Building Conflict in Your Novel

This past year, I had the honor and privilege of serving as a judge in several different writing contests as well as the ACFW Genesis contest, and I’ve got to say that the manuscripts I had the pleasure of reading were impressive! The thought provoking ideas, the new voices, an unusual twist on an old theme—all of these excited me about the direction Christian Fiction is heading while reminding me how far we’ve come since the days of Catherine Marshall’s Christy or Janette Oake’s Love Comes Softly. But even in my excitement, I noticed a problem that ran through most of the manuscripts I read.

Little to no internal conflict.

I can only speak for myself but personally, I don’t like conflict in my daily life. The thought of working through a problem, agonizing over making the right choices, sometimes patterns that you’ve been living for a lifetime are, at least to me, EXHAUSTING. But in writing fiction, internal conflict is a necessary evil.

Why do we need internal conflict in our stories?

My husband claims that he fell in love with me one Sunday evening. I was asked to come forward and sing a request during evening service and as I made my way up the aisle closest to the wall, my stiletto got caught in the heating duct. With everyone in church watching, I pulled the duct out of the floor and placed it in a pew along with my other shoe then proceeded to the front of the church, laughing at myself. Dan said that in that moment, he knew that he wanted to spend his life with me because I could laugh at myself.

It’s a cute story but in reading it, it’s just that—cute. What if you knew the struggle going on inside me at this time? What if I had been trying to prove to this strapping young man that I was an elegant woman; that just speaking to him made me tongue tied, that I had already lost one boyfriend who thought I was too goofy and clumsy? Then it makes the whole episode seem like a horrible experience, something that would send me running from the sanctuary in embarrassment, thinking my klutziness had once again lost the man I loved.

Now it’s a story loaded with internal conflict!

Internal conflict usually comes from our hero/heroine’s deep desire for that elusive something they think they NEED in order to be happy. So how do you do that? How do you get your characters to spit out what their deep, dark needs are?

Get in Touch with Your Inner Two Year Old

The other night, Dan and I were sitting in a pizza parlor when this man comes in with this adorable little girl. Sunshiny blonde hair with the perfect button of a nose, she spent the next fifteen minutes, pointing her pink-tipped finger here and there, and asking the age old questions of every two year old on the planet.

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

When developing our characters, we need to ask the tough questions. While finding out what your character looks like or how they came to be in this place in their lives, the questions most readers are interested in having answered are the motivations behind the hero’s/heroines’ actions. As writers, we seem to run away from digging into these motivations and shying away from conflict. Is it because deep down, we hate the idea of conflict in our own lives so much, we can’t stand the thought of finding out the problems of our fictional characters, fearful they might mirror our own?

In my book, Hearts in Flight, Maggie Daniels is determined to do her patriotic duty and fly B-29s as part of the Women’s Army Service Pilots. Sounds like a great thing for her to do, doesn’t it? But when I dug deeper, I discovered her reasons were very personal and not nearly as noble as I had thought—that she was intent on proving herself to a family who never really believed in her. She was dealing with a respect problem and to a lesser degree, a pride problem that was keeping her from what could truly make her happy.

If you’re looking for more direction in this department, I recommend Laurie Schnebly’s Plot Via Motivation class. ( It is a phenomenal class, and one that changed my whole way of plotting conflict and helped me sell my first manuscript.

Don’t’ be afraid of throwing the kitchen sink at your characters.

The fun begins once you know what your character’s deep dark desire is. I call it the kitchen sink phase because this is where I look at my historical data I’m using as a setting and figure out what will cause my characters the most problems. This use of external conflict can rev up the internal conflict to the next level.

For example, the heroine/hero from my second World War II novel have two very different desires. My heroine, a 1st generation German American, is running away from a shameful secret—her parents are demanding she go to Germany to use her engineering skills for Hitler. So it didn’t take much to discover she seeks self-preservation, just to get through the war unnoticed, almost invisible. My hero is a reformed bad boy who found God in a POW camp and has returned home to prove to everyone that he’s not the man he used to be. By now, you’ve probably guessed that his deepest desire is to find acceptance from the family and friends he left behind.

So what kind of real life history would pump up the internal conflict in my fictional characters? When I started planning out this book, I found so much local history(a natural suspicion of outsiders and the fear of German spying, a hospital that only had four beds for black patients, a polio outbreak that shut down schools) that would challenge my hero/heroine’s long term desires, throwing the kitchen sink at them came easily. Use external problem to heighten your characters’ discomfort over their internal conflict/deepest desire.

