6 Building Blocks of Writing Conflict


by Ane Mulligan, @AneMulligan, +AneMulligan

I cut my authorial teeth on writing plays for use in the church. They ran the gambit from 90-second sermon-starters to full-length musicals. My first novel was a Biblical fiction in which I strung together scenes from Jesus’ life, interspersed with the fictional characters. Just like the plays. But other than the Pharisees wanting to crucify Jesus, there was no conflict.

I filed that book under my bed and turned to contemporary fiction, letting my funny bone come out to play. Guess what? I still lacked enough conflict. My critique partners (you know the ones: Genghis Griep and Ludwig von Frankenpen) ripped it apart.

“More conflict!” was the verdict.


“But I write light-hearted Southern fiction,” was my plea.

“You still need conflict. Anne of Green Gables had a story question that kept it going. Would Anne be able to avoid her usual high jinx and get adopted? While not normal conflict, it provided the tension needed to carry the story forward. Yours needs more!”

Okay, okay. I heard. I began to do deeper character interviews. What I discovered writing free-flowing backstories for the main characters are 6 building blocks for conflict.

Secrets: Find the one they never want anyone to know about. And if someone does know it, who? What will they do with that knowledge?

Lies: Something happened to make your protagonist believe a lie about herself. What caused it? What is the lie? (You can read my article on lies here) How does it play out in her adult life? This goes for male protagonists too.

Fears: A devastating childhood event colors their personality and their worldview. Somewhere in their past lies a secret they don’t want anyone to know. These elements are what you draw from for the story conflict. Fears develop from the lie they believe and the secrets they carry.


Motivation: In character driven fiction, (the character’s decision causes certain events to happen, driving the plot forward) the conflict will stem from the character’s motivation, which is based on that lie they believe about themselves. Without supporting motivation, conflict falls flat. It isn’t believable. Motivation is the “why” of everything in a novel. Why does the conflict cause the hero or heroine trouble?

Events: Find out what is the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist. Do it and then go one worse. If it matters to the character, if it violates or goes in direct opposition to their motivation, it causes great conflict.

Life & Death: James Scott Bell teaches there are three types of death: physical, psychological and professional. To make the conflict work, the character must believe it’s a matter of life and death. Stemming from their fears, make the conflict lead to one of these, you’ve got gold.

In Life in Chapel Springs, my protagonist, Claire, has a health conundrum: she’s either pregnant at age forty-seven(psychological death) or she’s got cancer (physical death). With her twin daughters’ wedding in three months, if she buys a home pregnancy test, someone will think it’s for one of her girls. Disaster! She has to find a way to get answers without anyone knowing. If she’s not pregnant … well, she’ll face that later. Either way, it’s a form of death for her. It’s a simple conflict but causes a lot of story tension because Claire believes it’s a matter of life and death. There’s another story line with its own conflict, but you’ll have to buy the book to discover it.

Remember: most conflict stems from within the character.Yes, suspense, mystery, and adventure genres have built-in conflict by nature of the genre. But even so, the character’s fears are part of what they must overcome. Conflict comes from the character’s past, their hurts, their fears—their backstory.

So let your self go. Write a free-flowing backstory, and then leave a comment on what you discover.

Read More Writing Tips

Sparking Emotions in Your Readers by Kathleen Freeman

5 Types of Rough Drafts by Michelle Griep

The Rhythm of Rest by Allen Arnold

Life in Chapel Springs

Life in Chapel Springs has turned upside down and inside out.

Is it a midlife pregnancy or … cancer? Claire will keep her secret until she’s sure—but it isn’t easy. Between her twins’ double wedding, a nationwide art tour and her health, life is upside down. Shy Lacey Dawson was happily writing murder mysteries for the community theater, but a freak accident results in traumatic injuries. When the bandages come off, Lacey’s world is tuned inside out. Gold has been discovered in Chapel Springs and the ensuing fever is rising.

While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, Ane Mulligan has worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that’s a fancy name for a lobbyist), drama director, playwright, humor columnist, and novelist. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). She firmly believes coffee and chocolate are two of the four major food groups. President of Novel Rocket, Ane resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband. You can find Ane on her Southern-fried Fiction websiteGoogle+AmazonGoodreadsTwitter, and Pinterest.


