Tag Archives: conflict

The Invisible Conflict

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.

One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor

A couple of weeks ago I happened to see a tweet by a writer who seemed to be having a bit of trouble. Specifically she said she was having some problems with something called “negative self-talk.”

Now I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kinda dumb, and I had never heard of this “negative self-talk” stuff. So I asked.

The writer explained that negative self talk was that voice in your head, the one that tells you you’re not good enough, that your writing sucks, that you’re fooling yourself thinking you’ll ever get anywhere trying to make this writing thing into a career.

Turns out I knew more about negative self-talk than I thought. Because I’ve had to deal with this a lot. And if you’re a writer, I can guarantee that you’ve had to deal with it too. Maybe you’re dealing with it right now.

Man, that inner voice is mean isn’t he? I mean, you’d think he’d care a little more about your feelings considering that he lives inside of your mind. But somehow he seems to take great delight in bashing you over the head again and again with your inadequacies.

I bet you wish you could be rid of him don’t you? You wish you could tell him to go away and never come back.

Well that isn’t what today’s post is about.

See I’ve been thinking about this mean-spirited inner voice, and I think he gets a bit of a bad rap.

As a writer I understand the number one thing a story needs to be compelling is conflict. If the Hobbits just took a leisurely stroll down the road to Mount Doom and tossed the ring in just before having a tasty picnic, Lord of the Rings would have been a really crap story.

But what we often fail to realize is that conflict is an important part of real life too. Just like out stories would be boring and uninteresting with no one to oppose the protagonist, so our lives would be a bit pointless if we never faced any obstacles.

And just like in fiction, the obstacles come from within just as often as they come from without. Am I saying that horrible condemning voice inside our heads is a good thing? Well, in a way, yes.

See, the reason our characters need conflict in fiction is because they’ll never change without it. And we’re the same way. If the path was easy we’d never get stronger. The higher the mountain you climb, the harder the path is. You’re going to need to be one tough cookie if you want to make it to the top.

If you think about it, that inner voice is really doing you a favour.  Because odds are we’re not as good as we think we are. And none of us is beyond improvement.

And that inner voice knows that a cheerful “You can do it!” isn’t going to cut it. So he berates you. He cuts you down. He insults your dreams. He tells you that getting published is impossible.

Now it’s up to you to decide what you’ll do with that voice. You can curl up and whimper that it’s no use. Give in and give up.

Or you can get pissed off. You can rebel. You can tell that inner voice to take a hike, because you’re going to succeed no matter how long it takes. And in so doing you will get better.

And trust me, it does get better. When that inner voice says you can’t do something, prove him wrong, and he’ll get just a little bit quieter.

It’s not that he’s gone. It’s just that he’s served his purpose: to make you a better writer.

And after a while you’ll be so far up the mountain you’ll hardly be able to hear him at all.