Conflict (in a story) is your friend.

In closing, don’t run from injecting conflict in your stories. That’s what makes a reader pick up a book and read it—to see how a character works through a problem they themselves might be going through. Conflict makes your characters believable and compelling while giving hope to those of us who love to read fiction.

A romantic at heart, Patty Smith Hall is an award winning, multi-published author. Her stories of encouragement and hope can be found in Guideposts, Journey and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul. Her Genesis award winning manuscript, Hearts in Flight, was released by Love Inspired Historical in July, 2011. Her second book with Love Inspired Historical will be released July, 2012. Patty resides in Georgia along with Dan, her husband of 28 years.

Hearts in Flight blurb:

Serving her country as one of the Women’s Army Special Pilots is Maggie Daniels’s dearest wish. But there are obstacles to overcome above and beyond the enemies in the Pacific, including her overprotective family, skeptical fellow pilots—and handsome, distant squadron leader Wesley Hicks. Whatever it takes, Maggie will prove herself to Wesley, until she succeeds in winning his admiration…and love. Wesley can see that Maggie’s a first-class pilot. She’s also too fearless by half. The war has cost Wesley so much already. Can he let go of his guilt for a chance at happiness—and can he learn to trust in God…and Maggie…enough to believe in love for a lifetime?

Contact Patty HERE

10 Tips for Effective Research Trips

Vickie McDonough is an award-winning author of 24 books and
novellas. She is the author of the fun and feisty Texas Boardinghouse
Brides series from Barbour Publishing. Watch for her new books from Moody
Publishers, Texas Trails: A Morgan Family series, in which she partners with
Susan Page Davis and Darlene Franklin to write a 6-book series that spans 50
years of the Morgan family. The first three books release this fall. Also, next
year brings the release of another new series from Guidepost/Summerside,
Pioneer Promises, set in 1870s Kansas.

Leave a comment for Vickie and be entered in a drawing for
any book on her website. U.S. residents only, please.

Ten Tips for Effective Research Trips

I’ve just returned from my first cruise to the Caribbean. I
never dreamed a sunset could be so beautiful or the color of the water so
vivid. There was such an amazing difference in the houses of the poor, made
from tin or only partially built with people still living in them to the lavish
mansions of the wealthy with their beautiful flowers and fancy locked gates. 
When I visited Charleston several years ago, I was awed by the 300-year old
homes and buildings, especially when you consider I grew up in Oklahoma where
we just celebrated our centennial five years ago. The only thing we have that’s
300 years old is the land. 
In North Dakota, I was amazed by how the flat lands,
which seemed to go on for forever, suddenly turned into hilly mounds and then
the rugged, grassy Badlands.
Research trips are one of the best perks a writer enjoys.
Traveling to a place you want to write about makes your story more realistic
and alive. You’ll discover tidbits that you probably wouldn’t if you never
visited the area, and seeing it for yourself is so beneficial to learning the
lay of the land, the culture, flora and fauna of the area, and how the local
people of the speak and live. These this make your story authentic.
So, how do you prepare for a research trip?
11.     Know
what information you need and make a list. The last thing you want is to get
back home and realize you forgot to get info on something crucial to your

22.     Research
the town or locale before you leave home.
online websites
the history of the area
in advance which places you want to visit. Museums and tourist sites in small
towns are sometimes only open on certain days and for a few hours at a time,
because they are often staffed by volunteers. The last thing you want to do is
to make a trip somewhere and not be able to visit the sights you want to see.
Do I sound like the voice of experience here? Make a list of the sites you want
to visit, with addressees, phone numbers(so that you can call if you need
directions) and hours.
you’re a AAA member, get a tourbook of the state. They have some good
historical information as well as a listing of the main places to visit with contact
information, hours, and prices.
33.   Take
Good Notes. Document everything. Even though you think you’ll remember things,
once you get back home, minute details and impressions will slip your mind.
Most phones have a video recorder, which can be handy for places where you’re
not allowed to take photos, like some museums. If you tour a historical home,
you might want to record the tour guide, who usually gives lots of great info
about the family who lived there and the town’s history.
   4.   Be
sure to write down contact info and the names of the people you talked with
(get the correct spelling) in case you need to contact them again or want to
acknowledge them in your book when it comes out.          
  5.   Don’t
forget your camera. I take tons of pictures on research trips.(All the pictures
in this article are ones I’ve taken) Pictures of buildings, houses, waterways.
When I can take photos in a museum, I snap pictures of furniture, dishes, guns,
wagons—anything that represent the time period I plan to write about. Also take
pictures of the landscape, trees, birds, and flowers.

