Wednesday, November 28, 2012

10 Ways to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel

By C.J. Redwine, @cjredwine

JH: I'd like to welcome YA author C.J. Redwine to the blog today. "Not enough conflict" is high on the list of why many novels get rejected, and C.J. is here to share a few tips (ten in all, quite the bargain) on how to escalate the conflict in your stories. I especially like numbers 1 and 7.

C.J. loves stilettos, lemon bars, and any movie starring Johnny Depp. She is the author of Defiance, the first in a post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy from Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins. She's also the author of QUERY: How to get started, get noticed, and get signed is available now for Kindle and Nook. C.J. lives in Nashville with her husband, four kids, two cats, and one long-suffering dog.

Take it away C.J...

We all know every story requires conflict. And most of us start writing our stories with a glorious, shining piece of conflict in mind. The problem is that most of our initial glorious, shining pieces of conflict are inadequate for sustaining the interest of a reader throughout the entire story. There’s a balance to writing good conflict. A way to pace it so that it steadily grows throughout the story, keeping your reader glued to the page. 

Here are some suggestions for ways you can escalate the conflict in your story.

1. Use all three types of conflict

Your hero should have a difficult internal conflict, relational conflict with other characters, and an external conflict against his environment or circumstances. Developing all three strands of conflict gives your story depth and keeps your reader constantly invested in reading more.

2. Use fear
What does your hero fear the most? Make him face it. Don’t pull your punches. Shove your hero face to face with his biggest nightmare.

3. Cliffhangers

A fabulous way to keep the reader engaged is to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. It becomes next to impossible for your reader to put the book down. Even if you’re writing a chapter where the characters have some breathing space, you can use cliffhangers by ending the breathing space with the start of the next piece of conflict.

4. Pacing
The pacing of conflict in your story should look like this: Conflict Simmers » Conflict Boils » Conflict Explodes » Breathing Space » Repeat as necessary.

5. Pacing #2
All of that simmering, boiling, and exploding should look like peaks in your manuscript while the breathing space looks like valleys. Your peaks should get progressively higher and higher as the story nears completion. If you have two or three peaks in a row that are all at the same level of risk/intensity/stakes, you aren’t at a peak. You’re at a plateau, and you need to reassess those conflicts and figure out how to escalate them.

6. Make it worse
In every instance of conflict, ask yourself “How could this be worse?” If you can think of several ideas, it’s time to either find a way to use those ideas as you move through the manuscript, or make the original instance WORSE. Again, don’t pull your punches.

7. Have inner and outer conflict meet
When your hero’s choices in how to face his outer conflict lead to increased inner conflict (isolation, fear, guilt), you’ve done a good job of escalating the conflict.

8. Lose it
What does your hero need to lose? What would hurt the most? Cripple his resolve? Set fire to his good intentions? Push him irrevocably closer to that final conflict?

9. Mystery and suspense

Using mystery and suspense increases the tension and feeds both the hero’s fear and the reader’s as well. Each answer should raise a more harrowing question. And don’t kill the suspense by having the hero be too stupid to figure out what’s right in front of his face. Put thought into your mystery. J

10. Surprise

Surprises are an excellent way to escalate conflict. Sudden obstacles the hero has to scramble to overcome. Left turns in the plot that force the hero to contend with a new set of circumstances. Reveals that deepen the mystery and push the hero closer to the final conflict. Just be sure your surprises rise authentically from your plot, your setting, and your characters’ choices. Beware the convenient surprise! That way lies the death of interesting stories.

These are just a few ways you can escalate the conflict in your story. Which method did you find most useful? Do you have something you’d add to the list?

About Defiance

Within the walls of Baalboden, beneath the shadow of the city’s brutal leader, Rachel Adams has a secret. While other girls sew dresses, host dinner parties, and obey their male Protectors, Rachel knows how to survive in the wilderness and deftly wield a sword. When her father, Jared, fails to return from a courier mission and is declared dead, the Commander assigns Rachel a new Protector, her father’s apprentice, Logan—the same boy Rachel declared her love for two years ago, and the same boy who handed her heart right back to her. Left with nothing but fierce belief in her father’s survival, Rachel decides to escape and find him herself. But treason against the Commander carries a heavy price, and what awaits her in the Wasteland could destroy her.

At nineteen, Logan McEntire is many things. Orphan. Outcast. Inventor. As apprentice to the city’s top courier, Logan is focused on learning his trade so he can escape the tyranny of Baalboden. But his plan never included being responsible for his mentor’s impulsive daughter. Logan is determined to protect her, but when his escape plan goes wrong and Rachel pays the price, he realizes he has more at stake than disappointing Jared.

As Rachel and Logan battle their way through the Wasteland, stalked by a monster that can’t be killed and an army of assassins out for blood, they discover romance, heartbreak, and a truth that will incite a war decades in the making.


  1. Excellent advice! I'm teaching a class on novel revision and I will be referring my students to this post!

    Kami Kinard

  2. Awesome post! I am making some serious notes lol.

  3. I needed these reminders right now. I'm in the last quarter of my MG ms and definitely need to turn up the conflict.
    And I'll be checking out Defiance, too. Sounds great!

  4. Superb advice! I agree with every single point you made, C.J.

  5. Great advice. I'm at the end
    of my Nano novel and
    this will come in handy.
    Thrilled to see your Query book.
    Downloaded it immediately.

  6. So glad this was helpful for you all! :)

  7. I will definitely refer back to this as I write. Thank you.

  8. These are all great suggestions C.J. And you do a fantastic job in employing them in Crewel.

  9. That is truly beautiful cover art. I like the reminder to keep juggling inner, outer and relational conflicts. It's really easy to get so hung up on the outer conflict that you forget all about the other two, and everything gets all thin. (Like the Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy writes `Aha! The plot thins, said the detective' and either Lucy or Linus, I forget which, says `shouldn't that be the plot thickens?' and Snoopy goes `You haven't read the plot.')

  10. Boy, did I need this today! Thanks so much for this awesome breakdown.

  11. Perfect timing. Toggling back and forth between this and my WIP.

  12. Great article full of helpful tips!

  13. I'm bookmarking this post to come back to when I get writer's block. I think just re-reading the advice could get me thinking about individual aspects of a plot and get it going again.

    On another note,in my four book series, I put my character through the wringer both physically and mentally. It's not graphic, but I have received a few comments that I need to take it easy with him for once. I feel like if I do that, the books would be boring. I even thought I did take it easy on him in the fourth book but apparently I didn't. Is there ever too much? (FTR, most readers seemed to love the angst!)

  14. The only mild qualm I have is in regards to #6. I agree that conflict should be bad, but I'd say a writer needs to be careful that it isn't so bad that there's no realiastic way out of it. Readers want the hero to overcome, not "God" his or her way out of things.

  15. Like so many others who probably did not comment, I'm also going to refer back to this both during my rewrite and my new WIP. It's at the top of my bookmarks. Thank you for posting this!