Charting Through Conflict

by Hallee Bridgeman, @halleeb

Happily writing away on my latest WIP, I came across a major road block. I knew what I wanted my conflict to be. I just didn’t know why it should be a conflict for my main character. Or, rather, I didn’t know how to make it a big enough conflict that the reader would understand why it was a big deal to my character.

I’d plotted out the book – a brief outline of what happened in each chapter, and had written about three chapters of the planned ten (this book is a 40K word novella.) However, this outline is just action presented as an answer to the question, “What happens in this chapter?” Most of the time, the characterization and conflicts and goals are already built in a solid form as I’ve built my characters. When writing this one, though, the conflict was just this vague conflict hanging out there that made sense to me in my mind because I knew the “whole” story versus what was being presented on the page — but in writing all of that down, I just found myself up against the wall that lead to the deepening of the conflict. For the first time ever, I was stuck — while writing my 24th book!

So, I took out a white board and a red dry erase marker and wrote the conflict in the center of it and drew a big circle around it. There was my conflict – in red and white.

I asked the question, “Why did it matter to her?” I wrote the answer, circled it, and drew a line to the conflict.

I asked the question, “Why did it matter to him?” I wrote the answer and circled it and drew a line back to the conflict.

Okay, so I had how the conflict affected my two main characters. Next, I asked for both answers, “What will it mean if —,” which produced two or three answers to that question as it pertained to each characters.

Working backward from the center, in an organizational chart format, I answered questions that directly related to conflict, character action and reaction, and motivations. The end result was that I had my conflict built in a way that I could present it on the page and make it matter to my readers — give them a conflict in which they could relate and root for the parties to overcome.

Suddenly, the wall I’d come across dissolved and I was able to go forward with the book. I didn’t even have to refer back to the organizational chart I’d developed. I think what I had to do was problem solve it in a concrete way that allowed me to see it. Which, in turn, further developed my characters in my mind and gave me the freedom to continue with the story as I’d originally plotted it.

Sometimes, it takes stepping away from the way “you’ve always done it before,” and creating a new way for your mind to work through a problem. What kind of creative solutions have you used to work through a plotting/writing problem?

Out of the Blue Bouquet

Five of today’s Best-selling Christian Authors weave five unique connected stories where misdirected floral deliveries lead to changed lives.

Courting Calla, by Hallee Bridgeman.
Ian knows Calla is the woman God has chosen for him, but Calla is hiding something big. Can Calla trust Ian with her secret, or will she let it destroy any possible hope they may have for a future?

Seoul in Love, by Alana Terry.
Love was lost a long time ago. A chance meeting in Seoul might change all that forever.

A Kærasti for Clari, by Carol Moncado.
Joel Christiansen delivered flowers to the palace and found his life turned upside down.
Clari Sørenson’s job as social media manager for Eyjania’s Queen Mother keeps her busy. An unexpected treasure hunt with a cute guy might be the vacation she needs.
Between clues and a snow storm, they’re drawn to each other. Her grandparents, and even the Queen Mother, have been after her to find a boyfriend, but is Joel the Kærasti for Clari?

Premeditated Serendipity, by Chautona Havig.
When Wayne Farrell hears about his niece’s floral fiasco, it sparks a plan to mix up his own orders in an attempt to play matchmaker. Reid has his reasons for not pursuing Kelsey… yet, and Wayne’s interference only makes an already difficult situation even more awkward. Premeditated Serendipity—because romance sometimes needs a little shove.

Out of the Blue Bouquet, by Amanda Tru.
When Brooke is left in charge of Crossroads Floral, she accidentally sends the flower deliveries to the wrong people. Unfortunately, some of those wrong people include all of the ex-girlfriends of the most eligible bachelor in town. Are Brooke’s mistakes a complete disaster, or can there be something beautiful in an out-of-the-blue bouquet?”

With more than half a million book sales, Hallee Bridgeman is a best-selling Christian author who writes action-packed romantic suspense focusing on realistic characters who face real world problems. Her work has been described as everything from refreshing to heart-stopping exciting and edgy.

An Army brat turned Floridian, Hallee finally settled in central Kentucky with her family so that she could enjoy the beautiful changing of the seasons. She enjoys the roller-coaster ride thrills that life with a National Guard husband, a college sophomore daughter, and two elementary aged sons delivers.

