Conflict—Giving LIFE to Your Fiction

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Bad decisions make GREAT fiction. I know it’s tough to not write about fully evolved/self-actualized characters, but those guys are B-O-R-I-N-G. We like to watch people grow, probably so we might glean some hint of how to grow, ourselves. The more messed up a character is? The more INTERESTING they become.

Come on! You know it.

If you were at a restaurant and had a choice of where to eavesdrop, would it be the couple talking about their plans for the week as a team baking cookies for the school? Or would it be the nasty breakup on Table 6?

If we don’t have conflict, the story falls flat. Everything comes too easily and that is a formula for a Snooze-Fest. I am SO HUMBLED and honored to be friends with THE LEGEND Les Edgerton. In his mind? NOTHING comes easily. Even if your protagonist just wants directions, she should get, “What? Do I look like Google Maps?” in response.

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker and log-lines. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The CORE ANTAGONIST (what I call the BBT) is responsible for creating the problem that 1) disrupts the protagonist’s life 2) forces change and growth 3) is in need of clear resolution by the end. No core problem and there is no clean way to end the book.

Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive. THIS is the point when the protagonist has CHANGED enough to become a HERO.

Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting (and a solid core problem). One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Via the Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles"

Via the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles”

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence used to be quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up O_o.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, car chases and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

The Many Faces of the Antagonist

There is ONE BBT. Sauron, Buffalo Bill, VIKI, Loki, Darla the Fish-Killer all create the core story problems the protagonists must resolve. Ah, but along the way, there should be conflict in EVERY scene. Conflict often will come from multiple directions. There will be the long-range conflict (I.e. drop evil ring into volcano in Mordor) and short-range conflict, which is very often generated by allies (run from angry pitch-fork-wielding-farmer because Merry and Pippin stole veggies).

The antagonist role can shift. It can be friends, family, coworkers, but these guys are not the CORE antagonist.

From the film, "I, Robot."

From the film, “I, Robot.”

For instance, in I, Robot, VIKI (the computer controlling all the robots) is the Big Boss Troublemaker. Yet, who generates much of the conflict? ALLIES who are acting as antagonists.

Whether it’s the protagonist’s grandmother, “Look, I won an evil robot in the lottery! See how well he handles a KNIFE? We’ve been cooking ALL DAY! Whee!” or his boss “What robots tried to kill you? The tunnel was clean and you’re imagining things. Gimme your badge,” poor Spooner CANNOT get a break.

The more the robots try to kill him, the more his allies protest and create roadblocks, generating conflict.

Even in literary works, there has to be external conflict. A book of navel-gazing is not literary. It’s navel-gazing. In the Pulitzer-Winning book and later Oscar-Winning movie The Hours each story is a manifestation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. And, if you watch the movie or read the book, it’s WAY better if you’ve actually read Mrs. Dalloway. 

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, "The Hours"

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, “The Hours”

Clarissa wants to help her former lover-friend who is ravaged by AIDS, but he refuses help and torments her by calling her Mrs. Dalloway (who was a woman searching for meaning). Mrs. Dalloway arranges the flowers and flitters around planning parties, but deep down believes she’s a non-entity.

Clarissa is the same. She has become what she fears and those around her only reinforce this insecurity. Clarissa can’t connect to her lover, her friend or her daughter and there are roadblocks at every turn.

One way we can ensure we have conflict is to use the Blake Snyder method. In each scene, ask “Protagonist wants X, but then….” Someone or something should stand in the way, and it is better if it’s someone. Remember all good characters have baggage and issues like real people. This is what will make your cast more than talking heads. I know it is counterintuitive, but this is why writing is HARD. Humans avoid conflict, but great writers dive straight for it.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What books or movies ratcheted the tension so high you thought your nerves might just snap?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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  1. #1 by tmso on October 23, 2013 - 10:46 am

    Great examples to drive this lesson home. I know I’m supposed to do that (put up roadblocks for my MC), but sometimes I forget! I just start to feel sorry for ‘em and want something to go right. Maybe I should let them eat their cake, but then make sure its been poisoned or something…

  2. #2 by Sam on October 23, 2013 - 10:46 am

    I find that a good break from external conflict is a scene with some strong internal conflict. In a story with a lot of violence and fights between families, I’ll insert a scene where my protagonist has to realize within herself that she is strong enough to get over a bad relationship. I find it helps build tension without fighting.

