Sunday, August 21, 2011

Grab Your Reader with Conflict



By Lea Schizas


What exactly is conflict in a story? Simple…a problem/obstacle your main character needs to overcome by the end of the story. Think of it as your engine that drives your car forward. Without one your car remains idle, collecting dust in the driveway. Give your car a super booster engine and you’ll be coasting the streets with no worries. Well, until the police stop you.

In a story conflict moves your character through various situations he must overcome. This intrigues and pulls your reader deeper into the story, connecting with your character’s predicament. A character needs to have a hurdle tossed at them, makes for an intriguing situation to find out the outcome. Without an outcome, there is no magnetic charge with your reader.

Before writing your story and making up your character profile, ask yourself these questions:

1-    What will be the main goal my character will face and need to overcome?
2-    Who will be my target audience?

The second question is important because it will help to focus your words and subject matter to suit the appropriate audience. For stories aimed at children, your focus will need to adapt to a child’s view of the world around them. Most of the time the story is told through the character’s point of view aged a few years older than the intended audience. For example, if you aim your story for the 8 – 10 age group then setting a story for a twelve year old character would be best since kids always like to read and associate with kids a bit older than them.

What subject matter can you write about for this age group? Middle grade readers love mysteries, soft spooky tales ( no knife-wielding maniacs, head chopping, blood and core etc, more suspenseful and ‘goose-bumping tales like in the “Goosebumps” books), magical tales (Harry Potter), even teeny bopper stories like “The Babysitters Club” or  “Sweet Valley High”. These latter ones are suitable for the Young Adult market, too.

TYPES OF CONFLICTS:

Here are some examples of conflicts in some books:

- the almighty tried and successful ‘good against evil’
Think Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs…yes, these fairy tales were using the ‘good against evil’ method if you sit down and think about it. The wolves in both fairy tales were intent on overcoming their ‘so-they-thought’ weaker counterparts.

In the above examples, something stood in the protagonist’s way:

Harry tries to defeat Voldemort but problems and other antagonists along the way makes this quest difficult for him.

The Lord of the Rings finds Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring but evil and dark forces stand in his way, too.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needs to defeat the new order of evil, and he, too, faces many obstacles and characters along the way.

In each of these examples, these obstacles (new smaller conflicts against the bigger goal they are after) causes a reader to continue reading to find out if he’ll be successful, how he will outsmart them, and what change will this cause in the main character. Along with these obstacles, throwing in some inner conflicts alongside the outer emotions helps to cast them more as three-dimensional beings, for example:

Luke Skywalker deals with the knowledge he has a sister somewhere out there. His inner being and emotions help to make him more sympathetic, which eventually bonds the reader to him. The same with Frodo; his world has been thrown for a loop when he takes on the quest of the Ring…along the way he begins to doubt if he, indeed, is the best man for this job. Also, he questions his will power to avoid succumbing to the dark forces once he has tasted the Ring’s power.

Another example to show you what ‘inner conflict’ means:

Let’s assume your book is based on a police officer who mistakenly shoots a young child while pursuing a suspect. It’s dark in the building and the kid jumped out of nowhere with a toy gun. The police officer is suspended while the case is being investigated.

INNER EMOTIONS:

How he deals and is dealt by his immediate peers
His struggle to remove the visions of the killing
The emotional turmoil as he waits for the investigation to conclude.
His dealings with the parents of the child he accidentally killed.

Throughout all of these emotions the one factor that will bind your reader to continue will be: How will he fare at the end of this book. The way you first portray this particular character in the beginning will be totally different by the end because of the various upsets he’s had to deal with. Show him as upbeat, nonchalant, no change at the end and you will lose your reader’s interest in the book and in you as an author.

Think of real life: if you had to go through a trauma as the officer in the example above, how would it change you? A writer needs to wear his character’s shoes and get inside his head to fully understand him. Write a story with a stick person and you get stale material. Write a story with powerful emotions and you have one interesting read.

THE ALMIGHTY ENDING

By the end of your book all inner and outer conflicts need to have reached a conclusion. Whether your character overcame or failed is not as important as making sure he tried to meet them head on. You cannot place a conflict (or foreshadow) without making sure by the end of the story some sort of a resolution was made. This is cheating a reader and they WILL notice, especially if one of those conflicts was the one he’s been hoping to see the outcome to.

1 comment:

Terri said...

Good coverage of the topic. I'm glad you framed "conflict" in terms of a problem to be solved instead of a fight to be fought.

Too many writers think there has to be an argument on every page or a fist fight in every chapter for there to be conflict.

Neither of those are true. Take a cozy mystery. Usually, there are few fist fights, but there is conflict. For instance, your main character needs to find out what an important witness saw, but they are afraid of getting involved. In that scene the problem to be solved is to help that witness get past their fear. It may be done subtly or overtly, but the tension is there from having a problem needing to be solved and an impediment to that solution.

Of course, sometimes, the main character may not even understand the core conflict of the story, at least at the beginning. The hardboiled cop you mention could think the problem is cracking the case, but in reality it's forgiving himself. The pursuit of the case is just the vehicle to his own personal healing.

Anyway, good article.