On Writing: Defining Your Conflict

Conflict 101: Survival

Guest post by Stacy Teitel

developing conflict in writing

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When I was in middle school, we had an assignment in our English class to read a book and give a ten-minute speech about it at the front of the classroom. *gulp*

I absolutely hated talking in front of groups of people, even small groups. I was not only socially awkward, but an extreme introvert with a side of nervousness—the kind of nervousness that makes me lightheaded. I used to think that if I stood very still, like using a reptilian defense mechanism, people’s attention would pass over me (and I could slowly back out of the room).

Sadly not. I went through with my speech because I was too afraid to ask the teacher to give me a break. So there I stood, timidly describing a teen werewolf horror and things that happened in it.

Abruptly the teacher told me my time was up.

I realized I hadn’t even gotten to the juicy parts of the book! I’d barely shaved away at the surface! As the nervous haze that caused millions of dots to appear around my vision started to clear, I asked myself “where did I go wrong?”

If you’re in a writing critique group, maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation.

You get asked, “What’s your story about?”

Well, there’s this guy and he comes home to find a group of robbers in his house and before he can call the cops, they make off with a valuable antique that has magical powers to… BAM. TIME IS UP.

Well, there’s this woman and she bumps into a handsome stranger who yells at her for being so clumsy, only to find out that he’s her boss at her new job she’s starting today… BAM. TIME IS UP.

But what is the story about? You could’ve sworn you said it somewhere. After all, you’ve been writing this book for months.

If we as writers can’t answer this question, then we can bet something is structurally wrong with our story. Even if we have an interesting protagonist, a plot with great potential, and months of research under our belts, all of those elements won’t hold together without the beating heart: conflict.

Conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. I won’t paste a dictionary definition and insult you. But that’s what it is in simple terms. When we try to apply this bare-boned definition to our stories, sometimes things get muddled. We get wrapped up in all the exciting things our characters are going to do, the obstacles they will face.

Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, just getting down the conflict in a line or two will keep you on track as you draft up your scenes.

Here’s a formula I use when I edit and analyze manuscripts. (If the author has nailed down her conflict, everything will plug in to this formula and it’s a beautiful thing.)

If [the protagonist] doesn’t [get something], [the antagonist] will [kill him].

This looks dramatic, but let me explain…

Death can be anything from basic survival, losing a job, to a broken heart. It’s whatever is at stake for the protagonist. He’s trying either to get something or to get away from something, and achieve a goal. I’m going to plug examples into this formula.

If [John] doesn’t [escape the island], [mega crocodile] will [eat him]. <– Physical death.

If [Sarah] doesn’t [earn good grades for the rest of the school year], [her parents] will [forbid her to date Kevin]. <– Emotional death.

If [Harry] doesn’t [destroy all the horcruxes], [Voldemort] will [commit genocide]. <– Genocide to magical and muggle races! 

Some of these examples are silly, but it doesn’t matter. Silly reasons are important if they’re important to your character.

But what about emotional conflict?

If [Marcy] doesn’t [confront her drug addiction], [Marcy] will [lose her husband]. <– Emotional death, with possible physical death if she doesn’t quit that crack. 

In this last example, Marcy is both the protagonist and antagonist. She is her own worst enemy and the conflict comes from within her.

So, next time someone asks us what our stories are about, we will have the conflict nailed down in our summary.

After Holly Brand saves her friend from a serial killer werewolf that’s been terrorizing her small town, Holly becomes the most popular girl in school and a local hero. But another killer is out there—the once-popular Gina, who’s going through a few howling transformations of her own. Holly tries to stop Gina’s pursuit for revenge (and bloodthirsty appetite) so she won’t become a werewolf’s next meal.

Perfect!

Now, if I could go back in time to my middle school English class…

About the Author

developmental editor apoideaeditorial.comStacy Teitel is a book editor at Apoidea Editorial, a developmental editing service to help fiction writers strengthen their manuscripts. When she’s not working with authors, you can find her copyediting and managing content for eMarketingVS. Some of her favorite things to do are watching political and crime shows, drinking good-quality coffee, and snuggling up with her Kindle. @ApoideaEdits www.apoideaeditorial.com

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About Jen Barry

Author of Young Adult novels. Reside in Nashville with my husband, a gorgeous Irishman. Drink too much coffee. Online way too much.

4 thoughts on “On Writing: Defining Your Conflict

  1. Eliza LeBeau says:

    Great piece.

  2. […] Read the rest over at Fight For Your Write blog where I talk about identifying conflict in your stor… […]

  3. […] On Writing: Defining Your Conflict […]

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