A prolific writer, when she’s not penning novels, you will find her in the kitchen, which she considers the ‘heart of the home’. Her passion for cooking spurred her to launch a whole food, real food “Parody” cookbook series. In addition to nutritious, Biblically grounded recipes, readers will find that each cookbook also confronts some controversial aspect of secular pop culture.

Hallee is a member of the Published Author Network (PAN) of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) where she serves as a long time board member in the Faith, Hope, & Love chapter. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and the American Christian Writers (ACW) as well as being a member of Novelists, Inc. (NINC).

Hallee loves coffee, campy action movies, and regular date nights with her husband. Above all else, she loves God with all of her heart, soul, mind, and strength; has been redeemed by the blood of Christ; and relies on the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide her. She prays her work here on earth is a blessing to you and would love to hear from you. You find Hallee on her blog at halleebridgeman.com.

How do you overcome a Sagging Middle in your novel? Throw Grampa Down the Stairs

by Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor

What in the world am I talking about here? Throw Grampa down the stairs? Let me assure you right off, although both my grandfathers passed away years ago (my wife’s grandfathers as well), I would have never done anything to hurt them.

That is, in real life. But in my books? I actually did this very thing (with my wife’s full approval).

My post today, believe it or not, is actually about plotting, albeit a very specific aspect of plotting. Most fiction experts agree (I’m not one, but I’ve read their books), conflict and tension are at the core of great fiction writing. The best stories include lots of both.

One of my favorite writing quotes is (though I don’t know who to credit): “The secret to great fiction writing is to create characters readers care about, then do terrible things to them.” Speaking of terrible things, this sounds like a terrible thing to do as a writer. But it’s not. It’s essential to create a great story and, if you think about it, most of the great movies you’ve watched and books you’ve read have followed this advice.

It came to my rescue as I wrote my 2nd novel back in 2009, and it came to my rescue again this week, as I’m writing Novel #19.

One of the common problems fiction writers face is the “danger of the sagging middle.” That’s where you have a great beginning all worked out and maybe even a great climactic ending. But as you get well into the story, it dawns on you that the middle hundred pages are kinda flat. You didn’t plan on it, didn’t see it coming but, now that you’re here, you realize the story is starting to sag.

I’ve stopped reading several novels that began with great promise because of this sagging middle, so I’m very sensitive to this issue as a writer. I don’t want my readers to do the same thing with my books.

As I said, I faced this dilemma while writing my second novel, The Homecoming. I was at the 1/3 point, could see the finish line off in the distance. But the chapters in that middle-third were starting to sound and feel like “blah-blah-blah.” Even to me (definitely to my wife). The story involved a young boy who’d lost his mother, an aging grandfather who just met his grandson a few months ago, and the boy’s father, a war hero. The father and grandfather had just reconciled after years apart at the end of Book 1.

When I realized the middle chapters were getting stale, I talked to my wife and asked for her help. The two of us began to brainstorm some plot possibilities. Aided by the above advice (and since I’d already created characters readers cared about), I knew it was time to do some “terrible things to them.” The idea popped into my head, and I said it out loud. “I know, we could throw Grampa down the stairs.”

My wife’s answer? “That’s perfect. That’ll do it.”

So, that’s what I did. I arranged for Grampa to fall down the stairs. It wasn’t a fatal fall (though he did need to be hospitalized). And this event became the first domino to a host of other significant (and tense) plot developments that safely took me all the way through the previously sagging middle-third.

As I said, I’m writing my 19th novel now, called Saving Parker (Parker is a dog). And I’m just about at the same point. The beginning’s been going great. And I’ve already worked out a great ending. But I’m looking at the chapters up ahead, and all I see are the makings of a seriously sagging middle.

So, we had another what we now affectionately call a “Throw Grampa Down the Stairs” conversation and came up with a similar perfect solution to the problem. I won’t tell you what it is, because the book isn’t out yet (release date is Nov 1st). But I’m all energized again about writing the book again, and I believe it will have the same punch as the first 2 books in the series (Rescuing Finley and Finding Riley).

So…have you ever faced this dilemma? How have you overcome your sagging middle (I’m talking about your novel, not your abdomen)? Tell us your story.


