Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Conflict vs. "Nice"

“Write what you know.”

“People want realism.”

“Life is not always exciting.”

One day I was having a conversation with a friend about one of my favorite TV shows, Army Wives. My friend, however, can hardly stand the show. She thinks that it is not an accurate portrayal of military life. The probability, she says, of all that occurs in the show happening to that group of women is close to impossible. These people have faced not only deployments and other “normal” military life issues, but also bombings, suicide, divorce, injuries, and other unusual life events.

Yes, my friend is very right. It is unlikely that even a quarter of what these spouses have gone through in the shows three seasons would happen to a group of friends in real life. However, like any other TV show, the show would likely fall flat on its face without all the twists and turns. They need to keep all the viewers in suspense, while reaching the individual.

The same goes for our novels.

In a critique group I belong to online, we often get new members in and I have the honor of reading a different story from a new writer, and a common mistake I find in plot are those “nice” scenes. There might not be anything technically wrong with them. They might be well written and have a funny moment or two. But overall they lack two things that every scene needs: to push the plot forward, and conflict.

The first is easy to determine if we consider our plotline and the main characters goal in the scene. First, the scene has to fit in the plot, it has to have a purpose. Why did you put this scene in the story and how does it take the story to the next level? If we know how it pushes the plot forward, then we need to consider also how it works for or against the POV characters goal in both the scene and the overall novel. This creates conflict to build upon in the next scene and the next and so on.

If a scene doesn’t push the plot forward or pertain to the POV character’s goals, then it either needs to be rewritten to include those things or it needs to be deleted all together.

At last year’s ACFW conference, I had the honor of listening to Donald Maas give a workshop based on his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. He emphasized over and over again the need for conflict on every page.

There are essentially two levels of conflict to consider. The first is building tension and suspense through having a scene work against the goals of one of the main characters. Maggie needs to get to the supermarket…seemingly mundane. That is until she is run off the road and finds herself in a ditch. On the other hand, Dan wants to talk to Susie—the hottest girl in the senior class—but every time he approaches her, he is shoved aside by her jock boyfriend. Okay, those are a little cliché, but you get the picture.

The other level of conflict is more in the details. In order to create conflict on EVERY page, we have to get creative. Too often, our characters interact, both with themselves and with other, in ways that are just “nice”. Unless they are having an outright argument, they pop off a conversation with hardly a speed bump. Filling out a conversation with moments of tension, even in a simple scene, will add conflict that will keep the readers engrossed in our stories.

So, remember that when you sit down to edit your next scene. Why did you put it in the story, and how does it push the plot forward? Can you pinpoint conflict on each page?


  1. Great post, Ralene! And so true! I think this is a hard concept to grasp when you're trying to develop the characters and their relationships, but conflict is needed to make the readers want to keep turning the pages.

  2. Now I've read this I'm itching to go and check my novel now, page at a that one page single or double spaced? :D

    Great post, Ralene :)

  3. I came here through Jill's blog. Very good advise. I've now heard of Donald Maass' book 3 x in the past week. I think God is nudging me that it is a book I must read!

  4. Thanks guys! The more I see those scenes in other people's novels, the more I want to make sure I don't have any in mine. lol...

    Welcome, Lynn! Donald Maas' book is full of great advice--I highly recommend it. There's also a workbook that goes along with it.

  5. I remember you saying that to me in one of your reviews. I understand it better now, after reading your post. Great advice!

  6. I end up deleting purposeless scenes in my manuscripts when I revise. If they're juicy, I'll save the concepts for another book. I want everything to either create tension or give important insight into a character's goals.

  7. Annie--Always glad to help!

    Medeia--I totally know what you mean! I try to save them too.

  8. Great post, Ralene. Conflict on every page is vital!


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