    • #3 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 23, 2013 - 10:48 am

      That is called the “sequel.” Scenes must have an external force. The internalization/processing is not a scene. By mixing scenes and sequels we can control the pacing.

      • #4 by Sam on October 23, 2013 - 11:11 am

        I should clarify, I’m not talking about a scene where someone’s sitting in her room contemplating her life with no action. Of course there would have to be some type of external force to initiate this contemplation. It could be stepping on the scale to see she’s gained 20 pounds, her boyfriend ditching her for his friends, or a girlfriend finding she’s pregnant and the character feeling like she hasn’t grown up. Instead of conflict between characters (the protagonist wouldn’t fight with her girlfriend over a pregnancy), the external force of this knowledge could bring about the internal conflict that the protagonist avoids commitments and relationships, something to rectify.

        Would this count as a scene per your definition, given the external force bringing about the sequel? (I hope I’m using this term correctly, I’ve never seen it before.)

        • #5 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 23, 2013 - 11:28 am

          What you are talking about is referred to as the sequel. It’s part of the anatomy of fiction. And yes, it is brought about from an external force, not navel-gazing :D. Scenes are action oriented. There is a goal—conflict–setback. This is often followed by the sequel. It gives the reader a rest and is the protag’s time to think, plan, etc. It gives a breather. As you ratchet tension, sequels become shorter and often nonexistent.

          A great book that explains this is Scene and Structure by Bickham.

          • #6 by Sam on October 23, 2013 - 12:31 pm

            I added it to my list. Thank you so much for your advice!

  3. #7 by conniecockrell on October 23, 2013 - 11:30 am

    Thanks for the tip. I’m revising my book and right now, something is wrong with it. I’m going to use your “Protagonist wants X but then…” to punch up the story and the “Why should the I (the reader) care” factor.

  4. #8 by annerallen on October 23, 2013 - 11:39 am

    Your graphic made me laugh. I recently got a review of one of my rom-coms that said “Why doesn’t the heroine get a better job, stop looking for Mr. Right and make better decisions?” Because um, then there would be no story.

  5. #9 by Melissa Lewicki on October 23, 2013 - 11:41 am

    My old boss used to say, “Melissa, you can’t assume other people are like you.” I am happy, content in my life, in a good marriage, my children are great, I have good relationships with all my family, my career was successful and now I’m retired–the world’s best job. It is hard not to make my characters like me. It is hard to hurt and wound and torment them, because I have not experienced much of that. I actually had to make up a list of horrible things that could happen to my character and draw from that list as I wrote. It is still hard. Thanks for your post.

  6. #10 by Karyne Corum on October 23, 2013 - 11:49 am

    I think giving your characters your secret worst traits, the ones you hate to have brought to light is a good way to really give the character great depth and life. I read a blog recently that said you can’t be afraid to put your own darkest fears into your protag. It’s actually really liberating in a way.

  7. #11 by Lanette Kauten on October 23, 2013 - 11:53 am

    I enjoy torturing my characters. The hard part for me is to allow them to be happy. If they’re happy, yet still striving toward the goal and have tension in every scene, then it makes the “All is Lost” moment that much more horrible. I know this, yet whenever I give my characters a glimmer of happiness, I just want to jump in and snatch it away. I think my real problem lies in the fact that I have a hard time writing compelling tension during the period of happiness and happiness is boring, so do you have any resources that could help with ratcheting the tension during the happy phase?

    • #12 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 23, 2013 - 12:08 pm

      Make them be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know I struggle with just having fun. Waiting for something to go BOOM, especially lately, LOL.

  8. #13 by Lina on October 23, 2013 - 12:11 pm

    Thanks so much for the “end goal” wisdom. I have been trying to really close in on the central conflict is of this story, and when you said “Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it” it was like the sky opened up and dropped it into my lap.

  9. #14 by Gry Ranfelt on October 23, 2013 - 12:27 pm

    I detest rape in fiction. It is so rarely done well. It’s just supposed to make us sympathize with the character but it’s a weak way to do it. One of the reasons I love the scene in True Romance by Quintin Tarantino where the girl gets BEAT UP GOOD but NOT raped.

