Day in and day out, I reject queries because they have no discernible conflict. Conflict is what keeps readers turning the pages. I’ve had a number of authors email me back, in a tizzy over my claims of no conflict. “What do you mean there’s no conflict,” they wail. “Janie Sue is always so mad at Billy Joe…if that ain’t conflict, what is?”
That ain’t conflict. Not the kind I’m talking about. In the past, I’ve used all sorts of lovely language to describe what I mean by conflict. It’s the idea that the MC has something to lose, or something he wants, and the paths they take that will influence the outcome. It’s about that time I usually see authors’ eyes glaze over at conferences. And then it hit me: why all the silly wordiness?
Conflict is about struggle.
Now that’s something simple that an author can stamp on their forehead. All stories have a character who is struggling for something, right? If not, then there isn’t much of a story.
Conflict isn’t just about action, like bomb threats or tossing chairs through windows. There is inner struggle, too.
This idea of struggle has some lovely unintended consequences; the idea that your characters aren’t perfect. I see many stories where the characters are a bit too perfect, as if the author loves them so much that she doesn’t want to put them into a bad light. The problem with this is the reader will lose interest. No one likes a Barbie or Ken doll because they’re flat, boring, and predictable. Predictable people don’t suffer struggle or conflict. They just bland themselves through life and let all the really exciting, cool things happen around them, not to them.
But with conflict, now you have a character who is struggling for something, and this forces the author to reveal more insights about the character’s psyche. Now you have dimension.
One size fits all struggles
Look around you; is life perfect? Are your friends and family perfect? Is your life perfect? Not a chance. What are the struggles? For the beagle, it’s usually a struggle to get another designer dog chewie out of me, or to shove my papers aside on my desk so she can take her morning sunbath. And this brings forth the notion that not all struggles have to be gynormous.
Our books are usually filled with subplots that enhance the overall plot. Within those subplots and twists, you still need to have a struggle or you’ll fun into the fatal “who cares?” from your reader. Don’t be afraid to noodle around with the size and scope of struggle because some of the small ones can be just as delicious.
Something that I come across periodically is the unrealistic or cliche struggle. Both make the beagle gag. Readers don’t have the patience for this type of thing because they’re too savvy.
Spare me from another woman who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, struggles for a new love/new life, only she’s too old/too fat/too shy/too busy and turns to her best friends for guidance. Been there, done that. To. Ad. Nauseum.
Likewise, drop me from a fourth story building if I see another story that involves a woman’s struggle to keep from falling in love with her arrogant, ornery, pig boss. The woman needs a shrink, not flowers. Bleh.
Conflict that is bigger than the characters
Don’t you hate it when your story becomes bigger than your characters can handle? This can happen with external struggles…things like your MC solving a murder or saving the world. These little blighters can run away with your story because they’re outside of your character’s control. A common problem I see with external conflicts is that the MC is placed in more of a reactionary role, and they get overshadowed.
Remember, your characters are the vehicle that moves the conflict/struggle/plot along, so they have to be at the forefront of the story. You can’t have them competing with one another.
If your plot is of the external type, solving a mystery/murder/saving the world/Egypt, you’re still going to have personal struggles with your MC. Let’s use an example:
Joe Bazooka is embroiled in saving the unicorns from certain annihilation from those damned pesky trolls,who like to use them for mining gold. Joe is the fearless type, so he prepares to do battle. However, he keeps getting naggy text messages from his mother, the queen, who blathers on about how she’d love to have grandchildren someday and she’s not getting any younger, blah, blah, blah. While it’s true that he and Princess Delicious have done some serious lip locking, he’s afraid of committing to just one woman. After all, once he saves the unicorns, then it’ll be raining nubile women…but Princess Delish won’t wait forever, and she is HOT. Is it worth the young nubiles when he has the very best? And what ho, has she been making goo-goo eyes at Bart Bodacious?
Ok, so you have external and internal struggles, which makes for a richer, more fully developed story because you’ve maintained balance between them. The story wouldn’t have been nearly as rounded out had the focus remained on Joe’s battle with the trolls because we don’t have any sense of Joe’s personal baggage. This keeps us aligned with him while he goes out and saves the unicorns…and hopefully gets the girl.
So the next time you think about your plot, remember that you need to keep your old buddy Struggle heavily involved. Otherwise, what’s the point?