While preparing for a writing class that I teach for teens at the public library, I realized that the essence of good story telling is conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. My fabulous and brilliant teens wanted a class specifically on “How to start a story.” We’ll be discussing where to begin and in my opinion, every story starts with a conflict. A vivid and compelling character might come to mind, but if they don’t come to you with some problem to solve, the story ends before it begins.
So what constitutes a suitable conflict to create an engaging story? In my mind, internal conflict rules the roost.
There has to be some major dilemma happening in the mind and heart of my main characters and it has to be related to their fatal flaw or greatest weakness. In On Thin Ice, Penny’s fatal flaw is her perfectionism. She so wants to be loved and accepted, that she tries to be perfect (or at least appear perfect), so she forms a habit of lying which leads her into lots of trouble. Of course I had to give Carter, her big crush, a fatal flaw that fed into Penny’s big weakness, so I set up a backstory for him in which he hates liars. His father was an alcoholic and a liar and abandoned him and his mother and sister when he was little. This sets the scene for lots of potential conflict between my main characters, both internal and external.
Which leads me to external conflict—generally provided by villains and horrible circumstances. What story would be complete without the main characters having to overcome some huge hurdle or win out over the bad guys? I’m afraid I threw the kitchen sink at Penny in terms of external conflicts, but they were all integral to bringing about the changes in her character and forcing her to grow into the person she was meant to be by the end of the story. Knowing what I know now about storytelling and writing, I would not create this dynamic again, but Penny’s story needed to be told as is. One of the reasons I chose to indie publish this book. We’ll see if it stacks up in the world of contemporary YA romance.
And since we’re talking about romance, I’ll mention the importance of romantic conflict. The romantic conflict is basically the thing that keeps your main characters apart until the end of the story. In Penny and Carter’s case, the fact that she is only seventeen and that he is twenty-one creates an insurmountable obstacle, especially when he finds out the truth about her age and her father threatens to have him arrested. Not only did she lie (a Cardinal sin in his book), but her lie has threatened his security and his goal of working and saving money to go to college and help support his mother and sister. From Penny’s view, she has failed in her attempt to gain Carter’s love and approval and must deal with her father’s rejection as well.
All of this conflict is what keeps readers turning the page to see what happens next. Will Penny find her way back into Carter’s heart? Or will her quest for perfection lead her down a dangerous road that has no happy ending?
You’ll just have to read the book to find out.
What’s your character’s problem? Is there enough internal, external, and romantic conflict to keep readers turning the page?