Conflict: Bring It On, But Sustain It

Conflict.

Readers love it.

Many writers do, too, which was evidenced in the comments on Wednesday’s post, “Conflicted: Do I Really Have to Hurt My Characters?

Here’s a sampling:

“I guess I’m a big meanie because I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem hurting my characters. LOL”

“I love adding conflict to my characters’ lives.”

“The hotter the fire a piece of gold has to go through, the brighter it shines afterwards….”

Conflict is an essential element in a story, and the stronger the better.

I knew this when I revised the story I sent to my agent. Really, I did. Contest judges two years before had pointed out the need for a stronger conflict at the beginning of my story. I added one based on a wonderful suggestion my hubby gave me.

Taking his idea, I ran with it and ended up with a beginning that earned me several contest wins, requests for fulls, and the offer from my agent. While I enjoyed the accolades, I knew I owed my success to Gwynly. See why I’m so happy to have him as my plotting partner? 🙂

Lack of conflict is a major weakness.

When I received the revision notes from my agent and learned that she liked the opening 1/4 of the book, I was happy. When she said the final 3/4ths needed to be completely rewritten, I was humbled. That was the part I’d plotted by my own little self.

My revision notes were four single-spaced pages, nearly half of which dealt with what my agent called: “My #1 Concern: Lack of conflict.” I won’t bore you with all the painful details. Three sentences will outline the problem.

“The opening chapters introduce a juicy conflict . . .”

“However, we lose the central conflict only a few chapters into the book . . .”

“It’s kind of like you let the air out of the balloon too soon.”

Did it hurt to hear that? Yup. A lot.

Did I agree? Readily. That was my light bulb moment.

Conflict must be sustained.

During my agent-directed revisions, I began by plotting a new story. I came up with one that carried the conflict from the beginning all the way to a few pages shy of the end.

I’m not done with my revisions, though. I’ll be doing another round (or two or three) for my editor, along with a little trimming and tightening. As I revise, I’ll be looking for ways to intensify the conflict even more. I’m sure my editor will have great suggestions, too.

Ways to Increase Conflict and Heighten Tension

Since I’m a writer who tended to be easy on her characters, I’m learning how to make things tough on them. Here’s a list I’ve started, but I could use your help, especially those of you who enjoy including plenty of conflict in your stories.

  • Have a strong external conflict that prevents the couple from getting together.
  • Have strong internal conflicts that keep the couple apart.
  • Deny the hero and heroine what they need to reach their goals.
  • Take away something that means a great deal to the hero or heroine.
  • Take away someone who means a great deal to the hero or heroine.
  • End scenes and chapters with strong read-on prompts the leave things hanging.

What can you add to the list?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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18 Responses to Conflict: Bring It On, But Sustain It

  1. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    Make them go through natural desasters , face war or conflict zones, separate them temporarily by putting one into our world and the other into the Other world, let them be from two different countries, cultures, social backgrounds….

    (But as I said before, I always let there be a happy ending….lol)

  2. Great post! I would add – Don’t be afraid to delete scenes you love. Sometimes you don’t know they were written for your own benefit and not the readers’. If the scene is full of characterization and background and not conflict, it has to go. This is coming from someone who just deleted entire chapters from her WIP.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Julie, I’ve learned that the delete key can be my friend. I’ve watched my story improve as I removed unnecessary portions, chapters, scenes, passages, paragraphs, sentences, and individual words.

      I feel for you on deleting entire chapters. That takes courage but shows wisdom.

      • Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

        True, you have to be very brave todelete entire chapters. But sometimes it is needed and gives the story a new drive and switch and the writer new ideas…

  3. Thank you for sharing these gems of writing skill. I appreciate your taking time to demonstrate the progress of your novel. You responded to the challenge and your reaped the reward! I must get busy with revisions. I’ve been away from my MS. Blessings to you, Keli.

  4. Wendy says:

    I love Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He forces writers to intensify conflict more and more. This is when it really helps to know your character’s psychological strings to pull and tug and snip. :0
    ~ Wendy

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Wendy, I’ve heard great things about this book and workbook. Must. Read. It.

      Have you heard that he’s written a new book? The Breakout Novelist will be released March 14th and is up for pre-order on Amazon.

  5. Good list! I always cringe when I’m reading a novel and the conflict intensifies and I’m like nooooo, why is this happening to them?! But of course I wouldn’t have it any other way, lol. When a reader really feels for the characters and is invested in what’s happening to them, it’s a great story and the author got the conflict and tension right!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Laura, what a great explanation of why we writers work so hard to add conflict to our stories. It’s all about creating a compelling story that will keep our readers flipping pages as they race to the end to find out how the characters they’ve come to care about will overcome the myriad obstacles we threw at them. The day I realized I wasn’t writing stories to please myself but to delight my readers was a very good day. 🙂

  6. T. Anne says:

    My husband is a great plotter too! Aren’t we lucky to have such powerhouses of knowledge right under our roofs? I think my stories are full of conflict, but I have been known to be wrong on occasion. Rare occasion though, I think it has something to do with Haley’s comet.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      T. Anne, how cool that you have a hubby who helps you plot, too. We’re blessed!

      Somehow I had a feeling your stories are filled with conflict. Can’t wait until the day I’m racing through your debut novel, heart pounding, waiting to see how your characters overcome the obstacles you throw at them. =)

  7. Tamika Eason says:

    I think I may have the same beginning conflict that fizzles out way too soon. What I need is to add more external conflict!
    Great points here Keli, thanks.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Tamika, I think realizing where our stories need work is a big step. Once we’ve identified the weaknesses, we know where to focus our efforts. I wish you well as you endeavor to increase the conflict in your WIP.

  8. MaryC says:

    Thanks, Keli.

    I wish I wasn’t coming in on the discussion so late because I’d love to see people comment on books that they think are great examples of conflict.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Mary C, the book that immediately came to mind when I read your comment was The Preacher’s Bride by my critique partner Jody Hedlund. One of her greatest strengths is adding conflict and tension to her stories. She does such a good job of creating a page-turning story that I read her book in two sessions, staying up until well past midnight to reach The End.

      • MaryC says:

        Thanks for the recommendation, Keli. I’ve looked for TPB in my bookstore but they don’t have it so I’ll have to order online. I’d meant to do that anyway, but you just gave me a good push.

        Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts on conflict. I think I’m finally getting the conflict in my book right.

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