Let me tell you a story. It goes like this: “There was once a reader much like you who picked logged on to their computer and checked their email inbox. Upon seeing that there was an email from thewritersrack.com, they marked it as read. Then they got up to make breakfast: some delicious eggs and toast! Soon, they were finished with breakfast and was off to the office like the rest of the world. The End.”
Yeah, and I had a dog once. His name was B-O-R-I-N-G. Believe it or not, there are plenty of stories with this level of conflict. (Albeit bigger) Readers don’t want to read a book where everyone lives in peace and harmony and no one has a fight to pick with their neighbor. Readers want to see conflict.
If you take a step back and realize what I’m saying, you might ask me: “Really, though? Are you seriously asking me to be a sadist? War is terrible! Marital disputes are miserable! Having a bad relationship with your father is terrible!” And, of course, you’d be right. But I am asking you to be a sadist…to some degree.
Many people have a problem with the existence of God because of the evil he allows in the world. I would say that I have the same problem with authors because of the evil they let run loose in their books. (Put the gun down, please, I’m not crazy yet) You probably already knew this.
As such, you wanted to pose a problem so that there’d be an adventure, right? But you can see many heads growing out of the Hydra’s stump as you foresee more conflict to come. So, in an effort to save your precious characters from damaging conflict, you subtly edit out or avoid the battles, conversations, or other interactions.
If you’re doing that, you’re on the opposite track. If everything is puppy dogs and ice cream except for the one inconvenient problem labeled “the adventure”, the reader will decide that their time was wasted and (since you can’t refund their time) go do something else more gratifying.
I need not say more. Avoidance of conflict damages your story like nothing else will. Be a connoisseur of conflict, an expert of exchange, an alto of altercations (okay, that doesn’t quite work but it sounds just about right). If you see conflict in the middle of the road…run towards it, not around or away.
However, most avoidance of conflict is caused by not creating catalysts for said conflict to manifest. In other words, you’re not adding enough conflict into the story. For conflict to be properly added, it has to be caused by something, which means that every thing that goes wrong needs to be planned. It has to be caused by a malicious person, who has their own reasons to do what they’re doing.
I’m not suggesting that you make meteors rain from the sky for no reason. I’m not suggesting that you add worldwide disasters that appear to have no cause. Conflict must have purpose. Drive. Start with the reason: the reason motivates the villain to action, the villain creates the problem, the problem motivates the heroes to act, the heroes’ action motivates the reader to read on until the end.
By now, you get the idea: make war, not love. (Maybe war AND love, but that’s a topic for a future article) You want to make lots of conflict in your story: lovers with terminated relationships, countries at war, natural disasters killing people, machines taking over the planet, and so on.
But this is a “how to” article, so aside from telling you that you shouldn’t avoid conflict, I’ll tell you how to do it: first, provide the story with many opportunities to go wrong. Don’t necessarily start the story with a broken relationship: start it with a strained one. Don’t start with two countries in open warfare: start it with a mere boiling hatred between the two. This allows the reader to be around when the storm breaks, so they’re in on the action from the beginning.
Secondly, once you’ve got your catalysts for conflict, don’t waste a single one of them. If you started the story with an open outlet for conflict and then never make use of it, the reader is partially deflated. Above all things, protect the good humor of your reader. If you promise conflict in the future, make good on your promise.
Finally, make at least one (small) safe spot from danger. Whether this is the rebels’ secret base, in the arms of a protective mother, another planet, or whatever, make sure that there’s a place where the characters can retreat to if the going gets too tough. Because it’s going to get really hard for your characters. It’s going to push them to their limits. But in the end, that’s what makes them interesting.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!