Conflict is King

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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?


15 thoughts on “Conflict is King”

  1. Nice way of explaining how necessary conflict is in our stories. Sometimes I read these types of explanations and am more confused, but you nailed it. Thank you for succinctly getting to the core of what makes readers turn the page.

    1. Thanks, Patti. I’m all for sharing what I’ve learned. I’m taking an online class with Cheryl SaintJohn. She’s really excellent and helped me to understand conflict on a much deeper and simpler level. I’m grateful to have such great teachers.

    2. I’m with you, Patti, I think PJ nailed it. It’s funny how you can hear something over and over before someone explains it in a way that you can finally fully understand. 🙂

  2. You are so right, PJ! It’s both the internal and external conflict that keeps the story moving along and us readers turning the pages to see how it could all possibly be resolved by the end of the book (even if not everything gets entirely resolved). I also want to see hints of that conflict early enough in the plot to draw me in. It doesn’t have to be outright, but perhaps glimpsing the main character’s weakness or having the Big Bad Wolf making an early, even if brief, appearance. Great points all around!

    On Thin Ice sounds so intriguing. Best wishes with the novel!

    1. Thank you Julie. I like what you said about seeing hints early on about the conflict. The main conflict and hints about the fatal flaw of your main characters should be revealed in the first chapter or two. Readers need to know why they are turning the page, at least unconsciously.

  3. Hi PJ! Thanks for the refresher on conflict. I’m late to comment but saved this post until I had time to read it. Good luck with your ebook and I’ll recommend it to my friends’ daughters with ereaders. 🙂

    As I read your post, I thought about my wip. I’m reassured that my story’s conflicts are strong enough to carry through 90K. Yay! Now, only 80K left to write. LOL

    1. Hi, Jolyse. Thanks for keeping tabs. That’s exciting that you are in the homestretch. I love that part! Best of luck with your writing in 2012.

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