Sunday, November 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Sherry Lewis on Conflict, Part II

Welcome to Week Two with our guest blogger, author Sherry Lewis.

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.

External conflict should rear its ugly head for the first time at the beginning of your story. Readers want to be in on the trouble from the beginning. If the trouble’s been going on for a while, your readers will probably feel cheated and wonder why you’re bothering them with it.

Maybe you’re writing about a woman who grew up poor. Maybe about a woman who was left at the altar by her fiancé. Maybe you’re writing about a man who found his wife in bed with his best friend. Or about a woman whose best friend was killed in an accident. Maybe your hero went through a particularly bitter divorce. There are infinite possibilities, but readers won’t really care about the past unless there’s some real connection to the present.

Readers really begin to care about the character’s past when they perceive a threat of the past being repeated. Growing up poor doesn’t matter much unless your protagonist suddenly finds herself in desperate need of money or she starts to fall in love with a wealthy man. . . or a poor one. Her financial background isn’t really an issue unless the current conflict makes it one.

Likewise, with internal conflict, timing is everything. Your heroine who has sworn off men completely isn’t likely to spot that hot hero and suddenly start worrying about the fact that he lives in L.A. and she lives in Paris. The idea that they live on opposite sides of the world doesn’t even become an issue until later, after she’s resolved some of her internal conflicts so they can develop some kind of relationship.

As I start planning layers of conflict, I ask myself a couple of questions repeatedly: “What if this conflict were resolved? What would keep my hero and heroine from getting together (or my protagonist from achieving his goal) then?” If my protagonist is searching for the kidnapped scientist and the missing formula for a biological weapon, what will keep my protagonist from saving the day if he finds the professor on page 150? Either I need a new conflict to arise at that point, or I need a twist on the original conflict. And if that conflict is resolved on page 200? Again, I need either a new conflict or another twist.

The more layers of conflict you can find to torment your characters, the less chance you have of running into saggy middle problems or endlessly repeating yourself. Each book will be different, of course. In one book it may work best to introduce the conflicts during the first part of the book and resolve them at the end. In another book, some conflicts may only arise after another is resolved.

Figuring out how and when to introduce, heighten, and then resolve your conflicts is a function of your internal editor—that much maligned, but endlessly useful part of ourselves that we too often try to keep chained up and out of the way.

Your internal editor understands the necessity of logic in a way that your creative self doesn’t, and faulty logic can be the death of an otherwise remarkable piece of fiction. Your characters might be brilliantly drawn, your setting painted beautifully, your voice crisp and unique, and your plot well thought out, but you can kill all of that with illogical actions/reactions, by introducing goals and forgetting to let your characters actually pursue them, or by creating “conflict” that sounds good but never actually creates a problem for the character.

Your logical internal editor is crucial to conflict resolution because the key to believable conflict resolution lies in being able to think through the conflict logically from beginning to end. Once you understand the steps you must take to resolve the conflict successfully, then you can plan in advance how you’ll work those steps into your novel, or you can write your first draft and revise afterward to make sure the conflict has followed those logical steps to eventual resolution.

Remember that in your book:
  • There must be at least one problem that must be solved. If the resolution doesn’t matter, none of the conflict you make up for your character will matter, either.
  • Your viewpoint character(s) should be the only one(s) who can solve the problem. If someone else can or should do it, readers aren’t likely to care much about your character’s efforts.
  • Your viewpoint character(s) must take active steps toward solving the problem as the book progresses and the forces working against them (whether internal or external) must increase in strength and/or urgency.
  • Actual conflict is always stronger and more interesting than anticipated conflict or remembered conflict.
There’s no quicker way to kill the tension than to indulge a character’s urge to think endlessly about something that might happen in the future. Even the biggest problem is going to bore your readers to tears if the characters only think about the problem and never actually encounter it. By the same token, the urge to avoid a difficult scene can also deflate tension in the blink of an eye. Some of us take it a step further, by combining the two—a sure way to let the air out of your story’s balloon.

We write scene after scene in which the heroine thinks about what might happen if the hero finds out about her sordid past. The author mistakes these scenes for motivation, believing that all that angst is necessary to explain why the heroine continues to lie to the hero. Finally, just when the reader would rather gouge out her eyes than read another “I can’t tell him or I’ll lose him” monologue, the heroine decides it’s time to come clean.

She squares her shoulders, lifts her chin, and sets off to tell the hero the truth. The scene fades to black, and the next time we see her she’s picking at her Cobb salad over lunch with her best friend. While we struggle to make ourselves care, she regales her friend with the details of her encounter with the hero.

What’s wrong with that you ask? There’s absolutely no tension in the scene. The confrontation is over. The conflict is past. Instead of getting to sit in on the discussion and experiencing the heart-stopping fear when the hero learns the truth, we learn about it after everything’s been decided. Anticipated conflict and remembered conflict are slightly better than no conflict at all, but not by much.

Good conflict is what makes a story worth reading. We need internal and external struggles to create tension and force characters to make choices that matter. If we can provide those, readers will not only keep reading this book, but they’ll come back for more.

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

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