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Friday, March 25

Violence Isn't Always the Answer: Causing Trouble Without Making Trouble

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I love action. Major cliffhangers, things that go boom, protagonists in dire straits. But all action all the time can bore even a die-hard fan like me. Plots that are all about the violence can be numbing, even though “do horrible things to your characters” is advice you’ll hear all the time (heck, I’ve given it). But don’t worry. There are ways to cause trouble without resorting to violence.

Conflict = Fighting?
One common misconception about conflict is that it means fighting. It doesn’t, it just means two things in opposition. You want to take a nap after a long day, your kids want to play monopoly with you. What you want is in conflict with what they what. But this isn’t going to turn into a battle, and there’s no bad guy here. Just two sides that both want something different.
And that’s key to non-violent trouble. Different wants. Because wanting something isn’t the same as doing something violent to get it.

Making Trouble
So, how can cause trouble if it’s not something going horribly wrong that puts your protag’s life in danger?

1. Put you protagonist in an emotional or ethical bind
Having to do something you know or believe is wrong causes a lot of trouble. It hurts, it makes you feel guilty, it causes you to overreact about something else.

2. Make them balk
He who hesitates is lost. Not acting at the right moment can cause all kinds of trouble. And then there’s that lovely guilt and second guessing you can play with later.

3. Blow their mind
Discovering something shocking that changes your worldview can send you into a tailspin. Having your world turned upside down can affect your judgment, your belief system, you very self image. When everything is off kilter, anything can happen.

4. Let them be wrong
We all make mistakes. A flawed protagonist who screws up and has to fix it is a great plot tool. The protagonist might need to win I the end, but until then, they can mess up a lot.

5. Let them be right
Have you ever lied to someone and they called your bluff? Protagonists can call bluffs too, and then cause worse trouble than if they just let it go. Embarrassing someone they’ll later need help from will cause trouble for sure.

Non-violent trouble lends itself well to the character arc and mystery of a story, because it’s not about the action. It’s about the character and what decisions they’ll make or how they’ll react to something profound. It’s not about the literary equivalent of special effects; it’s about wondering what a character will do.


  1. You are a fountain of priceless posts, Janice. Love this. Especially since I write a lot of contemp stories, where you don't always have life or death situations or physical fights, but you must still have constant conflict.

  2. Excellent post. Everybody needs to know this.

  3. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today! Thank you! You're awesome, Janice!

  4. Very helpful tips that come at the ideal time for me--I'm revising and looking for ways to increase tension. Really a sensational post. I'll be back.

  5. Conflict is indeed more than just fighting! This great post also reminds me of the term "negotiation" Sandra Scofield uses in _The Scene Book_ to talk about how two characters deal with conflict without coming to fisticuffs. She describes it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."
    I did a few posts about it last year:

  6. This, this and more this. Your posts rock.

  7. These are some amazing tips, and really got my head spinning with all types of ideas for my new novel's protag. As a former newspaper reporter (now just a "writer," both creatively and journalistically for magazines), I've always understood the immense importance of conflict in a story. It's what captures the reader in the "lead." However, creating your own conflict for a fictional character can sometimes be more challenging than distinguishing the conflict, or "news hook," in someone else's story. Thank you for this insightful post! One of the BEST pieces of advice I've read in a LONG time.

    Shari Lopatin

  8. Lydia: Thanks! I think one of the hardest things to do is write quiet conflict. Takes a lot more skill to get the emotional impact right.

    Juliette: Thanks!

    Jennifer: Oh cool! I love when that happens. Thanks!

    Gale: Glad to hear it :) Here's a link to some other articles on tension:

    Hopefully you'll find some more good tips in there to help out.

    Laurel: Very cool. Thanks for the links!

    Paul: Aw shucks, gonna make me blush :)

    Sharilopatin: Thanks so much! I'm so glad it resonated with you.(and so many others it seems)

  9. This is so helpful. I've been writing about a lady in the victorian era, and you can't excatly have their world be invaded by a dark knight or anything...I needed some good conflict ideas. Thanks!