I’ve been writing fiction for about five years. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot and matured considerably as a writer in that time. But while experience might be the best teacher, it certainly isn’t the most efficient one.
So at the beginning of this year I really started delving into some of the writing blogs on the internet looking for ways to make my fiction more powerful. I learned a lot about writing good dialogue, giving my protagonist goals, and a whole slew of other things.
But the one idea that has impacted me most as a writer in this last year can be summed up in one word: conflict.
Now I wouldn’t say that my writing never had any conflict before I started delving deeper into the mechanics of fiction. At some basic level I understood that things were supposed to go badly for the hero for most of the book, because fundamentally that’s what a story is.
But lately I’ve been looking for it, trying to inject it into every scene. So much so that it’s making me a little bit crazy. When my writing partner, Ellie Soderstrom called me to tell me that she’d finished the scene where our romantic leads finally met up after being separated for several weeks my only question was, “Yes, great, but is there CONFLICT!?”
[Yes, we’re writing a love story. But it has aliens and clockwork robots in it too, so that’s okay.]
But yesterday I was reading through some of the scenes Ellie had written over the last week, and there wasn’t any conflict in them at all. The main character’s goals weren’t being opposed. Personalities weren’t clashing. Things were actually going rather nicely for the protagonist.
And it was perfect.
Because there was conflict. But the conflict wasn’t in the scene. It was…invisible.
What do I mean by that? Well, most conflict you can see. It’s there and perfectly evident that two characters are fighting, or that the hero is facing some obstacle to his progress. As readers we can even “see” internal conflict going on in our protagonists heads.
But there’s another kind of conflict that doesn’t get a lot of press. And yet, when used properly, it can be the most powerful of them all. In spite of the fact that it appears nowhere on the page, you know exactly when it’s happening, because your heart starts to race, and you want to shout at the book in your hands, to try to change the course of the words.
I’m talking about the conflict between the reader and the story.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the most visceral kind of suspense was putting a bomb under a table and show the audience that it’s counting down, but don’t show any of the characters.
Think of it: two characters, sitting, having coffee, chatting about life in a completely friendly and nonconfrontational way. And in five seconds you know they’re about to be blown to bits.
Or a character falls deeply and madly in love. It seems like the man of her dreams. She’s finally ready to move on after the death of her true love. Things look wonderful for her. Life could not be better. But the audience knows her true love is still alive, fighting through the zombie hoards to get to her, and the man she’s falling for is pure evil.
Building that urge in your readers to shout out a warning to fictional people in a made up world is one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer. It shouldn’t be overdone, but when done right with characters that the audience cares about it can be one of the most memorable moments in a book.
Because it brings the reader into the story, gives them the responsibility of knowledge, makes them feel as if they could almost step in and change the course of the book. Or at the very least it gets them thinking, “If I was there, I would do something different.”
In other words, it is in those moments that the reader becomes a character in the story.
And it is in those moments that a story truly comes to life.