Why Do We Like Conflict?

OK, you’ve decided to write a story and you’ve created a character. Now you have to give her a problem to solve and put him in some kind of jeopardy. Life is a series of choices, and every choice implies a conflict. You make one choice and the consequences are _____ or you choose the other option, and the consequences are ______.

For a reader to care about your story, there has to be something at stake—something of value to gain, something of value to lose. One writer terms it “wrestling”—two strong forces meet, one triumphs over the other, for better or for worse.

Conflict can be external: a villain, an opponent, a set of circumstances, the environment or landscape. It can be internal: fear, distrust, uncontrollable rage, a number of things. A book can have both. In Lord of the Flies, what’s at stake externally is survival; internally, it’s fear vs courage. Every character should have the potential to conflict with every other character, whether that potential is realized or not.

Is it a fair fight? A motivation against no opposition is boring. A character who always gets everything he wants, succeeds in boxingevery task, wins the girl/guy with no problem, has no drama. Remember PLOT is a VERB. Likewise, pure victimization is not only dull, but depressing.

Conflict doesn’t come in oppressing or being oppressed—it comes in the struggle to break free. The reader wants the final outcome to be in doubt. He likes the anticipation of conflict, a situation created where conflict is waiting to happen. (i.e. Character A is a former Nazi and B is a Holocaust survivor. Neither knows this info about the other. They sit in a room & make small talk. All the while, we wait for the conflict to erupt. Maybe it never does. Maye it’s chapters later, after they’ve become friends.)

Which leads us to the next step: Storytelling is not about giving away information, but about withholding it.

Why do we prefer to sit down with a 300-page book (or in the case of Harry Potter, 800 pages), rather than just read a 2-3 page synopsis of a story?

Because we want suspense, we want to go on this journey, this adventure, with someone we can care about.

Suspense is about anticipation. It is about what we do not have, what has not happened, about what might happen. It’s about the process of watching events unfold. (i.e.While the victim is being stalked, suspense looms. Once the victim is murdered, the suspense disappears.) Waiting to find out builds suspense, drama.

Creating Suspense.

  1. The goal. What does the character want to achieve?
  2. The stakes. What is at risk for the character?
  3. Danger. remember that danger is a matter of perspective—it only needs to exist in a character’s head to create suspense.
  4. The Ticking Clock. A time limit heightens suspense.
  5. inability to take action. For example, in Hitchcock’s the Rear Window, the protagonist has a broken leg, hears the killer approaching, but is helpless to go anywhere.
  6. The Unknown. We can bear almost any form of torture as long as we know what it is we are getting into. But keep us in the dark, give us time to think about the possibilities and the suspense will be unbearable.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that a hero “should always want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”  An instructor in a writing class told us there should be conflict on every page, even if the character is too hot or cold.

Here’s a great blog post by Kristen Lamb “Giving Life to Your Fiction.

What other ways have you written or read that create tension or conflict?

Published in: on October 25, 2013 at 6:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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So Many Dreams, So Little Time…

This article is reposted with permission from Writing-World.com100_0990

by Moira Allen

I’ve written before about the myths that surround the idea of “being a writer.”  All too often, we imagine that a “writer” is so many things that we are not — and because we don’t measure up to our own idealized view of “what a writer is,” we assume we aren’t REALLY writers.  This problem tends to plague us no matter how much we’ve actually written; even experienced writers tend to measure themselves against myths rather than realities!

One myth that plagues writers is the myth of the “One Dream.”  Real writers, we often assume, are driven by this “one dream” — the dream of BEING a writer.  That dream is more important, more powerful, more motivating than any other force or desire in a writer’s life.  It’s the dream that keeps you writing, no matter what.  It’s the desire that outweighs all other desires, the burning  hunger, the aching need, the… well, you get my drift.

It’s a bit like Frodo’s “One Ring” — the ring that rules, and binds, them all.

The flip side of this myth, of course, is the notion that if you AREN’T driven by this single, all-encompassing dream, you aren’t really a 100% motivated writer.  Oh, sure, you may WRITE, but you’re not consumed by the passion for writing — you’re not giving it your all.  If you’ve bought into the one-dream myth, you may assume that if writing isn’t the most important thing in your life (as measured by your devotion to it), you don’t “have what it takes,” and you’re doomed to failure.  (Or, at least, to the mid-lists.)

There may certainly be writers out there who have one dream, and one dream only.  But in talking to writers from all walks of life and from all around the world, I’ve begun to see how dangerous this myth is.  Because MOST of us are, let’s face it, basically “ordinary” people.  We aren’t starving artists laboring by candle-light in a garret on the Left Bank, swilling absinthe to fuel the muse.  We’re spouses.  We’re parents.  We’re employees.

