Sunday, November 21, 2010

Guest blog: Sherry Lewis on Conflict

For the next two weeks we have the honor of hosting author Sherry Lewis and the good fortune of having her discuss conflict.

Sherry’s career path toward being an author didn't exactly follow a straight line. Sherry has worked such prestigious jobs as manager of a convenience store, Christmas tree decorator, poinsettia dresser, keyboard player/vocalist in a band, secretary in an insurance office, secretary in a bank, and finally secretary and administrative assistant for an attorney who eventually became a federal judge. In late 1993, Sherry sold her first three books to Berkley Prime Crime. By early 1994, she'd sold her first book to Harlequin Superromance. CALL ME MOM was published in January 1995, with NO PLACE FOR SECRETS following in July. In 1996, Sherry gleefully left the court to pursue a full-time writing career.

Still as much in love with books as ever, Sherry writes for Berkley and Harlequin. She’s a long-time member of Romance Writers of America, where she served for four years on the Board of Directors, including one year as President. She's also a member of Novelists Inc., KOD, and Sisters in Crime, and is a deliriously happy grandmother.


Thanks for inviting me to visit your blog. I’m excited to be here and to talk about one of the most profound things I’ve learned about writing over the course of my career: Conflict.

Everyone reading this is probably aware that there are two basic types of conflict: internal and external. We hear about them almost from the moment we make the decision to become a writer. In almost every book we write, we’ll probably work with both types of conflict, but getting the mix just right is sometimes tricky.

We all know that internal conflict is a war that takes place within a person, while external conflict is a war that takes place outside the character, on another stage. Both types of conflict should be ongoing, active, and changing as the story progresses.

Every one of us lives through moments of conflict on a daily basis, but they’re rarely interesting enough or strong enough to work in a novel. I might want the prime rib for dinner, but I can really only afford the ground sirloin. Which one to choose? Those shoes are so stinking cute, I’d love to buy them, but if I do that, I can’t pay the water bill. What to do? My daughter and I can’t agree on what to watch on TV or where to go for dinner.

Realistic? Yes. Interesting? Not so much. Compelling enough to keep me glued to the page when the kids are screaming and dinner’s on the stove? Ummm. No.

To craft a strong, compelling novel, we need to carefully select internal and external conflicts that will dovetail as the story progresses and ultimately push the characters to make a choice that’s going to rock their world.

Your romance novel heroine can agonize for 300 pages over whether she’s willing to give her alcoholic mother another chance, but unless she’s facing an external conflict that makes her decision absolutely necessary, nobody’s going to care about your heroine’s angst. Your romance hero might be locked in a competition with his arch-rival for the promotion he wants, but if getting that promotion doesn’t put another area of his life in danger, their competition might just be a big yawn.

Compelling conflict must force the character involved into a decision she really doesn’t want to make. Climb the mountain or risk death in the snow-covered valley. Risk becoming involved in a new relationship or give up forever the dream of having a wife and kids. If the choice won’t change things in a major way, the decision probably isn’t interesting enough to keep readers interested. Go after the promotion that will mean moving to NYC but will also provide the financial stability he’s always longed for, or stay in Portland to be near his daughter.

When you’re making a statement about your character’s internal conflict, make sure you’re forcing them to make a choice:

John wants success in his career and financial stability, but he also wants to stay in Portland to be near Chelsea. Which one will he choose?

Nellie’s fear of heights has paralyzed her for years. Now she’s faced with a choice: climb the mountain or wait at the isolated crash site for someone to find her before she does. Which one will she choose?

David always wanted a traditional family—wife, two kids, and a dog. He even thought the picket fence looked pretty good. But after his fiancée betrayed him, his parents divorced and his older brother cheated on his wife of fifteen years, David’s not sure he believes in marriage anymore. When he falls in love with the pastor’s daughter, David has a choice to make: marry her or lose her.

The choice of the right characters is crucial to making conflict come to life. In David’s case, just meeting a new woman isn’t enough to put him into deep conflict. He must meet and fall in love with a woman for whom it’s marriage or nothing. If David doesn’t have to make the tough choice, his story won’t be nearly compelling enough to keep readers turning the pages.

A common mistake I see is when an author introduces “conflict” that isn’t actually conflict at all. A woman whose ex-husband cheated on her and who has sworn off men is not in conflict—not even when the hot, hunky hero walks into the room. Her distrust of men is simply a statement about her current emotional condition. It’s potentially one-half of a conflict, but it’s not conflict unless there’s something equally strong pulling her in the opposite direction at the same time. Sadly, even the hero’s incredible hunkiness is not sufficiently strong to create a strong, believable conflict for this woman.

