After last week’s Dick and Jane post about buffing up your story or manuscript with conflict, a commenter suggested I discuss and share some ways this can be accomplished. What kinds of conflicts do people have? What are some ways to integrate them into your manuscript?
1. Characterization is key. I referred to this loosely in the comments as “just make everyone a big, fat jerk,” but that’s not really the whole story.
Let’s start with this: people are twits. I mean, just look at these teenagers who mercilessly taunted a volunteer school bus monitor. A quick and easy way to create conflict in a story is to make one of your characters act like a total and complete asshat. If you’re like me and generally writing young adult fiction, that should be easy enough to do–a teenager can vacillate between being an angel and a demon faster than you can say “adolescence.” He inflames others around him. He starts arguments. He causes continental drift.
However! Your sweet, down-to-earth Georgia girl can’t just suddenly turn into a raging lunatic–right? Your characters have to have reasons to do things. And the best reasons are usually the most obvious ones: strong emotional responses like anger, panic, grief–anything that gets the blood pumping faster and the adrenaline spiking. Your heroine’s just had her heart broken, and she can do some serious lashing out with that pent up aggression.
Once you’ve got one character backed into a corner, you’ve set up the scene for some conflict. Even if all the other characters are calm, one dissenting opinion can knock over the whole bucket and cause a firestorm. Firestorms lead to more firestorms, to escalating conflict, to actions and words that may be later regretted. Your story will catapult forward.
2. Expect the unexpected. Like #1, #2 should be used in moderation. Well, really, any advice in writing should be used in moderation–but that aside, this one in particular requires being used in less-than-liberal dosages.
I’ve talked before on this blog about the notion of out of the frying pan and into the fire. (My dad was an avid fisherman growing up, so one year my brother and I bought him a t-shirt that said this phrase under some clipart of a trout, eyeballs wide, in a frying pan. Poor guy had to wear it, too.) Sometimes your story just needs a little jumpstart, and the best way to do that is to throw an unexpected obstacle into the mix.
If you’ve read Collins’s The Hunger Games series, you’re probably familiar with this recurring thought: “There is no way this could get worse. Oh, nope, there it is. Just got worse.” Creating tension is probably the best way I could ever suggest to ensure your reader keeps turning the page–and escalating tension is even better. So just when things couldn’t get any worse for your main character, throw in an unexpected event, and watch the fireworks. (Remember: unexpected does not equal coincidence! Coincidences are a cop-out, and I recommend avoiding them when you can.)
Here are some suggestions for unexpected events:
-An assumption gone wrong (pick a given in your story like, “Obviously my best friend is on my side,” and make it a given no longer)
-A plague of toads
3. Romance. Didn’t expect that one, did you? Well, if you’ve ever been through high school, you probably know that romance is the world’s leading cause of discord and conflict. (Insert citation here.) If you really want to mess up your character’s lives, throw in a romance, and watch your neat little universe spin out of control.
My best practice for writing (and eventually destroying) romance is to hop in a time travel machine and return to my big heartbreaks. To take it personal, which is admittedly rare for me, here are some pretty depressing relationship stories you might use as fuel to ruin your characters’ lives:
-You date a guy, fall head-over-heels for him, only to find he’s in love with his best friend (who is a dude)
-You want to date a guy, but he doesn’t want a relationship. Continue casually seeing one another until you have, of course, fallen madly in love with him. Ends in heartbreak.
-You fall in love with two people at once. It is, as expected, impossible to choose between them. Everyone gets hurt.
-You start seriously dating a guy only to discover that he is a closet neo-nazi. Whoops.
4. Force of nature. I know this seems like it should be a sub-category of #2: Unexpected Events, but it is separate, and for a good reason!
There are many things in this world that humans cannot control or predict–nature, fortunately and unfortunately, is one of them. As we’ve seen increasingly these past few years, natural disasters are not only commonplace, but so maddeningly destructive that they can let loose unimaginable horrors like radioactive waste.
So, your characters are sailing across the seven seas? Throw in a serious storm. How about navigating the Gobi desert? I’m imagining that huge wave of sand in The Mummy. In addition, we’ve got:
-California breaking off the mainland
5. Family hurts. Sure, your friend can land an insult or two when you make her mad–but isn’t it your sister, who knows your deepest and darkest secrets, who can really drive a knife into your heart?
Family matters are often the ones we hold dearest. I don’t think I’ve seen a single Disney movie that didn’t involve at least one parent’s death–and I still cry when Bambi’s mom gets shot. (Sorry, did I spoil that for you?) Moms especially get the brunt of this patricide epidemic, and for a good reason: she gestated you, gave birth to you, and for a large portion of the population, raised you. Thus, a mother’s death strikes a child in the place where it hurts the most. And emotional pain, as we all know, is great fuel for conflict and tension.
Of course, family can partake in conflict in other ways. A young character’s parent could be a drug addict, or lose a job. An older character’s siblings can bring up painful memories. Unconventional families–half-siblings, step-parents–are a great source of conflict. Try combining #4 and #5, and you’ve got something like Flowers in the Attic or the City of Bones series.
Whew. Heavy stuff.
6. Great expectations. I like this one because it requires some set-up and finesse to pull off, making it hit even lower beneath the belt.
Here’s how you start: set an expectation. The grander you make the expectation, the more painful and dramatic the failure becomes. Think about the moments in your life where you’ve counted your chickens before they hatch, only to find that not a single one of them even tried to peck at the shell. Then put down that bottle of Jim Beam down you’ve been using to cope and apply those situations to your characters.
Think of these possibilities: Hopes. Dreams. Careers. Romances. Birthday gifts. Royalty. Reality television. Whatever your character’s greatest ambition, see if you can make it even greater. We all do this to ourselves: we pump up possibilities in our heads until they balloon out of control, only to find nothing in real life can ever live up to them.
Okay: imagine that hope, dream, or ambition. You’ve got it? Perfect. Now that you have a monstrous expectation all lined up–shatter it. Just blow it to hell. I don’t care how you do it. For kids, adults are usually pretty good at crushing dreams. For adults, though, it gets a bit more complicated. Sometimes you need an event to act as a catalyst–a moment where a realization hits, or another character introduces the necessary doubt to ruin the expectation and drive your character deep into the quagmire of conflicting emotions.
So there you have it. I’m sure there are more than 6 types of conflict you could introduce to a story, but I hope at least these will give you some fire and fuel with which to ruin your character’s perfectly good life. Remember that conflict = tension, and tension = turning pages. I hope you’ll turn to this catalog the next time you feel stuck in your story, or have a scene that falls flat, and find some inspiration.