  10. #15 by donnajeanmcdunn on October 23, 2013 - 12:37 pm

    Very interesting about the sequel. I never knew that part of my stories had an actual name. Thank you Kristen for making sure we never stop learning!

    I just got your new book and am looking forward to reading it.

  11. #16 by jaredbernard on October 23, 2013 - 12:38 pm

    I can’t think if I’ve seen a movie with great tension, especially lately. It seems like movies are worse at telling actual stories these days. Remember “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Apocalypse Now”? Lately movies seem to forget about character development or legitimate plot devices in favor of special effects or cinematography.

    For example, the Lord of the Rings saga is an onslaught of spectacular special effects, but most of the plot seems highly contrived and contextually implausible. And in the place of character development, Peter Jackson gave us close-ups of the actors tearing up with distraught expressions. (The best developed character in the franchise is Gollum.) To make it even worse, we had to suffer the contrived insertions of what was supposed to pass for comic relief or lessons for the audience. By the third movie of that trilogy, it was unbearably trite.

    I don’t mind the Harry Potter series, but it too was chock full of obvious plot devices, although perhaps not as glaringly as with “The Hunger Games” or “Elysium” or “Thor” or yadda yadda yadda.

    The plot’s tension usually feels quite forced and I find myself thinking “here comes the part where the screenwriter inserts artificial conflict to make the lovers appear to break up forever over a simple misunderstanding and then they’ll come back stronger than ever for the finale.” “Here comes a villain who is over-the-top villainous and repulsive.” “Here comes the love interest, often accompanied by disturbingly pornographic eye candy for the audience.”

    Or worst of all: “Here I am in minute 15 of a promenade of confusing and unrealistic special effects… still going… I have no idea what’s happening anymore… Is this movie based on a video game?” And of course, horror movies are all full of artificial tension: terrifying score, spooky cinematography, the protagonist’s ally jumps on screen in a way that is meant to startle the audience, et cetera.

    I did like “The Hours,” “About Schmidt,” and “Moon” but I don’t think I felt tension/conflict escalating during the plot development, but maybe it’s just me. Even one of the best recent movies, “Black Swan,” has problems.

    • #17 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 23, 2013 - 12:53 pm

      I feel that way about comedy. Nothing is really funny anymore. Just toilet humor any teenage boy could come up with. I have a hard time with movies. I think they have come to rely more and more on CGI and the really GOOD writing has gone to TV.

      • #18 by Linda on October 30, 2013 - 9:40 pm

        I agree with jaredbemard above about movies being too much special affects and violence rather than story. Oh, for the olden days.

  12. #19 by janessajaylene on October 23, 2013 - 12:53 pm

    I found this really helpful, and it makes so much sense! No one wants to read about the perfect person who lives a perfect life; things get messy and people make mistakes, and that’s what the story interesting.

  13. #20 by sarabarnes98 on October 23, 2013 - 1:47 pm

    Reblogged this on The Written Odyssey and commented:
    I thought this post had a very well organized approach on dealing with many different hurdles found in writing. I especially enjoyed the importance placed on character development, which I believe is the main drive behind my stories.

  14. #21 by Brenda Bowen on October 23, 2013 - 2:40 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post and the comments. The subject deals with not only every day life with conflict but happenstance as well. I’m currently working on “conflict” with characters and this post is a good reminder of how to approach and think about characters in fiction.

  15. #22 by cosmothea on October 23, 2013 - 3:24 pm

    A good blog post and interesting comments. Some good things to remember as we write. I’ll look forward to reading more, Kristen. Cheers!

  16. #23 by myeagermind on October 23, 2013 - 3:31 pm

  17. #24 by everwalker on October 23, 2013 - 3:55 pm

    Reblogged this on everwalker.

  18. #25 by Sarina Rostek on October 23, 2013 - 5:52 pm

    My question is in a romance, if boy wants girl and girl is not ready and comes up with various reasons either internal or external, caused by various BBT’s and if he needs to chance plans or has things to do before the final getting together is that
    enough conflict?

  19. #26 by Silverline Odigwe on October 23, 2013 - 6:10 pm

    Nice piece and references may watch the film or read those books.

