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.


How to Keep Your Reader Turning Pages

by Rondi Bauer Olson, @rondiolson

I know authors aren’t supposed to read reviews for their own books, but, confession time, I do. Especially the negative reviews, as they are always the most enlightening. In general, if a number of people say you didn’t get something right, you probably didn’t. Fortunately the opposite is also true. If most reviewers agree you did something well, you probably did. One of the best compliments a reviewer can give my book, especially if they didn’t like it, is that they couldn’t stop reading and stayed up all night to finish. Because while I am still a new writer and happily admit I have much to learn, one thing I think I am good at is keeping the reader invested.

It wasn’t always that way. I used to try to keep readers turning pages by inserting bizarre twists, stunning reveals, or cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Sure, that worked some of the time, but other times my exiting ending was more cheating than organic.  I’d have to pull back as soon as I started the next chapter because my incredible surprise didn’t fit the plot or the character.

Fortunately I learned keeping a reader turning pages doesn’t have to be that difficult. The simple formula is:

  1. Introduce your main character’s want
  2. Show your main character’s attempt to achieve said want
  3. Thwart your main character’s attempt

At the beginning of each chapter, the writer needs to introduce a goal or desire for the main character. The goal doesn’t have to be big or fancy, but a satisfied character is a boring character. Your main character must want something.

Are you starting a new book?

Hooks cover ssml

Get the mini e-book on how to hook your reader with the first line!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Once a want or goal is established, the main character should devise a plan to achieve that goal. The bulk of each chapter should be spent showing the main character attempting to follow through on their plan to achieve their goal.

Each chapter should end when the main character encounters a particularly difficult obstacle and they must rethink their strategy. To keep the reader from becoming totally frustrated, you can have your main character meet a few small goals, but new needs must be created and the ultimate goal cannot be met until the end of the book.

For example, in my debut novel, ALL THINGS NOW LIVING, the main character, Amy, ends the first chapter trapped inside a post-apocalyptic dome. She spends the next few chapters devising ways to escape. Each chapter ends when her plan fails and she has to come up with a new strategy. In each of these chapters, her desire to escape the dome is expressed, followed by her creating a plan to escape and her following through on that plan. Each chapter ends with her plan being thwarted. Finally, after the first few chapters, she does achieve her goal, but then a new want is created, and she has to create new plans.

Cliffhangers, bizarre twists, and stunning reveals at the end of each chapter can keep your reader turning the pages, but unless those things arise naturally from your characters or your plot, your reader will feel cheated. Don’t force exciting chapter endings into your writing in an attempt to keep your reader reading. Instead, rely on the simple formula of want, attempt at achieving want, and attempt thwarted. If every one of your chapters has each of these elements, keeping the ultimate goal of your entire manuscript in mind, your story will flow like a river to the sea, your readers securely riding the current you’ve created.

All Things Now Living

Her whole life Amy has been taught the people of New Lithisle deserve to die, but when she falls for Daniel, she determines to save him.

Sixteen-year-old Amy doesn’t like anything to die, she won’t even eat the goats or chickens her mama has butchered every fall, but she can’t let herself pity the inhabitants of New Lithisle. In a few short months the dome they built to isolate themselves from the deadly pandemic is predicted to collapse, but her whole life Amy has been taught it’s God’s will they die. They traded their souls for immunity to the swine flu virus, brought God’s curse upon themselves by adding pig genes to their own.

Then, while on a scavenging trip with her father, Amy is accidentally trapped in New Lithisle. At first her only goal is to escape, but when she meets Daniel, a New Lithisle boy, she begins to question how less-than-human the people of New Lithisle are.

Amy’s feelings grow even more conflicted when she learns she didn’t end up in New Lithisle by mistake. Her father is secretly a sympathizer, and was trying to prevent the coming destruction.

Now time is running short and Amy has to decide if she will bring the computer program her father wrote to his contact or save herself. Installing the program could prevent the dome’s collapse, but if Amy doesn’t find her father’s contact in time, she’ll die, along with everyone else.

Rondi Bauer Olson is a reader and writer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her debut novel for young adults, All Things Now Living, was a finalist in the 2012 Genesis Contest. She and her husband, Kurt, live on a hobby farm with three of their four mostly-grown children, along with a menagerie of animals including, but not limited to, horses, cows, alpacas, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, and parrots. Rondi also works as a registered nurse and owns a gift shop located within view of the beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Learn more about Rondi at rondiolson.blogspot.com and the Seventh Daughter series seventhdaughter.weebly.com.

Motivation is Key

by Kim Vogel Sawyer, @KimVogelSawyer

Before I started writing full-time, I was an elementary school teacher. Although I love what I’m doing now, I think I will always miss the classroom—witnessing the kids’ excitement at learning something new, watching them grow over the course of the year, and sharing my passion of history and writing with them. Even though I’m no longer in the classroom, I still have the opportunity now and then to teach at writing conferences, and my favorite topic is characterization.

For a reader to want to spend time in story world, he needs to connect with the characters. In other words, he needs to care about and root for the character. This connection comes about thanks to a wonderful little noun: motivation.

