve long thought about writing a novel and I’ve come up with some pretty good idea for a few scenes, but I always have a lot of trouble coming up with what will get the main character to the point of that scene. I think these questions are the base of a great novel and I’ll be sure to ask myself these questions next time I write. Thanks for sharing.

    christian.diaz5@hotmail.com

  15. geekie0ne

    Love this, I’m going to show it to my writer’s group team. One of the members suggested I had too much conflict in my new novel. I thanked them for the advice, however I believe that conflict begets even more conflict for those that lead less than sheltered lives as my characters do. I developed the over all conflict first as the basis of my story, and used this like a tree with roots hidden from sight , but spreading out into more conflict. Then once this was done, I developed my characters to match the conflict. Backwards process perhaps but, I remember my mother watching soap operas on TV. It was the conflict that was the reason everyone had to watch these day after day. That’s how I write now, to entice and tease the reader to want to go on to the next chapter, just like the next day’s episode of the soap opera… Conflict… thank you for confirming this for a new writer.

  16. mamyers27

    I totally agree. This was definitely something that was glossed over in favor of plot and character development in most of my writing classes. However, I think it’s a lesson better learned on your own because the impact is far greater than if someone tells you that conflict is important. Anyway, thanks for the refresher!
    mamyers27@hotmail.com

  17. trinity.a.frost

    I find looking at the world through someone who is in grade 7-12 tends to be a good way to create small problems into a big problem. Their perspective puts an issue of a broken pencil into one that spirals down in dramatic flair to utter failure. Never mind that they could borrow one, or even sharpen the one they have at the back of the class. Nope, there are NO good solutions, and failure is as certain as death and death is certain as soon as their parents find out they failed!
    Conflict is out there! Get you some!

    trinity.a.frost@gmail.com

  18. Beth Mac

    By the way, is it imperative that we leave our email within the comment for the giveaway? I don’t usually put my email address out there because I try to protect my account. (Usually websites have a way for you to give your email info without having to expose it to all of the internet. Is there another way?)

    : )

  19. ShawnSpjut

    A great reminder. I discovered in my own writing, that using the centeral conflict has helped me to develop other conflicts which in turn helps develop the characters themselves. Right now I am using the smaller conflicts as a catalyst [personal, professional, emotional, social] to; unpack who my heroine and her entourage of fellow characters are as well as map out the journey they’ll have to take to overcome.

  20. Ginger P. Chi

    I was directed to an author’s works to read as an example of the use of conflict. I found conflict so over-used that it left the reader in a state of stress without relief – those lulls that make you feel secure before the rug is pulled out from under your feet again (pardon the cliche). As a result, I failed to ‘suspend disbelief’ in the story and took to it with a pencil checking off ‘gratuitous conflict’. No gasps from book worshipers, please. It was a paperback I bought at a book exchange store. In fact, testing your own powers of observation this way is a good idea.

  21. Nicnac63

    I LOVE this article.

    One of my greatest fears (that concerns writing, anyway LOL) is writing a “so what?” book.

    In many instances, I created characters I fell in love with, beautiful scenes, and realistic dialogue…but something was lacking. Finally, in a face-palm moment, I realized my story was missing sufficient conflict. Knowing what I lacked fixed half of the problem. The unsolved half was not knowing how to fix it. In time, I learned, but I wish I’d had this article back then. LOL

    Your article has sparked something inside of me today. New conflict ideas for my current WIP are pinging around in my head, waiting for me to write them down before I forget them. ;)

    Thank you! You’ve clarified some things I was struggling with.

    (I printed the three questions and have them taped to my desk. Simple, yet inspiring.)

    Nicnac63@hotmail.com

  22. Jen1313

    I’ve heard workshop instructors say “Make Something Happen” as their phrase on how to create a plot. But, something can happen without it being interesting! “Conflict” is really what drives a plot forward–good call!

  23. Don

    This is great! But, boy, do you have to dummy down for me. In your opening sentence you stress conflict, conflict, conflect. Most of the reply’s mention conflict. I, too, have taken classes, workshops, and have a undergraduate degree in writing. Conflict was major in all of these endeavors. For years, my novel has been stalled. It’s got conflict coming out of its ears. What I have never ask myself, though, is, “So what?” Your three tips answered that question.
    – 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?

    After reading the second of these, everything fell into place for me. The conflicts in my story are specific.. Your three points helped me find a single central theme. The “so what?” of my conflicts is that thay block my main character from accomplishing his goal. I know it sounds simple, stupid even, but I find it interesting that very few, if any, of the “comments” mention your three questions. Many mention conflict but do not take the final “so what” step.

    For me, your three questions are like central spools around which of the colored threads (conflict as well as character, setting, and dialongue) can be wound.

