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 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 website, Google+, Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, and Pinterest.