Motivation is defined as the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way; or the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.A writer can put together a fairly strong story by giving the character a goal and then throwing lots of roadblocks in the way of achieving it, but to have a strong character—meaning a relatable, root-for, want-to-claim-as-my-new-friend character—there must be a viable reason WHY the character wants what he or she is after and WHY he acts the way he does.

I am a completely seat-of-the-pants writer. I do not plot (*shudder*). But before I start any story, I spend time with the characters who will people the story. I find out what they want physically (hold it in your hands), emotionally (under the skin), and spiritually (at their moral center). Then I explore why gaining those things are so important to the characters. For instance, below is the chart I crafted for Hazel DeFord, the main character from my most recent release, Bringing Maggie Home:


Because Hazel’s little sister disappeared when Hazel was supposed to be taking care of her, Hazel became an overprotective mother, never wanting to let her daughter out of her sight. This kind of almost paranoid behavior would be annoying If the reader didn’t understand the reason behind it. But when the reader realizes Hazel’s motivation for keeping her daughter safe stems from the trauma of losing her sister, the reader is able to sympathize with her. Most of us can relate to living with regret, which allows the reader to connect to Hazel.

I think most writers want readers to become so attached to the characters that they have a hard time putting the book aside and even think about the characters after they’ve reached the end of the story. To bond the reader with character, they must understand WHY the character is so determined to achieve his goal. Thus, motivation is key.

Bringing Maggie Home

Decades of loss, an unsolved mystery, and a rift spanning three generations

Hazel DeFord is a woman haunted by her past. While berry picking in a blackberry thicket in 1943, ten-year old Hazel momentarily turns her back on her three-year old sister Maggie and the young girl disappears.

Almost seventy years later, the mystery remains unsolved and the secret guilt Hazel carries has alienated her from her daughter Diane, who can’t understand her mother’s overprotectiveness and near paranoia. While Diane resents her mother’s inexplicable eccentricities, her daughter Meghan—a cold case agent—cherishes her grandmother’s lavish attention and affection.

When a traffic accident forces Meghan to take a six-week leave-of-absence to recover, all three generations of DeFord women find themselves unexpectedly under the same roof. Meghan knows she will have to act as a mediator between the two headstrong and contentious women. But when they uncover Hazel’s painful secret, will Meghan also be able to use her investigative prowess to solve the family mystery and help both women recover all that’s been lost?

Kim Vogel Sawyer is a highly acclaimed, best-selling author with more than one million books in print, in several different languages. Her titles have earned numerous accolades including the ACFW Carol Award, the Inspirational Readers Choice Award, and the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. Kim lives in central Kansas with her retired military husband Don, where she continues to write gentle stories of hope and redemption. She enjoys spending time with her three daughters and grandchildren.

Find out more about Kim at http://www.kimvogelsawyer.com/.

3 Ingredients of a Great Writer

By Michelle Griep, @MichelleGriep

It’s November. That means thousands of writers are pounding away at their keyboards this month, hoping their manuscript will become the next #1 NY Times Bestseller.

See what I have in my hand, kids? It’s a pin. A sharp, pointy silver rod of death, and I’m stabbing balloon after balloon. Pop. Pop. Pop. Because the ugly truth is there’s only one thing that makes for a great bestseller and that’s a great writer. And there are three ingredients that go into all the greats. Look deep inside, little writer, and see if you have the makings or if you’re short an egg or two . . .

3 Ingredients of a Great Writer

1 – Guts

There’s a fine line between knowing writing rules and being hog-tied by them. It takes courage to cross the line now and then and break those rules. That implies you must first know what the “rules” are, but at some point you need to let go and freefall into your writing. Take risks. Stop caring if your story gets published. Write for the breath-stealing exhilaration of creation.


Great writers read. Excessively. And in all genres. There’s something to be said for osmosis. Reading great writing tends to come out as great writing.


This is the ingredient everyone wants to skip, especially all the bright-eyed newbies out there who think their first manuscript is God’s gift to mankind. It takes time to become a great writer. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Lots and lots of chocolate and weeping. Granted, the timeline isn’t the same for all writers, but it’s a rare genius who gallops out of the gate into novel stardom. Most pay their dues one year at a time, critique by critique, workshop by workshop. Slow down, little cowboy, and enjoy the ride.

If you’re missing one of these ingredients, don’t despair. Just work toward the one you need most. Stick with it, because there’s a kingpin of all ingredients inside every great writer: perseverance.

12 Days at Bleakly Manor

Imprisoned unjustly, BENJAMIN LANE wants nothing more than freedom and a second chance to claim the woman he loves—but how can CLARA CHAPMAN possibly believe in the man who stole her family’s fortune and abandoned her at the altar? Brought together under mysterious circumstances for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Clara and Ben discover that what they’ve been striving for isn’t what ultimately matters . . . and what matters most is love.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. She is the author of historical romances: The Innkeeper’s Daughter, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, The Captive Heart, Brentwood’s Ward, A Heart Deceived, Undercurrent andGallimore, but also leaped the historical fence into the realm of contemporary with the zany romantic mystery Out of the Frying Pan. If you’d like to keep up with her escapades, find her at www.michellegriep.com or stalk her on FacebookTwitter, or Pinterest.the next level.