    Thanks for the great advise.
    Don Goin

  24. suetropez

    I enjoyed the article. It brings the writer back to what really makes a good story, conflict. It’s easy to get involved with the character’s feelings and forget that what really makes the story good is internal and external conflict and it’s relationship to those feelings. Great advice. I need to pin this up on the wall over my monitor.

    Thanks.

    Sue

  25. ChiTrader

    If only I had known that I might have had a good concept for my novel, but while it had some conflict, very little of it was edge-of-your-seat, page-turning conflict. I agree that conflict is probably the most important, least mentioned attribute a beginning writer must learn.

    ChiTrader@yahoo.com

  26. Lori Twining

    Excellent article… perfect timing for me, as I am heading into another month of editing… add more conflict! Why didn’t I think of that?

    How quickly we forget that “conflict” is the reason our reader’s hearts beat rapidly, their hands sweat profusely and their index finger no longer has an identifiable fingerprint due to the finger being constantly licked and the top corner of the page being turned faster and faster… therefore in the end, “conflict” is the reason they end up racing to the store to purchase your next novel! :P

    loritwining@yahoo.ca

  27. Patrick McHugh

    A great testimony, but rather than blame yourself for your shortcomings in learning the importance of conflict, I think the blame needs to be laid at the foot of the creative writing instructional community. Writing a publishable story that captures readers imaginations requires the blending of two crafts: writing and storytelling. Learning the dynamics of creating conflict and how to incorporate it into a story is a storytelling craft issue, not a writing craft issue. IMO, the instructional community is guilty to two sins: 1) it does a very poor job of separating the two crafts (as example, learning to drive requires certain skills and building an engine requires totally different skills, but the two are required to get from one place to another in a car), and 2) storytelling craft gets much closer to “rules” than the “they are no rules” crowd likes… and they are the ones who tend to dominate the instructional community. I think there is a great opportunity for Writers’ Digest to separate the two crafts and then provide much more detailed guidance on how to master the skills needed in both crafts. Your testimony and examples, while good, only touches the surface of understanding conflict and how to deliver it in different genres.

  28. rogerlordzeck

    With his ironic hat on, Shakespeare points this out in Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ speech — there must be a sea of troubles, some outrageous fortune or a bunch of slings and arrows, and a decision to take up arms, oppose them and end them.
    The irony lies in the fact that Hamlet decides to do no such thing. In fact, saying he decides to do anything at all is overstating things somewhat. He sets the tone for his future inaction in the rest of the speech, which can be distilled into ‘I need a little lie down.’

  29. pindham

    No, conflict isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing. Conflict—not pretty descriptions—is what makes a character interesting. Conflict—not an engaging narrative technique—is what drives a story forward. Conflict—not an elegant style—is what makes a reader turn the page. And that’s what it all comes to: does the reader turn the page?

  30. Flabla

    I took a writing workshop recently during which conflict came up. “I hate conflict,” said the workshop leader. Said she writes her stories. Then reluctantly goes back to insert conflict. My kid stories are riddled with conflict. She asked if I would attend her workshops (free) to critique students’ manuscripts. I would point out the lack of conflict in their manuscripts because she “just couldn’t deal with conflict.” I declined the offer.
    I imagine that presented her with a own real live conflict! :)

  31. Chezza

    Oh, the times I’ve judged partials and found flat, lifeless characters with no direction. And isn’t it frustrating when you are told your work is lacking but you are not given any clue as to how to improve? Give them conflict and watch them come to life! I’ll be directing those who need this advise to your words of wisdom. I especially like the last paragraph. I may not be considered for the give-away because I live in New Zealand but I think it’s great you give not only advice but the opportunity for someone to read your work free-of-charge. Thanks!
    c.rymer@slingshot.co.nz

  32. swantine

    It goes against my nature to seek conflict because I have become a skilled troubleshooter, assessing and managing the waves of chaos and despair that wash over me every day and then tossing them away. In this high-tech, complicated world we embrace, problems must be squelched quickly before they escalate to new levels. We are conditioned and programed to do this. So, when I sit down to write, it is difficult to conjure up conflicts on demand because I am so good at dismissing them. Your article was just what I needed! It will be my mantra: “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” From now on, I will nurture the conflicts of my daily life and let them escalate in my mind if not in my daily schedule. Thank you for this.
    swantine@gmail.com

  33. swantine

    It goes against my nature to seek conflict because I have become a skilled troubleshooter, assessing and managing the waves of chaos and despair that wash over me every day and then tossing them away. In this high-tech, complicated world we embrace, problems must be squelched quickly before they escalate to new levels. We are conditioned and programed to do this. So, when I sit down to write, it is difficult to conjure up conflicts on demand because I am so good at dismissing them. Your article was just what I needed! It will be my mantra: “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” From now on, I will nurture the conflicts of my daily life and let them escalate in my mind if not in my daily schedule. Thank you for this.