  6.   Talk
to the locals. They love to chat about their town and its history. Ask them
questions and ask if they can refer you to someone else in the know. If you
make a good connection with someone, you might also ask if they’d mind giving you
their email address is case you have questions later.              

  7.   Don’t
overlook college research centers. I visited the Carroll Library on the campus
of Baylor University in Waco to view part of The Texas Collection while
researching my books for the Texas Trails series. The workers their were
extremely helpful, and I found lots of fodder for my stories.

88.   Take
an envelope with you to keep all your receipts in. Those tiny buggers can
easily get lost and then you’ll lose a tax deduction. I also like to take a
letter size plastic envelop with a Velcro closure when I travel. I put all my
organizational papers, hotel reservation info, and maps in it so I can find
them easily.

99.   Visit
tourist information centers. You can find great maps there, information on
local sites, and sometimes historical info. The people who work in the centers
are often a wealth of information too.
110.  Have fun.
Take some time to do something just for fun. Don’t work your whole trip. Visit
a tourist site, see a local show, and enjoy yourself.
Did you know that if you’re actively working toward becoming
a published writer that you can deduct a chunk of your expenses when you take a
research trip? Be sure to check the laws in your state to know exactly what you
can and can’t deduct.
Long Trail Home
A weary soldier returns from the War Between the States to discover his parents dead, his family farm in shambles, and his fiancée married. A pretty, blind woman reaches through his scarred walls, but will the secret she holds ruin all chances for a future filled with love, faith, and family?

Tortoise or Hare? What’s Your Speed ~ Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D’Innocenzo)

What’s your speed?

Tess Gerritsen
(reprinted from Tess’s 4/19 post on

My husband says I walk too fast. He complains about this whenever we stroll together, even when we’re not late for any appointment but just seeing the sights. “What’s your hurry?” he asks. “Are you trying to make me feel like a slacker?” Really, I’m not; I just naturally walk fast. How fast? I think people in Manhattan should stop being so pokey.

Years ago, when I was working as a doctor in a Honolulu emergency room, I walked into a treatment room to sew up a cop who had a nasty laceration. Before I could say a word, the cop says, “You’re not from the islands, are you?”

“How the heck did you know that?” I ask, completely baffled. As an Asian American, I look like half the population of Honolulu.

“It’s the way you walk,” he said. “You look like you have to get somewhere in a hurry. Islanders don’t walk that way.”

Now that’s an observant cop.

Another memory: my husband and I are in London, on a double date for dinner with my UK editor and her husband. My editor and I walk together, and we both walk fast. We’re talking business while we walk, and we’re so engrossed in conversation that we’re not really paying attention to where our husbands are. Suddenly we realize we’ve lost them. They’re nowhere to be seen. We halt on the sidewalk, wondering if they took a wrong turn or ducked into a pub somewhere. A moment later the men appear, annoyed and grumbling about “these damn career women, always leaving their husbands behind.”

The thing is, I don’t think I walk fast. This is just my natural walking pace and if I slow down, I feel as if I’m wading through molasses. It’s something that’s inborn and not a conscious thing. We each have our own natural rhythms that determine how much sleep we need and how fast our hearts beat.

In the same way, I think I have my own writing speed, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t change it. I would love to write multiple novels a year. I would love to have a new book on the shelves every four months. The fastest I ever wrote was back when I was writing romantic thrillers for Harlequin, and one year I managed to write two books, but those were only 300-page manuscripts. Now that I’m writing longer thrillers, I have to work hard to meet my book-a-year deadlines.

Now, this may have something to do with my chaotic process. I don’t outline, I don’t plan ahead. I plunge into a first draft and it goes all over the place and it ends up a mess. Which means I have to spend the next five months cleaning it up. Oh, if I could just have a logical system with notecards that summarize every chapter ahead of time. If only I could approach it like an engineer with a blueprint. But even if I could do it that way, I think I’d still be writing only a book a year. Because of that natural rhythm thing again. I write four pages a day and I’m bushed. Whether those four pages are good or bad, they exhaust me.

And I have to wander off and make a martini to recover.

I’ve given up beating myself over the head about my pokey writing schedule. Just as I’ve stopped apologizing for how fast I walk. Too bad I couldn’t be a fast writer and a slow walker.

Then everything would be perfect.