Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creative Writing 101: Use Conflict to Hook Your Reader and Keep 'Em Reading

     People like to read about conflicts; they want to find out how the story is going to end.  They like to watch conflicts and see how they play out--watching Simon Cowell on American Idol was addictive because the controversy he created was a conflict in the making.  I wanted to see how the other judges and the contestants were going to react.  How is this conflict going to turn out?  Readers like a happy ending but reading about someone who is perfectly happy with their life is also perfectly boring.  Yawn.  One of my favorite series is the Harry Potter series.  The central conflict of the story was this: How is a young boy who has no idea that he is a wizard going to defeat the most powerful dark wizard of all time?  Talk about conflict!  

     Conflict is not necessarily two people fighting.  Although that's a great example of a conflict...there's nothing like reading about two men rolling in the dust to win the woman.   That particular example is an external conflict, literally!  External conflict is something that is exists outside of the character and that prevents her from achieving her goals.  For example: Mandy is running late for work but she discovers that her car battery died overnight.  Crap.  Another example: John is in love with Mandy, but they work together and workplace policy prohibits inter-office romances.  Boo-hiss.  A great example:  Luke Skywalker wants to learn how to be a Jedi Knight but Darth Vader wants to kill him.  Holy Jesus.

     The flip side to external conflict is internal conflict.  Internal conflict is slightly hairier to explain clearly.  I think of it as a mental struggle, i.e. Jack made a New Year's resolution to lose weight but macaroni and cheese is on the lunch buffet today and that's his all-time favorite dish.  He knows he shouldn't eat it but he LOVES mac n' cheese!  Some people would call that motivation but this is really internal conflict.  He has two opposing internal desires and he needs to make a decision about which desire he wants to satisfy.  However, internal conflict is not necessarily a "mental struggle" as such.  Take for instance a child who stutters.  You betcha that kiddo doesn't want to stutter anymore.  He gets nervous about talking and Oh God, he has to present an oral book report next week in school.  The obstacle to his happiness is internal: He has to overcome an organic problem and speak without the stutter.  (Disclaimer: Yes, kids can definitely learn to overcome a stutter but it takes longer than a week.  Sorry.)

     Characters can face both internal and external conflicts.  Remember John, who is in love with Mandy?  Well, John is also a shy man so even without the work-place policy he still has to screw up the courage to ask Mandy out on a date.  John would rather be eaten by sharks than ask her out and possibly be rejected, or worse, have her laugh at him.  Humiliation is never fun.

     I've established the basic concept of conflict, so now I'll show it in action.  First, an opening paragraph without conflict.

     Mandy woke up for work on Monday morning.  She hummed quietly to herself while she got ready for work.  She checked her appearance in the mirror after she ate breakfast and walked out to her car; it was a routine start for a normal day.

Total yawn, right?  Now here's the paragraph with conflict.

     Mandy hit the snooze button for the fourth time and then looked at the time.  Crap, she thought, I'm late for work.  She bolted out of the bed and ran into the bathroom.  Pulling her hair into a quick ponytail, she brushed her teeth while she got dressed.  There was no time for breakfast, instead she grabbed her purse and keys and ran out to the car.  She threw open the door and jumped into the seat.  She swore when the engine didn't come to life.  Then she noticed that the toggle for the headlights was in the "On" position.  Her battery was dead!  Great, this is exactly what I need on a Monday morning, she thought.

     Much more interesting, yes?  The story has momentum.  And even better, I escalated the conflict even as it looked like it was resolving.  How quickly can Mary get her battery jumped?  How is this going to affect her at work?  What's going to happen next?  I bet you want to keep reading and get the answers to all of those questions.  (And even if you don't, you get the point!)


  1. I have been trying to tell someone I know who creates stories that conflict is essential. So right!

  2. Hi Beverly,
    Absolutely! Conflict has such a negative connotation but there's no story or character development without it. Thanks for your comment!