We hear it over and over: to engage readers, stories must contain conflict. But this prescription is deceptive. Not all conflict is created equal.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for story conflict that captures and keeps readers:
Don’t Just Blow Stuff Up
New writers often mistake story conflict for any sort of dramatic event. Think earthquakes, wars, fires or stuff blowing up. While it’s true that a dramatic event can be good story conflict, I think it’s more often what we call the Inciting Incident. The event triggers off a character’s quest for something he/she already knew, at least subconsciously, was missing from life. While it’s often shocking to read of events such as these, they are not automatically worthy story conflict. If the event does not awaken or trigger a deep and unavoidable quest for a character’s goal, it’s just one more jaw-dropping thing we can gasp at but not care much about. Adding random conflict—random being coincidence that has little to do with the character—seldom grabs readers and keeps them reading. Instead, think about where your character’s true conflict lies. The answer is almost always a universal WANT OR NEED that readers can mirror in their own lives.
Conflict River Headwaters
Where are the headwaters of your character’s story? Rivers typically begin in the mountains, gathering speed and volume as they run downhill. Your character’s story conflicts often arise in a similar way. They may be basic human needs such as belonging, respect, honor, avenging a wrong or finding love. These “headwaters” influence everything that happens downstream—from your character’s attitudes and reactions to the domino effect of plot events. When you consider almost any character’s goals, it’s easier to see why the conflict you insert into your plot must be organic to that particular character. A good story is NOT just one darned thing after another. The burning need inside a character is what keeps the story energy flowing. A word about balance: Stories which are too focused on those inner conflicts at the expense of the outer dramatic events can cause readers to feel trapped in a character’s mind. This kind of claustrophobia fuels readers’ quick exodus from the story. Remember to keep the inner (psychological) and outer (actual events) in balance over the story as a whole.
Stake Your Claim
By now it’s clear that a character’s struggles on the inside are what give power or worthiness to story conflict. By keeping these elements balanced, readers will likely be more satisfied. Yet there is another level to story conflict: your reader’s emotions and perceptions. Your goal as storyteller should be to not only grab readers’ attention, but to trigger a response in the reader that causes her to feel as though she’s actually living the story along with the character, or actually is the character. There are fancy words to describe this actual neurological response, but suffice it to say that the character’s goals must matter a lot to both character and to reader. Think of it as the SO WHAT? Test. If the character doesn’t meet the goal, so what? What’s the worst that will happen? The answers tell you the writer if the stakes are high enough. This is often referred to as high stakes in fiction—the goal that is life or death to a character and played out in a series of meaningful conflict events will be most likely to capture readers’ hearts and minds.