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

On Editing: What Exactly Does a Developmental Editor DO?

What Happens the Morning After?

Guest post by Stacy Teitel

Developmental Editing

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Revision. That word is not music to every writer’s ears.

But I love it. LOVE. IT.

I revise extensively in my own writing, and as a developmental editor I help writers strengthen their manuscripts.

You, the writer, fell in lust with your story, although you can’t remember why as you look at the tangled, messy draft before you. It’s like the morning after a hot one-night stand, and the person snoring next to you isn’t as good looking as your vodka-induced brain had thought.

Well, now you have to shower, brush your teeth, and put on your big girl (or boy) pants. Then you call your developmental editor.

I answer my phone; don’t worry.

Because let’s face it—revising can be overwhelming. The word count goal is suddenly replaced with The Goal. And sometimes, the thought of revision is enough to make you crawl back to what’s-his-name from last night and convince yourself you could overlook all those bothersome things and fall in lust all over again.

As they say, write drunk but edit sober. It’s time to put away the vodka.

A developmental editor assists writers in revision, comes up with fresh ideas, and offers specific solutions. In addition to editing, my goal is to help writers get focused and organized, to a level where they can feel good about sitting down to revise so it’s not so daunting.

These are some of the tasks I do to a writer’s manuscript (and ones writers can use too):

  • Organize content to make sure plot points line up and are timed well within the structure (acts, moments of no turning back, final battles, etc.), identify gaps and loose ends, condense info dumps and look for ways to apply information in more useful contexts.
  • Ensure the conflict (opposing forces) is strong, and that the hero and antagonist have motivations.
  • Analyze characters for consistency and find opportunities to further develop traits, habits, reasoning, thoughts, and actions.
  • Check the pace and correct areas that may bore or confuse readers. This can be anywhere from heightening tension in a conversation to adjusting the timing of action moments and scenes for plausibility.
  • Look for areas to layer more setting detail and description to help ground readers, or to condense backstory and info dumps. This includes expanding on descriptions, helping descriptions work harder to reveal more information than what’s on the surface.

Additionally, make sure every scene has a purpose and that the end of chapters keep readers turning the page.

I’ve seen many a first draft, and when I work with writers, I want to get the best out of them, no matter what purpose they’re writing for.

Revision is only part of a writer’s journey, (or a necessary evil, if you prefer). But don’t you just love falling in lust love again? A final draft is something to hum about.

I’m always interested in how writers revise, how they tackle levels of revision, and who they rely on in their process.

So, how do you feel about revision? I love hearing from writers!

Also, I’m collecting feedback to keep myself informed about what writers struggle with the most in their work. If you would like to answer a few questions about writing and editing, you can fill out this form anonymously.

Stacy Teitel is an 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. Follow her on Twitter @ApoideaEdits or visit her website.