We’re homemakers.  We’re students. We’re teachers.  We run businesses, volunteer, work out.  We have cats, dogs, budgies, hobbies.  We have many hats.  And we have many dreams.

For example, one dear friend has, after years of striving, found herself achieving her dream of a successful illustrating career.

Suddenly, she says, she has more offers than she can handle.  This is the fulfillment of a dream — but ironically, she says, it means her dream of becoming a novelist must go on hold.  “People are surprised to hear that I’m also a writer!” she tells me.

As another example, our intrepid newsletter editor put her writing dreams on hold for a couple of years so that she could focus on home-schooling her daughter.  For her, the dream of ensuring that her daughter had the best possible education — which, in turn, involves the dream of giving her daughter the best possible chances for the future — took precedence over the dream of writing that novel.

book stackFor many, the dream of making a better life for oneself or one’s family — or, in these troubled times, just ensuring that one keeps a roof overhead and food on the table — outweighs the dream of “being a writer.”  If we have families and loved ones, our dreams typically focus on their well-being and happiness as well as our own goals and desires.  Often, those dreams are time-sensitive: We can’t put a child’s future “on hold” while writing a novel, so more often than not, it’s the novel that goes on hold while we give our children the love, skills, and support they’ll need to be able to pursue their OWN dreams down the road.

Besides having dreams, we also have what Patricia Fry describes in her new newsletter as “passions.”  (Find out more about Patricia’s new newsletter, “Publishing/Marketing News and Views,” at


Passions are a bit different from dreams, as they tend to involve the here-and-now, rather than long-term goals.  But they are no less important.  Fry mentions her passion for cats, walking, and writing.  My husband has a passion for archaeology; I have a passion for photography.  He plays computer games; I collect Victorian magazines.  We’re both just a wee bit obsessive about our cat.  Most writers have a passion for reading (when my sister asked how I “found so much time for reading,” I thought, if I had to explain it, she’d never understand!).  Passions are a part of what defines us.  Like dreams, they help us define what “matters” in life, and where we’re willing to invest our time, energy and resources.

But there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a year.

Having multiple dreams and multiple passions means making multiple trade-offs.  Inevitably, that means that some dreams (and perhaps some passions) get postponed, put on hold, shifted to the back burner.  Some dreams (like raising a child) are time-sensitive; when their window is gone, it’s gone.  Other dreams may be unattainable until more time has passed — until one has learned a skill, overcome an obstacle, or just reached a different place in life.

And here’s where it gets sticky for writers.  Too often, when our career isn’t where we want it to be, or where we think it ought to be, we assume the fault is “lack of motivation.”  If I really, REALLY wanted to be a writer, more than anything else in the world, I’d be writing more.  I’d be farther along in my novel.  I’d be published by now.  I’d… well, I’d be somewhere I’m not.  And once we assume that we WOULD be “somewhere else” in our writing career if writing were truly that important to us, it’s easy to assume that, because we’re NOT “there” yet (wherever “there” is), that must mean writing ISN’T that important.  And if it isn’t — if it’s not our all-consuming dream, desire and passion — then perhaps that means we’re not cut out to be “real” writers.

If this sounds at all like you, then perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look seriously at your dreams — ALL of them.

Perhaps you haven’t even thought of what you’re doing as pursuing a dream — educating your child, for example.  You just know that it’s important, perhaps more important than anything else.  Or, perhaps, you’ll find that you’re pursuing dreams that no longer have as much meaning, that have become a habit, and that could be put aside for something else.  But you’re certainly going to find out that you have, not just one, but many dreams — and many that are truly important and worthwhile.

The myth of the single-minded writer who lives to pursue one dream and one only may indeed apply to some.  Most of us, however, are not so much single-minded as “multi-faceted.”  And I can’t help but believe that, though it can be frustrating at times, it’s also a useful quality.  A writer who has many dreams, many passions, and many things going on in life is one who will, ultimately, have a great deal to say!

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com (http://www.writing-world.com) and the author of more than 350 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.

Published in: on October 18, 2013 at 6:45 am  Comments (1)  

The Weeping Willow Sings: A Fine Debut Novel

Weeping WillowI’m excited to feature Billie Grable and her debut novel, The Weeping Willow Sings. She and I were classmates in the University of Washington Commercial Fiction certification course in the early 2000s. It’s great to see the final product that came from that beginning.

Welcome, Billie. Where did the inspiration for your novel come from?

I have to say that the book evolved over a very long time. When I first started writing, I was doing a memoir. I wrote madly for days – pouring my life and soul onto paper. Then one night I heard a famous person being interviewed on TV about a memoir she’d published. The interviewer asked her “Is there anything you wish you could take out of your book?” Her immediate answer was something like Chapter 4 and 15 – I clearly remember her answering without hesitation and I thought, do I really want to put my life in print – and never be able to withdraw those private moments? Would I live to regret it? I now call that piece of work my ‘past purging’ and I must say it was not only liberating, but it rekindled my love for writing!