  34. NotYoda

    I think I have answered the the three questions early on in Thomas’s post–I think–but I have about twenty short stories and three other novel’s in progress where I haven’t. I only had to read them and got two ideas on one story and a novel. Wow was that worth the time.

    jlwilson61@comcast.net

  35. Kate

    Students often suffer from teachers who assume this class remembers everything they taught the last class. This is a lesson well learned. Big Conflict, then a HUGE Conflict, with a happily ever after or at least resolution. Thanks

  36. sdimichele

    Very good advice. Martha Alderson [The Plot Whisperer (a fabulous source, btw)] believes that in addition to one or more overarching conflicts in the main story, each scene needs a conflict. In every scene, the reader should encounter a character who has a goal or a “need that must be met” but who encounters conflict that may keep her from her goal. How that conflict is resolved (or not) should contribute to the progress of the underlying story.

    sabrinacatchow@gmail.com

  37. RosyVee

    For a long time, I had always thought that giving characters good descriptions, and having them do something physical was all the conflict I needed. Ha ha…
    I agree though, it should be presented in a way that it is one of the most important features to have a grasp of.

    Joyce
    joycevallee@gmail.com

  38. meganquinn

    As simple a concept conflict might be, I’m glad you pointed it out. It makes me feel better with what I potentially hope to be writing one day. I’ll be prepared to admit that I’ve done the online role playing, and being cruel to my characters was the easy part; it was letting them have some joy in the life that turned out to be the hard part. =)

    megan18xx@aol.com

  39. MJHenry

    This is a great article. Thanks for covering a topic that often gets glossed over. I have read a number of books, had an on-line writing class and took several writing classes in college. No one ever really talked about conflict. I suppose, like you said, the instructors just assumed it was perfectly understood. The truth is, nothing is perfectly understood. In college my creative writing professor didn’t tell me I was “at best, a good reader”. When I would try to get some constructive criticism, all my professor would say was that my work was “nice”. What does that mean? Oh well, I’ve gotten lots of criticism since then.

  40. Debbie McClure

    Great article. As as beginning author, the learning curve is HUGE, and advice such as this really helps us put certain pieces into perspective and allow us to consider options we previously hadn’t. I think someone once said that, “without conflict, characters just move about the stage (or book) with no real direction”. I also believe there can, and possibly should, be more than one area of conflict within a story line to more accurately reflect life. So often we aren’t just conflicted on one issue, but many simulataneously, in varying degrees, both internal and external. It’s the very nature of humanity. mcclure.d@hotmail.com

  41. Kate

    After my first attempt at a screenplay assignment, I realized that the story had no structure, i.e. no story development through the use of conflict. I went back and added several scenes specifically around a goal and conflict (someone or something stopping the protagonist from reaching the goal), and magically, my story had a lot more structure. Thanks again for the advice!

  42. Cathyvon

    I am going to share this article with my social media friends and groups. I think it is great advice. I also would be interested to the answer that is given to Ditty.

    Hugs!!
    Cat

  43. ditty

    Conflict seems to arise out of every interaction sooner or later when I am creating characters. Do you feel there should be one main conflict that informs the story? I cannot write under that directive. Maybe it is possible for certain kinds of stories. What do you think?
    email: virginiallorca@gmal.com

  44. goldstar114@hotmail.com

    Your advice coincides with that of Debra Dixon author of Goal Motivation and Conflict: contrast, contrast, contrast. Her book with excellent examples of conflict pulled right out of movies we all know and love made the concept of conflict crystal clear for me. The final paragraph in this article says it all.

  45. ngcornett

    My in-progress memoir about my mother’s death and my siblings’ role in it has plenty of real-life conflict,so I am lucky on that front, but I want to start on a fiction manuscript next. This column, especially the advice to the writer to plot the conflict first before worrying about the rest, has given me new thoughts on how to approach drafting the book. Thanks so much.
    Nina Cornett (ngcornett@aol.com)

  46. lcart

    Great article, this is the one thing no one discusses in writing classes…and is the needed advice in my own fiction story–I knew I had some conflict, but definitely need more. Thanks for the good advice!

  47. Annie56789

    In the vein of the “put your character up a tree and throw rocks at her” advice, a good reminder to those of us who enjoy writing dialogue, humor, etc., and try to protect our characters from terrible events! You’re right, conflict is central, and I had to learn it the hard way, too. I hope others glean from this earlier in their careers than I did!

    Thanks for this.

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