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  
Tags: , , , ,

No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy

Jean Henry Mead’s newest historical novel, No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy, has just been released. Jean is a national award-winning photojournalist and author of the Logan and Cafferty mystery/suspense series as well as Wyoming historical novels, children’s mysteries and nonfiction books. She began her career as a news reporter and worked as a freelance photojournalist. Jean also served as a news, magazine and small press editor. Her magazine articles have been published domestically as well as abroad and she’s published 19 books.

No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy

By Jean Henry Mead

No Escape coverI began writing No Escape in my mind more than 20 years ago while I was researching a centennial history of central Wyoming. Reading old microfilmed newspapers, I was surprised by the contradictory reports about the hangings of a young Sweetwater Valley couple accused of running a bawdy house (called a “hog ranch) and accepting cattle in exchange for their services.

The six wealthy cattlemen responsible for the murders of Ellen Watson-Averell and her husband James claimed the murders were justified. But when they came to trial, all the witnesses had disappeared or were found dead. Therefore, the case was thrown out of court.

A Cheyenne newspaper, controlled by cattle interests, railed against homesteaders, whom they said were rustling the poor cattlemen’s stock, so vigilante law was a last resort. The Rawlins newspaper, however, said that James Averell was well thought of and considered a good citizen. Averell had been appointed postmaster and justice of the peace by Thomas Moonlight, the Wyoming territorial governor.

James’s wife, Ellen, had worked as a cook for two years at the Rawlins House and was known as kind and caring young woman. But the couple made the mistake of filing homesteads on Albert Bothwell’s hay meadow, land the cattleman had been grazing for years without paying it for it. And James wrote letters to the editor of the Casper Weekly Mail complaining that cattlemen were gobbling up homestead land for 75 miles along the Sweetwater River.

Because I didn’t want to end the book with the hangings (I hate sad endings), I decided to add another character, Susan Cameron, a young woman from Missouri. Susan is a composite of some 200,000 single women homesteaders who attempted to prove up on their own land. Some were successful, some not. Susan filed for land next to the Averells, placing her own life in danger along with her veterinarian friend, Michael O’Brien, and three boys whom the Averells had taken under their wings.

After their deaths, Ellen was vilified and called “Cattle Kate.” News of the hangings spread worldwide and the murder of a woman in Wyoming Territory was publicly condemned, yet Ellen’s own father believed the lies spread about her and forbade his family to speak her name again.

A number of films have been produced and books have been written about the outlaw, “Cattle Kate.” I’ve even read poems andJeanHenryMeadPhoto heard cowboy songs about her. The truth didn’t surface until George W. Hufsmith was commissioned to write an opera about the hangings and spent the next 20 years researching the subject. Thanks to George’s research and that of my own, I was able to complete my novel, No Escape, the Sweetwater Tragedy.

No Escape can be purchased on Kindle and in print.

Jean’s website: www.jeanhenrymead.com

Her blogsites: http://mysteriouspeople.blogspot.com/

http://theviewfrommymountaintop.blogspot.com/

http://writersofthewest.blogspot.com/

http://murderousmusings.blogspot.com/

http://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/

%d bloggers like this: