What is the one ingredient we MUST include to have great fiction? CONFLICT. No conflict, no story. One of the biggest stumbling blocks I see in new writers is that they fail to understand the difference between authentic conflict versus a bad situation. Bad situations do not make good fiction. Bad situations are boring and probably the largest source of melodrama. Today I am going to give you tools to make sure your fiction grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. The best way to ensure your reader is your captive is to have conflict on every page.
The most important component to creating loads of conflict is that our protagonist must have an active and tangible goal.
Conflict is relative. If we have no idea of the objective, then bad events are just bad events. Bad events must become setbacks. How can we transform bad luck to a setback? Give a hint of the end goal.
Want to know one of the quickest ways to get a reader on the edge of her seat? Show a glimpse of the mountain summit, then throw rocks at the characters and knock them off every cliff. If they get to a nice place for a breather, there better be at least a small rockslide to knock them back a 1000 feet. Yet, these setbacks will mean nothing if the observer doesn’t see the end goal.
Too many new writers do not present the story goal, or the goal is passive. Passive goals suck. Passive goals are like “containing Communism.” Guess what? Didn’t work in Vietnam, and it won’t work in our story either.
In my Warrior Writer Boot Camp (inspired by Bob Mayer), every participant MUST tell us what her story is about in ONE sentence. I recommend you check out this earlier blog for a more detailed explication.
Yes. ONE sentence, and the number of the counting should be ONE. Not three, not two. FIVE????…is right out! But the number of the counting shall be ONE. Then thou shalt cast off thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and blow thine enemies to teeny tiny….
Oops. Got sidetracked. Okay. ONE sentence. That sentence needs your protagonist, the antagonist, and an active goal.
Recently one of my WWBC participants sent in this log-line.
A teenager must protect the princess of Atlantis from an angry grief-stricken scientist who wants to take her power which will unknowingly release Chaos into the world.
Um, all righty. What is the goal? Protection. This is a passive goal. This is “containing Communism.” It sounds kind of interesting, but do we really get a picture of what this story is about? For all we know the entire story could be an Atlantean Princess stuffed in a human-size hamster ball with the protag guarding her with a shotgun. Not very interesting fiction.
Protection is one of those things that is kind of implied. I recently edited a book for a friend, and her protag’s main goal was “to survive.”
Okay, don’t know about you guys, but survival is my goal every day. In fact, when I wake up each morning, probably my biggest objective for the day is, “Don’t get killed.” It’s why I don’t blow dry my hair in the tub or lick light sockets. It’s why I wear a seatbelt and don’t run through my house with knives.
Duh! Unless we are suicidal, EVERYONE’S goal is survival. Fiction is only interesting when characters have goals that are special and unique, and since most of the world’s population has the goal to stay ALIVE…survival is BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRING!
A main goal to protect or survive is IMPLIED. When Frodo and Samwise set out with the Ring of Power, I guarantee you that they want to protect the Ring. I also guarantee you they want to survive, but these two goals are not what make The Lord of the Rings interesting. What makes it interesting is that they MUST protect the Ring long enough, and stay ALIVE long enough to toss the evil ring into the fires of MOUNT DOOM.
Okay…volcanoes are interesting. Volcanoes named Mount DOOM are super interesting.
So my little writer had a passive goal with his “protecting the Princess.” Boring! After a sound thrashing from the Death Star as my students fondly call me, the participant came up with THIS…
A popular computer geek and the princess of Atlantis must find the last remaining time machine in order to prevent an idealistic Guardian from stealing her power and controlling Atlantis.
Awesome! Now we have a GOAL. The protagonist and allies must make it to a time machine before the bad guys do or BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Those bad things that must be prevented are called STAKES. Great books have HIGH STAKES.
YES, I HAVE HAD A LOT OF COFFEE TODAY AND I AM USING THE CAPS A LOT.
STAKES ARE INTERESTING.
In this new log-line, there is a tangible finish line and a goal that is different than the rest of the world. I bet you woke up today wanting to survive. Did you wake up with the sole notion that you would find a time machine???? Okay, you in the back be quiet, and if you find one, let me know.
I might be going out on a limb here, but I would wager that most of us did not wake up this morning with the goal of finding a time machine. Locating a time machine is an interesting goal.The writer has now provided us with a glimpse of the “summit.” We also know bad things will happen if our hero fails. We will also worry and bite our nails as we get closer and closer to the end of the book and still no time machine and the clock has almost run out. STAKES! TENSION!
When we do not have a tangible goal for our protagonist, this is like dropping him in the Andes and watching him eat his friends to stay alive. Kind of interesting in a morbid way, but we have nothing to root for. It is different than dropping Pedro and his soccer team in the mountains and they have to make it to THAT mountain…THAT mountain over THERE…because there is a shed full of food and a radio.
Before, our soccer team was just stranded. Every blizzard and rockslide was merely a BAD SITUATION on top of a BAD SITUATION. Yet when Pedro and the Halfbacks set out for a particular mountain the quality of the situation changes. NOW there is a specific objective that we, the observer can SEE. Every avalanche that takes them farther from food, blankets and a radio makes us squirm in our seats and worry if they will make it in time.
But still, as I just said, that is just a Bad Situation layered on a Bad Situation. Not really genuine conflict…yet. To ensure GREAT fiction, we need a CONFLICT LOCK (via Bob Mayer again :D). A conflict lock can only happen when two parties disagree. If you have a scene with only one person, there ain’t conflict. Sorry. Navel-gazing is therapy, not great storytelling.
And don’t try to cheat with the She is her own worst enemy. Who among you LIKE those people let alone want to see them win? Seriously. I know a lot of people who cannot stand prosperity and will sabotage every good thing in their lives. They are annoying. Readers want to follow heroes and heroines…not losers who can’t get their act together.
If you have a scene, there need to be two people (minimum) and they cannot agree…ever. In fact, it really has to get bleak before they can work as a team. I find it so funny that I get all these novels and everyone just works together. No one questions authority. Yeah, right.
Great fiction mirrors life and I can tell you from experience that if you have more than three people with the same goal, they will almost never agree. Go run a committee for ANYTHING and tell me I am wrong.
Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
Back to the Andes….
If Pedro and Juan are the only two living soccer players, Pedro will want to keep climbing and Juan will want to lie in the snow and die. And the reader will be screaming and hoping that Pedro can convince Juan to keep going…despite the avalanche that just knocked them back 1500 feet down the slope and took their shoes.
Every scene needs a problem that needs to be solved so that protag and allies can make it closer to the goal.
Big Goal: Make it to top of Big Mountain where there is a shed of supplies.
Scene Problem: An avalanche sweeps Pedro and Juan 1500 feet and takes their shoes.
Pedro wants to continue barefoot to the top of Mount X no matter what.
Juan has given up. He wants to lie in the snow and die.
Stakes: If they don’t keep going they will DIE.
Every scene needs a conflict lock, which means every scene needs an antagonist. The scene antagonist is whoever is in opposition with the protagonist. Juan is interfering with the main goal of getting to the shed on Mount X, ergo he is the antagonist. Refer to last week’s blog for clarification. His refusal to be on board with the party plan is what injects genuine conflict into the story. It makes the reader worry. Worried readers can’t quit turning pages until they get relief from the nail-biting tension…the conclusion.
THAT is good fiction.
Why must our characters never agree? Because if they do agree, there is only so much we can throw at them before it is just wash, rinse, repeat. This happens in a lot of bad action movies. We only can endure so many car chases and explosions before we are bored. Same with our stranded soccer players. Great, there have been 12 avalanches. We get it. Oh, but this is a bigger avalanche? Oh, a bigger blizzard? Yeah. Sorry. Really don’t care. That is bad luck, not good fiction. For more about bad luck versus authentic conflict, I HIGHLY recommend Les Edgerton’s Hooked.
1. Goals must be active and tangible.
2. Bad situations are not enough. Tragedies are not fiction, they are news headlines.
3. Every scene needs a conflict lock. (Seriously check out NYTBSA Bob Mayer’s workshops to really learn how to do this technique)
4. There must be high stakes; either physical or emotional annihilation.
So what are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite stories? What kept you glued to your seat? What are some books or movies that fell flat? Was it because of one of the reasons I just mentioned? I want to hear from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last week’s winner of 5 page critique is Tim O’Brien. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant. gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com. Congratulations!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!