  20. #27 by ontyrepassages on October 23, 2013 - 8:42 pm

    Such great examples. For me, what deepens the story is the reason for the bad decision. For instance, Will Smith’s character is regularly thwarted by allies, but he’s also frustrated because he’s making decisions with inadequate information and based on his own flaws. Great stuff, but then most everything with Will Smith is great stuff.
    My protagonist makes bad decisions on a regular basis because of allies, but also because she has flaws, because in some cases she’s ignorant of the truth, because she listens to bad advice, because she’s being manipulated by those wishing her ill, because well-meaning others are in error, because she makes the right decision at the wrong time, and the list goes on and on. Of course, in-between are right decisions.

  21. #28 by AshleeW on October 23, 2013 - 9:23 pm

    Great tips – as always!! Conflict – that’s the heart of it, for sure :)

  22. #29 by Sunnie on October 23, 2013 - 11:40 pm

    My protagonist by the beginning of the book has discovered she’s been running from relationships since she ended an engagement ten years earlier. I’m not sure if her goal is to be in a relationship or if it is still to avoid the pain of breakup, yet avoid being alone. *sigh* Could that be a goal? Avoid pain? Avoid loneliness?

    Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking.

    • #30 by Author Kristen Lamb on October 24, 2013 - 8:59 am

      Not active. This is her backstory and will involve character arc. She has to have a story problem that makes her face why she is avoiding relationships and tests her, changes her and ultimately heals her.

  23. #31 by bekind2urself on October 23, 2013 - 11:47 pm

    Fiction is entertaining and the best fiction is putting a creative spin on real life situations.

  24. #32 by darksilvertree on October 24, 2013 - 1:04 am

    I just read Queen of the Shadows by Anne Bishop and the final scenes were not only filled with tension I read it three times. It was definitely a heartsore moment and something I need to work on in my own writing. I try to shelter my characters from conflict and will avoid a fight scene as long as possible. Haven’t found the courage to kill my darlings on a regular basis. =p

  25. #33 by projectechoshadow on October 24, 2013 - 8:16 am

    Reblogged this on Echoshadow.

  26. #34 by dmdeluca17 on October 24, 2013 - 10:05 am

    A very helpful read, Kristen.

    Thank you.

  27. #35 by Mary Gottschalk on October 24, 2013 - 11:20 am

    Thanks for this terrific expose of what’s wrong with movies and books these days … I took like the idea crushing the protagonist’s dream of ever reaching the goal … therein lies the challenge.

  28. #36 by Stila Webb on October 24, 2013 - 2:10 pm

    This is always hard. No one wants to beat their MC up but you kind of have to to make the story interesting. As Lawrence Block says “Kick’em when they’re down.” Truer words…

  29. #37 by Elke Feuer on October 25, 2013 - 8:12 am

    I love stories where the villain is right before your eyes but you don’t realize it’s them until the very last scenes of the story. I, Robot is a great example of that. I especially loved that the hero couldn’t catch a break and was attacked from every angle: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Even dear old grandma didn’t support him. The more pressure the hero is under and the more internal/external conflict the better. :-)

  30. #38 by cynthiagrstacey on October 25, 2013 - 11:08 am

    The new Sandra Bullock movie Gravity. OMG that girl goes through a lot. Nothing goes right in the story for her. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Great post Kristen.

  31. #39 by cynthiagrstacey on October 25, 2013 - 11:08 am

    Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
    Awesome post by Author Kristen Lamb!

  32. #40 by tam francis on October 26, 2013 - 9:40 am

    Man Oh man, so true. Love this, thanks for the reminder. Gives me some ideas on how to tweak (mess with) my characters. Thank you!

  33. #41 by Raani York on October 28, 2013 - 3:22 pm

    Hmmmm…. I don’t think I would like to write about “everyday life”…. I tired, but to be honest, to me it was like “living in the past”… something I worked hard to get off.
    When I read what I wrote back then I was bored to death myself…
    Conflicts are bringing life into the book… but to me, as a harmony-needy girl, it’s like writing the opposite of what I was always trying to do.
    Still it makes my fiction stories vivid, no matter what kind their nature is.
    Thanks for this great Post, Kristen!!

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