Conflict drives your story

People uid 792345Every story needs some form of conflict. Without conflict there would be nothing to drive the characters and plot forward. It is the character overcoming obstacles that supply the drama, the suspense, the tension in the story.

There are five types of conflict.

Character struggles against another character

This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. man, is the most obvious form of conflict. This is when a character struggles against another character in the story. This type of conflict can come in the form of arguments, conflicting desires, or opposing goals. The classic “good guy” vs. “bad guy” scenario is an excellent example of this type of conflict.

Character struggles internally

Sometimes you don’t need an outside force to provide the drama and tension in your story. You character can struggle internally with their choices. This is also known as man vs. self. This is where your character faces moral dilemmas and emotional challenges. They can be facing a fear or deciding between an impossible set of choices. This could be a moral conflict of having to choose between honoring family. It is an internal conflict with your character’s conscience.

Character struggles against nature

Sometimes there isn’t a bad guy in the story. Sometimes the struggle is to overcome nature. This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. nature, is all about dealing things outside our control whether it is the weather or a virus threatening to wipe people out. Stories about the triumph of human spirit over adversity never goes out of fashion.

Examples of this could be your character is stuck in a desolate place (mountainside with no shelter, deserted island) or being attacked by wild dogs, birds or insects. They could be dealing with a plague, famine or virus outbreak. This is anything where your character struggles to survive.

Character struggles against society

When someone’s beliefs go against the societal norms, there will be conflict. It could be discrimination or being repressed by societal pressure. In this type of conflict, known as man vs. society, a character or a group of characters fight against the society in which they live. Examples of this could fighting for your freedom or rights which are being denied by society. It could be a struggle with poverty, political revolution, or social convention.

Character struggles against the supernatural

This one is usually found in certain genres such as fantasy, horror and science fiction. This is where the character struggles against poltergeist, robots, aliens, magic, or supernatural villains. The main character must have the strength (either internal or external) to defeat the fantastic enemy confronting him or her. Included in this area would be man vs. technology (such as computers or machines) and man vs. fate (fighting against destiny).

Now your story can have more than one type of conflict in it. Your main character may have an internal conflict on whether they should fight against their adversary. Just remember you need some type of conflict to move the story forward and to give tension to the plot. With no conflict, there is no story.

Making sure your story idea is sound

You have a brilliant idea for a story. You can imagine the main character and even the opening scene…but when you sit down to write, you realize that is all you have. You don’t have a complete story with a structured plot and a satisfying ending. All you have is this great story idea.

Last week, I wrote about the different way to come up with story ideas. But it is one thing to come up with a story idea and quite another to make it into an actual novel. You need to make sure your idea is developed enough and that there is adequate conflict to sustain your story.

Now, I don’t typically write short stories, and I don’t write novellas. I write novels that are over 80,000 words. That means there needs to be quite a bit of a story to make it carry through all those pages. You can certainly brainstorm other ideas for things to happen in your novel, but you don’t want to fill the story with “fluff” just to meet a certain number of words. Every scene in your story needs to advance the plot.

Now technically any idea can be turned into a novel or short story, depending on how you handle it. But also remember that some ideas are easier to turn into a whole novel than others and a story idea that works for someone else, may not work for you.

So you have your story idea, what do you need to do next?

One solution is to write out a basic plot outline (even if you aren’t an outline type of person). Consider subplots that can be interwoven into the story and add those to your outline. As you do this, look for holes in your story. Keep asking yourself why – why is this happening, why is this character doing this or that? As you answer these questions and fill in the holes of your story, you will be able to see if you can develop a strong story or if your story plot just isn’t strong enough.

The easiest way to have a strong story is to develop a good protagonist. Do they have a past? What drives them to act in your story? The more details and depth you have to your protagonist, the better. Of course, a good, well developed antagonist is equally important. Remember people don’t stand in your way for no reason and hardly ever is anyone just evil without a reason.

It also helps if your plot lends itself to complications. As I said before you don’t want to add “fluff” to your novel but some plots are more naturally open to twists and turns than others.

There is no easy test to see if your story idea has what it takes to be developed into a full-length novel. You can look at the plot and the main characters and still not know. Sometimes you just have to start writing (or seriously outline for you “plotters” out there) to see what you have.

This is the second in a three-part series. Next week: Coming up with an original idea.

A Halloween short story…

Two years ago, my local newspaper issued a challenge to write a Halloween “story” on Twitter using only 128 characters. (Their designated hashtag took up the remaining 12 characters.) They published the top entries which included two of mine. So this Halloween, I decided to take one of the entries and expanded it into a 500-word short story.

The original tweet:

His fangs lock on the zombie’s neck. Growling, he thrashes his head as he saves me. Never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

The new short story:

It was a dark night. The moon hung high in the air as I took my evening walk. I had been pouring over the books for so long that I walk in the brisk air was just the thing to clear my head. Dexter, my Irish wolfhound, padded silently beside me. His ears twitched as he listened to the night sounds.

grave1My path took me by old village cemetery. It looked creepy enough in the daytime but now in the dim moonlight the bare branches looked like gnarled hands reaching down toward the graves. They shook slightly in the wind.

I smelled freshly turned earth which seemed odd since there had been no recent burials that I could recall. I stopped and surveyed the scene. It was then that I noticed the figure coming toward me. He walked with an unusual gait dragging one leg behind him as if it was heavier than the other.

Dexter gave off a low warning growl as the dirt on the nearest grave began to move. I stared in horror as a hand shot out from the ground. The dirt tumbled away as a figure arose from the grave. I took a step backwards, tripping over a large stick. As I scrambled to my feet, I grabbed it. Immediately, I liked the way it felt in my hand. I gave a practice swing like a batter warming up before the game.