Throw Grampa Down the Stairs by Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)

How do you overcome a Sagging Middle in your novel?~ Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)

Create characters readers care about and then do terrible things to them.~ Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)

Unintended Consequences:
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 17 novels including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards (finalist 6 times), 3 Selah Awards and 3 of his books have been finalists for RT Review’s Inspirational Book of the Year. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers International, Dan writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area. He and his wife Cindi have been married 40 years. You can find out more about his books or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or Pinterest from his website at http://www.danwalshbooks.com.

5 Tips for Creating First Dates for Your Characters

by Lisa Jordan @lisajordan

Do you remember your first date? Or maybe your first date with the person who ended up becoming your spouse?

My husband and I had a unique courtship—we met in our hometown while he served in the USMC but had come home on leave. For the next 18 months, we communicated via handwritten letters, phone calls, and infrequent weekend visits.
Our friendship had bloomed, but then our romance had blossomed with our first date that had taken place before he’d gone on a week-long fishing trip with his dad and brothers. We’d spent our evening talking and getting to know each other face-to-face after communicating via snail mail for the past two months. Upon his return, he’d given me a handwritten letter on a piece of birch bark he’d peeled from a fallen tree. At the ripe old age of 19, I didn’t know a lot, but I knew I was head over heels in love and wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. 28 years later, I still feel the same way. 

But not all of my first dates had gone so well. In fact, I’m sure you could think of a first date you or a friend had experienced that could end up in the Horrible First Dates column.

Romance writers create characters who get to know each other and fall in love by book’s end to embrace their happily ever after…and I can experience my heart sigh as a reader. But it’s also a writer’s job to complicate their characters’ time together in order to build tension, create conflict and making overcoming obstacles difficult. So let’s talk about five tips to help you create first dates for your characters:

  • Are they unique? Sometimes it’s a challenge to come up with unique first dates. Think about your story’s genre and setting. What makes it unique? How can you pair your characters together and pull in different storyworld elements to enhance their first date experience? How about apple picking? Collecting seashells at the beach? Geocaching? Rock climbing or hiking? Cooking a meal together? Think about the mundane and twist it up. 
  • Are they relatable? When writing first dates, you want your readers to relate to them in some way. You don’t want off-the-wall dates that will have your readers rolling their eyes or skimming pages. On the other hand, you don’t want to bore the reader, either. Make the first date believable to the story you’re writing. 
  • Do they move the story forward? Every scene in your novel needs to move the plot forward. Otherwise, your story risks becoming episodic, that is stagnant scenes that do nothing to enhance the story. My editor has said she doesn’t care for dinner dates in our manuscripts because eating dinner does very little to offer conflict or propel the plot. So when you’re writing those scenes with the first date, have the characters doing something integral to the plot to keep the story moving forward and be sure to throw in obstacles to complicate their time together. 
  • Do they show emotion? Let’s face it—we read and write romance because we want that happily ever after, right? Your dates need to enable the reader to feel along with the characters. Think about how your characters are feeling when they’re beginning these dates? Color your scene through that emotional lens. Think about how you can add complications to that growing attraction. Remember your own dating fiascos? Draw on those experiences and reactions to weave them into your stories. 
  • Do they build tension? Adding conflict and tension keeps your reader turning the pages. Last night I watched a movie, and the heroine had a date with the hero, but she was asked to work late. She tried calling the hero, but he didn’t have service where he was. So when she arrived to meet him for their date, they had lost their dinner reservation and the kitchen was closed. They ended up eating pizza on the steps of the building they both lived in. Not high action conflict, but the tension kept me watching to see how the issues would be resolved. So, think about how you can build the tension throughout the scene through external obstacles and emotional complications. In real life, we want our dates to go well, but doing it for characters doesn’t make for engaging reading. 

When creating dates for your characters, take some time to show the right emotions. Add elements of humor and snappy dialogue. Draw in the storyworld and unique setting. That way you’re creating scenes that will keep your reader turning pages until they’re disappointed to see the story coming to an end. 


Heart, home, and faith have always been important to Lisa Jordan, so writing stories with those elements come naturally. She is an award-winning author for Love Inspired, writing contemporary Christian romances that promise hope and happily ever after. Represented by Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary Management, Lisa also serves on the My Book Therapy leadership team. Happily married to her own real-life hero for almost thirty years, Lisa and her husband have two grown sons. When she isn’t writing, Lisa enjoys family time, kayaking, good books, crafting with friends and binging on Netflix with her dog Penny. Learn more about her at lisajordanbooks.com.