Thursday, April 9

Making Trouble: Creating Conflict in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A commenter asked how I came up with my book's conflict. This seemed like a great thing to talk about after yesterday's post so...

Creating Conflict
Ideas are easy to come up with. We get them all the time, but the tough part is figuring out how to turn them into a story. Conflict is usually the key to that, since figuring this out tells you who has the most to lose and who might be in opposition. Protagonist and antagonist.

For The Shifter, I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of healing, and giving healing consequences. It's rare to see healing portrayed in any negative way, and I figured there's a bad side to everything. This was the seed of the idea, but I was nowhere ready to write a novel yet.

My original story idea (written down years ago) was about evil pain merchants looking for pain. They put it in a box and someone in their group had a nasty plan to use that box and do bad things with it. They found a boy who could shift, and they used him to help them in their evil plan. (Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? I thought so too). I knew the plot stank, but the core idea still intrigued me.

The first thing I did was step back and start world building. I loved the idea of a culture that bought and sold pain, and someone who could shift pain between people. This talent had to be a bad thing, but I didn't know how yet. Understanding how the culture worked would help me figure out how this talent could be used -- and misused.

For any story, I think this is a key element to your conflict. Someone needs to be hurt by what's going on. But someone also has to benefit. And it shouldn't be black and white good vs evil either, because that's makes it too clear which side is right (so the story becomes predictable). If it's ambiguous, then there's more mystery as to what might happen. Mystery is good, as the reader won't predict what will happen and thus be compelled to keep reading.

That led to the creation of pynvium, a magical metal that could be enchanted to hold pain. This had both good and bad sides. The legitimate use was to hold pain and be used in healing, and so the Healer's League was born. The pain merchant culture evolved after that. All that pain-filled metal had to go somewhere. Selling pain-filled items for both weapons and defense seemed a logical step in such a world. And where money's involved, there are people who would abuse the system to get it. So now I had a culture with the potential for good and ill surrounding a particular skill and resource. I was close to my story now, but something was missing.

This is often when writers dive in too soon and start writing. A cool premise, but there's no protag driving the story yet. So you end up with various characters on both sides going about their days and causing trouble (or causing good). But without someone stuck in the middle, there's no stakes. So think about the personal aspect of your story at this stage. Who can benefit, and who can be hurt?

About this time in my story's development, I was watching TV and saw an ad for a rerun of Firefly. I love this show, and the idea of a city that had lost their war for independence hit me. (a piece of the show's history). Now, I certainly didn't copy Joss Whedon, but I couldn't shake the idea of a failed war for independence. (This shows how inspiration can come from anywhere. And that even if you are inspired by something popular, you can still make it your own and make it fresh) I started thinking about who'd be left behind in that situation, and how they could be taken advantage of in the culture I was creating.

War orphans. Kids left behind after their parents were killed, struggling to survive in an occupied city that didn't want them. But after a war, Healers would be in short supply, so any kids with healing abilities would be very welcome, and be offered a life a normal orphan couldn't get. A very desirable life.

This is where the personal side really kicked it. Someone who lost something huge made a great protag. Plenty of flaws, plenty of bad history, plenty of things that would color and affect every judgment they made throughout the story. Having it be something that would negatively color that judgment guaranteed there'd be trouble. You never want to make it easy for your characters. Everything should be a struggle, but that struggle should be personal as well as external. Life is hard, but the reasons for life being hard matter in a personal way that simply changing location won't fix.

So now I had a culture ripe with inherent conflict. I just needed some poor soul to stuff in the middle of it.

Along came Nya, an orphaned Taker who could heal, but couldn't sense pynvium or be able to put pain into pynvium. She had the skill to heal, but not the rest of the ability required to be the Healer she longed to be. To add insult to injury, I gave her a little sister who did have the right skill, and who was being offered everything Nya wanted.

This is when the whole story came together. Not only did I have a setting where day to day life was hard, but a situation where Nya's dreams were unobtainable. Having a sister who was obtaining that dream gave Nya some inner conflict as well. She both loves and envies the only family she has left. Very powerful motivators.

Motivations are really good things to help determine conflict, as why people do what they do adds realism to the plot. If there's no reason for someone to risk their life, the plot feels hollow and forced. But if there are reasons, and there are reasons for someone to do the wrong things, then you have all kinds of conflicts waiting to happen.

All I had to do now was create a situation where the very thing that kept Nya from her dream, was the one thing that could save her sister. But to go down that path forced her to make some very tough choices, and do things she believed was wrong. Who wouldn't make sacrifices to save their little sister? Especially when they had no other family. So I created an incident that set the whole thing in motion, putting Nya's talent at odds with her goals. Making her sacrifice what she had to get what she wanted. (Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out what)

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've gotten was from my agent. She commented that I should go deeper with my plot, not wider. It took me a bit to understand this, but what she was saying is that stories with too many things in them can feel shallow (like a summer blockbuster that's all special effects and no depth) You don't need to add more things, you need to deepen the things you already have.