When I looked back up, there were now three of them, one blocking my escape. Dexter sprang into action. His large paws hit the closest figure in the chest. The creature hit the ground hard. I caught a whiff of decaying flesh. The smell caused my stomach to lurch. I swallowed hard as I hefted my club over my shoulder. I swung with all my might at the closest figure. The creature grunted as the stick hit its chest. It reached out. A clammy hand brushed against my arm. Goose bumps prickled my skin. I swung my stick again, aiming higher. This time my aim was better. I hit the creature’s head with such force that it sailed through the air landing in the brush some distance away.

I turned my focus to the last creature, a mere three feet from me. Before I could move, Dexter bound forward, crashing into the figure. They landed on the ground. irish wolfhound grey dayDexter’s sharp teeth sank into its throat, his fangs locking onto it as if it was his favorite bone. Growling, he thrashed his head side to side, tearing the flesh.

“Good boy,” I whispered as my legs felt weak.

Dexter let go of the creature’s neck and lumbered over to me. He brushed up against my leg. My fingers curled into his rough fur. I patted the side of his body as I turned for home. As we trudged home, I remember my grandfather’s warning – never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

 

The need for conflict in your story

fightingA story without conflict is…well, boring. You cannot have a story without some sort of conflict.

Conflict is what compels the reader to keep reading to find out what happens next and to read more to see what happens at the end. Whether everything comes out right in the end or not, it is the chance things can go wrong that spurs readers to keep reading.

Conflict in fiction is easy. Conflict is opposing desires, mismatches, uncertainty, deadlines, pressures, incompatible goals, uneasiness, tension. Your character wants something and other events, circumstances or people intervene to make achieving that goal difficult. The conflict could be obvious such as a dragon attacking a village or subtle such a boy struggling to grow up in an abusive home.

Just remember that without conflict, noting happens in your story. Your characters should not lead carefree, happy lives. They should face problems. They should search for something they cannot reach; they should strive for a goal but be prevented from reaching it.

There are two types of conflict – internal or external.

Internal

An internal struggle is the part of the protagonist’s personality that prevents him from achieving whatever goal he is after. If he wishes to reconcile with his estranged father but feel his father should make the first move, his pride is the internal conflict. An internal conflict can reveal a lot about a character. Do they give up easily? Strive for what they want? How do they react when met with opposition?

External

An external conflict is something physical that gets in your protagonist’s way of reaching their goal. It could be the antagonist or an avalanche. When creating your antagonist, develop someone with just enough strength to present a solid challenge for your protagonist. Your hero might eventually figure out the bad guy’s flaws, but he is going to have to work to put all the pieces together. It is these plan disruptions that create the conflict in your story.

A good story will have both big (an innocent man facing prison) and little (an argument between a couple on where to have breakfast) conflicts as well as external and internal conflicts.

Dramatic Action

As your hero strives for their goal, many obstacles may get in their way but not all of these are conflicts. You don’t want to confuse dramatic action with conflict. If your main character walks down the street and is confronted by a rabid dog, that is not conflict. Unless the dog prevented that character from achieving a specific goal, then the situation is merely dramatic.

And while you want to instill emotion, tension and conflict throughout your novel, every scene in your novel doesn’t need to be dramatic. Someone who faces major life decisions in every chapter becomes unrealistic and tiresome.  Each conflict should drive the story forward and not be included because it is thrilling or suspenseful.  Too many plot complications can ruin a story.

So as you write, concentrate on the struggle in your story. Your character needs choices to make and the chance to evolve. Without these, your story isn’t going anywhere.

Why? Why? Why? A very important question authors should be able to answer

Abstract red colored neon lights with the word Why uid 1647863Why are they doing this? Why are they going there? Why? Why? Why? No that isn’t my four-year-old asking the questions. It is my husband as he read drafts during the writing of my trilogy, The Elemental.

And his questions, while annoying sometimes, did help during my revisions to make it a better story. Every author needs to know the why of their character’s actions. Rarely do people do something without a reason. And yes, that reason may only make sense to them but at least there is a reason. And the reader should understand – or somewhat follow the logic behind your character’s actions – or they may become confused and begin to question your scene or even your whole novel. Once they become distracted from the story, they may decide this book just isn’t for them.

I am now in the beginning stages of planning my next novel. And the new question is not necessarily “why” but “why now?” By this I mean, why is THIS story happening now?

I write fantasy so if you are going to have a quest where the hero finds the sword (or spell or amulet) that will allow him to defeat the dark lord and save the world, don’t you have to know why the story is taking place now? If the dark lord has reigned a thousand years why would he be defeated now?

I am making up that story line which of course has nothing to do with the novel I am working on. But really, you do need to decide why your story is happening at this instance.

If you are writing a crime novel, the why actually might be a lot of the story.  If you are writing about an abuse victim who fakes their death and starts a new life or kills their abuser, you have to wonder why now? What happened that led them to that point right now verses two years or even six months ago?

Of course there may not be an answer in some of these instances. And if your character has cancer, there is no answer to why this happened now. But often there can be a reason why. Why did the murder take place now? Why did the heroine quit her job today after months (or years) of slaving away at a job she hates?

Part of this covers what spurs your protagonist into action but on the grander scale of things, I am looking at why that event occurred and why at this instance. And maybe it really doesn’t matter in other genres as much as it seems to in a fantasy novel.

If a kingdom has been without a king or in a period of peace or unrest – why would now be the time for a hero or villain to rise? The answer to that may not be obvious, and the reader may never know the full answer but like knowing your character‘s history or building your own fantasy world, a lot of what you write is in the details. In other words, the author needs to know why.