Friday, August 29, 2014

Stop Fighting! Conflicts Aren’t About the Punches

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Conflicts are opportunities to act, so make the most of them.

Conflict is at the heart of every story. More than that really, it’s at the heart of every scene. It’s not uncommon for folks to think “conflict” and immediately assume fighting, but it’s not always violent, nor should it be. Conflict is just two things in opposition.

“I can’t make that meeting, I have a conflict.”

Sure, it’s not life threatening, though it could be in the right circumstance. But what it does do is force the person with the conflict to make a choice between them. That’s what’s so great (and helpful) about conflicts.

Conflicts force characters to act.

I talked about the head-butting conflicts before, so this time let’s focus on soft conflicts. These are the smaller moments that can add tension to a scene without turning it into a big melodramatic mess. They’re especially good for character-driven novels where the focus is more internal than external. But they also work well for internal goals and character arcs.

Quiet Conflicts 

Disagreements can make folks dig in their heels even if they’re not ready to break out the heavy weapons. Mom sending the daughter back upstairs to change out of a too-sexy outfit (daughter wants to wear it, mom says no). Boss making someone work over the weekend when they had other plans. Anything that gets in the way of what the character wants to do. They also give you a chance to examine multiple sides of an issue without it coming across as preaching or infodumping. Two people having an honest debate can share a lot of information in a natural way. You can convey things you never could have otherwise.

Touching Conflicts 

Some conflicts are out of love. You want to go to a party, but your best friend wasn’t invited. If you go, you’ll hurt her feelings. Sparing someone’s feelings is a great conflict that might even have huge repercussions later on (remember all those forms of betrayal?). They’re also a wonderful way to mirror a larger emotional issue or show growth (or the need to grow) for a character. Since these are personal, the stakes are naturally higher even if the conflict is mundane. No one wants to hurt someone they care about.

Friendly Conflicts 

Rivalries and friendly competition can cause conflicts, especially if they start out friendly then turn more serious. But even if it’s a constant one-up-manship, it can still be fun and make the reader curious how things will turn out. Who will get the upper hand this time? And will there ever be a moment when that upper hand matters? They’re even handy to show a skill the character might need later on without shoving it in the reader’s face.

Funny Conflicts 

Some conflicts can be all about the funny, like mom trying to put a diaper on a kid who’s running around laughing. Their goals are in opposition (mom wants a diapered baby, baby want to be naked and free) but there’s nothing adversarial here. While funny conflicts probably won’t work all the time (there’s often little to no stakes in this type) it can add enjoyable levity that can work well with more serious moments. A light scene right after a dark one, the calm before everything breaks loose. It can give your character something to do if the scene is mostly dialog and feels static. A funny conflict that distracts your protagonist might allow them to miss something they’ll need later. Or the funny might just be a way to share some aspect of your protagonist and make readers like and care about them. (Opening scenes anyone?)

Try looking at your scenes to see where you might add a soft conflict and improve the scene.
  • Can you make two people disagree?
  • Can you make anyone else want something different from what the protagonist wants?
  • Can someone try to talk the protagonist out of something? Into something? Change their mind?
  • Can one person be trying to spare the other’s feelings?
  • Can one person be trying to keep the other from finding something out?
  • Can someone be trapped between two others and be torn on who to side with?
  • Is there a friendly rivalry?
  • Does anyone want the same thing the protagonist wants? (In an “only one can get it” scenario)
  • Can anyone have/get what the protagonist wanted?
  • Can the conflict be played for laughs?
  • Is there humor in the situation if two people disagree or have different approaches?
A little goes a long way, so don’t feel you have to add a ton of conflict to every single scene. If it takes 17 steps to get a glass of milk from the fridge, you might be piling on the conflicts a little thick. But sprinkle them in where they’d have the most impact and you’ll find your tension going up. The chance of an unpredictable outcome rises, because the protagonist will be faced with more choices.

Conflicts are opportunities to act, so make the most of them.

Do you think about non-violent conflicts in your scenes? Can you think of any scenes in your current WIP that would be improved by a little soft conflict? How might your internal goals be strengthen with a little soft conflict? 

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I love non-violent conflicts! I much prefer when violence is the result of built-up tension from previous conflicts and has a purpose, a real expression of just how much emotion there is between the characters and how it can't be held back.

    There's just so much variety in conflict that to leave the other forms out is just criminal!

  2. Thanks for the great post - I am bookmarking this page!!!

  3. I need to add in more soft conflicts. This is such a good reminder. My conflicts tend to be dramatic and huge--like two competing needs that cannot both be met.

  4. This post is so timely! Thank you! I'm at a point in my story where I need to add some soft conflicts to keep the tension between two characters who will eventually fall in love. Thanks for the great questions.

  5. I think life-and-death is actually hard to pull off well and usually has some "soft" conflict thrown in to make it effective. I'm rarely worried that the MC is actually going to die.

    As someone who chased a naked baby with a diaper yesterday, it's really only funny in retrospect. Or if you're the baby. The stakes are high: potentially soiled carpet or soiled jeans, and the stakes go up if the older child's in the fridge breaking eggs on the kitchen floor. Just sayin'. :)

  6. Paul, that's a great way of putting it: the violence is a result of the building tension.

    Angela, one thing I like to do it make those competing needs be the internal vs external goals. Super fun!

    Lin, most welcome. Soft conflicts are probably even more critical to romances, where having hard conflicts are too difficult to overcome and still fall in love.

    MK, LOL okay, high stakes indeed, but that makes it even funnier!

  7. Very interesting post! You categorized types of conflicts, something I hadn't really seen in this format. I'm linking this from the blog.

    Now, only if I can figure out how to make the "Links to this post" space on your page work...

  8. The non-violent conflict can be the best part!

    I find it particularly fun when the "good guys" have contradictory goals for what they'll accomplish or contradictory ideas for how they'll accomplish their shared goal.

  9. CO, wish I could help you there but I have no clue how to add them.

    Carradee, I LOVE when good guys have different ideas on what to do.

  10. Great post and responses. Lot's of useful information. Thanks.

  11. Terrific post. I am going to print this out and keep it handy. I will also be posting the link on my blog. Thanks.

  12. Thanks. I might tend to overdo it in some areas. I definitely like the playful conflict idea to toss in between darker, serious scenes.

    1. I like mixing them up, though every book is probably going to lean more toward one type more often than the others.