From a story structure standpoint, I apply this to character goals. I could have given Nya a ton of goals and had her run into all kinds of miscellaneous problems, but the story wouldn't have had the same focus. Narrowing what she needed made everything she did have matter more. She really only has two driving goals in the whole story: survive in a rough world, and save her sister. Everything she does is driven by a desire to achieve one of those two things in some way.

This helps with your conflict a lot. If you start thinking about how you can tie your problems to the main goals driving your protag, you start finding ways to put your protag between rocks and hard places that actually matter to the end story. I like to take that story compass I talked about yesterday, and use that to check my conflicts. If an idea connects to that core conflict in some way, then I go with it. If it doesn't, I toss it.

My core conflict is that Nya has to save her sister. So every conflict and obstacle I threw at her before she could do that had to affect this core story. Now, just saving a sister is pretty clear cut, so I wanted to make doing that problematic in ways that weren't just "bad guys get in the way." And thus, the moral choices appeared. After that, it was a matter of figuring out external obstacles to get in the way (from bad guys to logistics to problems) that also provided internal problems that affected Nya's decisions. No matter what choice she made, she faced a consequence. And no choice was obviously right or wrong.

It does take work, but it's worth it. You end up with a much more layered plot, and every action and choice has far reaching consequences that could (and do) affect what happens at various points in the story. Making things not so predictable provides a better reading experience for your reader, and that's what every writer wants.


  1. Wow! This was a great post - it sounds so easy in this post, but I am assuming that it didn't feel easy while figuring out your story!

    When I used to write (waaaay back in high school), I would start with world-building and creating side characters with back stories...and then find a hard time coming back to the main story. I have trouble with writing conflict and digging deeper!

  2. Thanks so much! It's interesting that so much of the "writing" happened internally, before you ever typed Chapter One at the top of the page.

  3. Glad it helped :)

    Epic Rat, my first novels were all over the place. I had characters and subplots out the wazoo. Took a while to get to this point, but so much of writing is like that. Have to do it wrong before we get it right ;) (by the way, I e-mailed you about your other comment)

    Anon, I do a ton of pre-work before I start. I've found knowing who my characters are, what they want, and what they have to do to get it before I start writing makes the writing so much easier. I can let the characters be themselves and they do most of the work!

  4. Another question: Did you have the other two books planned out initially, while you were writing the first? Or did you see the potential for a trilogy only when the first was finished?

  5. I did the first as one book, but about halfway in I saw where the story could go. I mentioned in my query that is was a stand alone, but could continue as a trilogy. When Kristin was submitting it, she had me write up a synopsis for book two (two pages) and one for book three (half a page) so editors could see where the story would go. It worked cause I sold all three!

  6. Congrats! Your story is inspiring!

  7. Hello! I found your blog on Absolute Writer Water Cooler, I had asked the question about whether people edit as they go or wait until the end and really appreciated your answer and then got sucked into reading your very helpful blog! Then, I'm a regular follower of Kristin Nelson's blog so what a surprise that she posted about you! This was really helpful and I love your posts and since you write fantasy I was wondering if you could do some posts about world building. I'm thinking of asking this question on the boards, but you explain things really well and I've read Orson Scott Card's excellent novel about creating worlds, but that's not so much my problem as how to weave it into the story so that it's seamless and invisible and not an info dump. Any words of wisdom or advice would be greatly appreciated because your novel sounds FASCINATING and I can't wait until it comes out!

  8. Thanks all! Shorty411, sure, I'd love to do some world building stuff. If you're interested in that, a good friend of mine blogs about this pretty regularly, so check out the TalktoYouinverse link as well (it's in the links section on the blog). She's a linguist, so she has some very unique takes on the subject.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation! I did look at it when one of your posts mentioned her workshop. I did a little poking around and she seems like a fascinating person :) Thanks again! Also, do you know if you're going to go on a pre-publication tour at all before the release of your book?

  10. I saw you mentioned on Kristin's blog this morning and thought the title sounded familiar, then I went to the AW water cooler and figured out that this was Danthia! How cool that you got Kristin as an agent. I'll be looking for the book.
    AW handle --adktd2bks

  11. Yep, that's me! I feel pretty lucky to have Kristin. She's great.

    Shorty411, I know I'm doing a bunch of PR stuff, but I don't know any details yet. I do hope to do a blog tour though, and pop in on everyone online. I'll post here and on the website (soon as I finish it, bad me) when I have more details.

  12. Awesome post, Janice. Makes it sound easy (though I know from close up that it's not!).


  13. Really helpful post, especially as I'm finding myself needing to take off a few days or a week to roll up the sleeves and figure out some major details in my plot.

    I really appreciate the "deepen" the plot vs "widen" the plot note.

    Really an awesome, very useful, insightful blog. V helpful. Will seriously be keeping your advice in mind. (Not least as I'm carrying notes from it in my little journal now, too.) :)

    (btw, I'm errantruth at AW)

  14. Awsome article, you helped me a lot in my quest for becoming a better writer. I'll be a regular guest on your blog :)