Nor is his hotness enough to motivate a woman who’s truly determined to avoid men to seek out the hero and spend time around him.

What would put her in internal conflict? What would motivate her to take a chance?

I’m sure we could come up with countless possibilities, but let’s say this woman is also driven to find the man responsible for destroying her father last year. If she believes that the hero has information that could help her, she’ll seek out the hero and her reasons for doing so will feel realistic and believable to the reader. Once you’ve created a chink in her armor by creating a pull that’s every bit as strong as the push, you can believably motivate the character to take the risk she’d rather avoid.

One of the best places I know of to look for strong conflict is where the character’s childhood teachings are at odds with an adult need. Maybe your heroine longs for children of her own but doesn’t see marriage in her future. Her strong religious beliefs won’t allow her to explore alternative options for conception, so her longing for a baby will compel her to work through her trust issues when the hero moves in next door. Her story isn’t just about the conflict between woman and man it’s also about the conflict between her moral beliefs and her human longing.

Or maybe she has a bit too much to drink one night, has a one-night stand with some guy and finds herself pregnant. Is she in conflict now? In an historical novel, maybe. In a contemporary, not so much ... unless she also has deep-seated beliefs against abortion and adoption and also believes that a child needs both parents to grow up happy and healthy. By itself, the fact that she grew up without a father doesn’t put her in conflict, even after she meets the hero. But if she’s backed into a corner by an unplanned pregnancy, her own needs will be in conflict with the needs of the child.

Maybe your hero chooses to stay in a loveless marriage so his sick wife doesn’t lose her health insurance. His desire for happiness is in conflict with his sense of duty. He can either leave her and find a new love, or he can look himself in the mirror, but he can’t do both.

Or maybe he was taught as a child that compromise is a sign of weakness and now he’s forced to compromise to save someone or something important to him.

Every one of us is carrying beliefs from childhood around with us, and our characters should be no different. Those beliefs are probably a huge part of who you are, whether they’re relatively unimportant like the “right” way to decorate a Christmas tree or something more integral, such as what we believe about religion and spirituality, politics or sex.

Beliefs that come from our childhoods are often so powerfully embedded we continue to believe them even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even in middle age, the things we were taught as children can hang us up on the paths we’ve chosen as adults.

One of the big mistakes authors make is when we don’t let our characters hold onto their beliefs. We write about people who change life paths because of one conversation with a stranger. About people who abandon the teachings of their youth because of a set of soulful eyes or the touch of a hand. We write about people who throw away everything they believe because their best friend tells them to change things up over chicken salad croissants at lunch.

When you’re creating internal conflicts for your characters, don’t short-change them. Your characters must hold to their belief system just as you cling to your own. It’s the other side of the internal conflict that creates the chink in their armor and allows change to happen—eventually. But even with that chink, they’re going to need something close to an internal earthquake to shake them from their original beliefs. The hero who feels responsible for his wife’s death isn’t likely to go chat up the perky redhead standing by the elevator no matter how green her eyes are—unless he needs something else as badly as he needs to protect himself.

Remember that internal conflict is a two-edged sword. It forces the character to make a difficult choice. We write the story to find out the answers to the questions that arise from those conflicting desires. Readers read the story for the same reasons. Without the questions, there’s no reason for the reader to keep turning pages. Force your characters into a corner and give them a life-changing choice to make—a choice they can’t avoid. If you can do that, your readers will become invested in the character’s journey every time.

Join us next Sunday for Part 2.


We're having a drawing at Dancing on Coals. Purchase any of our workshop booklets during the month of November and your name will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of "In and Out: Putting Characters in Conflict" coming in December.

Each booklet contains the full text of the Dancing on Coals workshop by the same name. Booklets currently available are:

Mastering Scene and Sequel

Spinning Straw into Gold: The Art and Craft of Revisions

Riding the Emotional Roller-Coaster

Creating Characters with Character

Plotting the Organic Way

Your name will be entered once for each booklet you purchase. For more information, visit us at and click on the "Booklets for Download" button


  1. Hey Sherry,
    Great stuff as always. Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Thanks Kim! It's great to see you here. Hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  3. Sherry, I really miss your workshops! This is a great topic. Thanks sooo much for sharing!


  4. Thanks Marie! I appreciate the comment about the workshops. It was a hard decision to give up doing them on a monthly basis, but at least one of them is going up on RWA University, and I'm turning the rest into booklets so they're still available for those who are interested :)

  5. Hey Sherry,
    You and yours have a warm and safe holiday too. Think of us while we're here getting the biggest blizzard of the season.
    Looking forward to part 2