There was once a princess who lived happily ever after. The end.
Doesn’t make for much of a story, does it?
Yet, some authors are writing stuff just like that. Only they’re taking 400 pages to do it. YAWN.
Think about all the great stories you’ve read and the unforgettable movies you‘ve seen. No matter the genre, they all have one thing in common—conflict.
Without conflict, there is no urgency. Without urgency, there is no compelling reason to keep turning the pages.
Twist the vise and pages will turn. Build the tension as a symphony builds to a swell.
Your hero needs conflict. Conflict can come from a number of sources, whether it be physical (in the form of other people or the environment), emotional, sexual, or even internal. The best way to provide conflict is by constantly giving your protagonist barriers to cross, boundaries to crush and hurdles to jump.
Swing the scythe, tighten the noose, drop the grand piano. Do everything you can to bring pain to your hero and exhilaration to your reader.
But it’s not enough to throw barrier after barrier at your characters. You must also make their pain relatable to your reader. You must either find a way to make the reader understand what the hero is feeling or experience the pain right along with them.
This means you must ground their conflict in a shade of reality.
Don’t get me wrong, you can have a purple dragon soaring through green skies on her way to a land made of mushrooms and chocolate, but if the rider on that dragon’s back has nothing in common with the reader, your book might end up on the nightstand moonlighting as a coaster.
Fantastic and unrealistic are not mutually exclusive.
Did you ever read Spiderman?
readers clung to Peter Parker because he was someone they could relate to
Spiderman is one of the most memorable, recognizable and popular superheroes of all time. His character was an immediate breath of fresh air from the moment Marvel Comics introduced him in 1962. It wasn’t because of his cool powers or his flashy suit, though. No, readers clung to Peter Parker because he was someone they could relate to, a high school outcast who didn’t fit in. This combination of external and internal conflicts would prove popular with Spider Man’s target audience, teenage males.
Peter Parker had bills to pay, classes to study for and girls to impress. He hurt, bled, wisecracked, and, at times, felt terribly alone.
Just like you.
Don’t detonate the drama all at once. Start your story by giving your protagonists something small to overcome. This could be a missed appointment, a speeding ticket or perhaps a false alarm.
For Peter Parker it was unpopularity and facing the school bully.
Next, give your hero some breathing room just before you ratchet up the drama. Give them a gift, and then take it away. Let your main character think they’re getting a promotion before they get fired, come home on their anniversary to another person in their bed, or have the BIG deal that will change everything crumble at the final moment.
Shortly after Peter is bitten by the spider and given this incredible gift, his uncle Ben is murdered. Murdered as an indirect result of Peter using his powers for selfish reasons, no less! How about some guilt to add to your plate full o’ conflict?
Love your characters, but don’t be afraid to punish them.
Love your characters, but don’t be afraid to punish them. Beat them up, run them through the emotional wringer, visit things unto them which you wouldn‘t wish on your worst enemy. But draw your reader into the human side of their pain and you will be building a bridge between the words on the page and the human experience inside the soul of you reader.
If it ever seems as though the tension might be too much, feel free to add a little more—so long as you’re making it believable and it helps the story.
The cheating spouse isn’t sorry and the man never gets his job back.
Uncle Ben doesn’t rise from the grave.
And sometimes the hero dies. That’s fine, so long as you have found a way to resolve the conflict.
Just be sure not to betray your reader with a simple solution. Resolution will come, but it should be a twisted road to get there. You are both the engineer of your hero’s life and the reader’s experience.
Learn to punish the one and you will please the other.
5 Tips to Create Good Conflict
- Make your readers care about the protagonist. Make this person someone they can relate to on some level.
- Introduce the conflict early. You don’t have to spell the whole thing out on page 2, but plant some seeds of what’s to come. If you wait too long, you lessen the impact and believability of what follows.
- If your conflict is coming from a bad guy, make your readers understand the antagonist’s motives. It’s not enough to introduce the villain. Today’s readers want a peek inside the minds of evil. They want to know what makes the bad guy tick. Show them.
- Make your readers care about the antagonist! If you can find a way to make them care about our hero‘s nemesis, or perhaps even feel a bit torn about their allegiances, you can deliver a complex and powerful story.
- Deliver the goods. If you’re going to start a conflict, you’d better resolve it. If you fail to do so in a satisfying manner, then you are breaking the bond of trust with your reader.
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