From that point, I tried to ‘convert’ my life to fiction. I remember one of the exercises we did in the Commercial Fiction class where we had one of our characters write us a letter. Becca (the main character that had been shaped from my life) ‘wrote’ to me. She told me in no uncertain terms that I’d already made all of those mistakes and that she wanted to make her own mistakes. The letter ended with her telling me if I couldn’t honor her request, to leave her out of the book. Imagine how surprised I was when I finished writing the letter – and how real those voices in my head became! J I took Becca’s advice and she became a secondary character.

John, Maggie’s father developed over time. I knew that he was going to die from the very beginning. What I didn’t realize was how attached to him I’d become and how his death haunted me. That is when I realized that he would remain a central character and his life after death experience one of the main themes.

Mental illness has had a huge stigma attached, but we are all becoming more aware and accepting. Was this a difficult subject to write about?

Not at all. And now I shall air some of my own family secrets. J My great aunt spent her later years at what used to be called the Oregon State Insane Asylum. I remember going there as a little girl (about five years old) and sitting with her. What I loved about her was her laughter. She’d start giggling and I would too. Then she’d break out into uncontrollable laughter and I’d join in. I never really knew why she was laughing but I just loved that she did. I didn’t find out until I had kids of my own that she was schizophrenic.

Remembering my great aunt and how, as a child, I had no point of reference to make me afraid of her, made me realize that there are types of mental illness that are feared. The sad part is she ended up in a mental hospital that used shock treatments as part of the therapy (and back then they did serious damage!). I like to think that her life would have ended up much differently had she been able to take advantage of today’s methods of treatment. Having said that, there are so many people who have mental illness and are too ashamed to come forward and seek treatment. That’s where John’s mental illness came into the story. I wanted him to be able to confront where he came from and what he’d done, so he could heal – and also provide healing to those he left behind.

Is there a message in your novel you want readers to grasp?

The single most important message to me is that love never dies. The other message is for people who have lost a loved one to suicide – being able to give them an opportunity to somehow make peace with such a tragic ending.

Have you always wanted to write?

Billie_photoYes! Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve made up stories in my head. And now, I have the ability to listen to those characters and give them a chance to tell their story. The part I love most is letting go of my need to control and allowing them to give me the shape of their life (and yes, I am a control freak J).

Are there any books or authors that inspired you?

I’ve read a ton of self-help books – my favorite authors are Wayne Dyer, Iyanla Vanzant, and Cheryl Richarson and Geneen Roth. Their messages have always spoken to me.

I loved What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson and of course The Lovey Bones. Stephen King creeps me out (in a really good way) and I loved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Loved The Help (movie not so much) and Water for Elephants.

What helps you with the creative process?

When I first begin a story, I process a lot of it in my head. And then I start writing on notepads that are lying around my house. I prefer to write with pen and paper at first. There’s something about connecting the pen to paper that allows the creative process a direct connection. Just feels like the words flow from the pen.

Why do you write, what is it that makes you do it? (What do you like and dislike about writing?)

I write fiction because of the characters. I love allowing them to ‘speak’ to me. It’s such an adventure. The hard part is having a big enough chunk of time to really let it flow. I work full time and while it pays the bills, it takes a chunk out of my creative process.

What was the major thing you learned from our UW writing course?

The biggest lesson was the importance of character development. You can have a plot, but without really strong characters to carry it out, you really don’t have a compelling book to read.

What made you decide to self-publish?

My Mom. She’s 86 years old and has dementia. The one thing she hasn’t forgotten is that I wrote a novel. When I gave her a copy of The Weeping Willow Sings she cried! It was an incredible moment. She is declining fast and having given her that gift was a memory I will always cherish!

What are you doing to market your book?

I have business cards that I give to just about everyone I meet. I have a Facebook author page and also a personal page. I’ve done several book signings and had a write up in my hometown newspaper. It’s really, really hard work! But I absolutely love it.

What advice would you have for other beginning authors?

Take classes. Get into a critique group. Keep your butt in your chair and find the time to write!

Are you working on another project?

I have a second novel that’s about half done. And I have an idea for a series brewing as well.

Where can readers buy your novel?

You can buy it on line at any bookstore – but go to Amazon please! Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Weeping-Willow-Sings-Billie-Grable/dp/1482622866/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

Your website, blog, Facebook, etc.

My Facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/BillieGrable?ref=hl

I’ve had so much interested generated that Facebook created a page for The Weeping Willow Sings! Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Weeping-Willow-Sings/585690891468723?directed_target_id=0

Thanks so much for having me Heidi! It’s so much fun to reconnect. And I love Cowgirl Dreams!

Thank you, Billie. I’m looking forward to your next book.

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