Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Two Best Tips for Writing a Strong Story: Put Characters in Conflict

By Kris Bock, @Kris_Bock

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Great characters with a strong conflict make for strong novels. Kris Bock two great tips for how (and why) to get your characters into conflict. 

Chris Eboch is the author of over 60 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs.

Chris Eboch Website | Blog | Goodreads 

Chris also writes for adults as Kris Bock. Her Furrever Friends Sweet Romance series features the employees and customers at a cat café. Watch as they fall in love with each other and shelter cats. Get a free 10,000-word story set in the world of the Furrever Friends cat café when you sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter. You’ll also get a printable copy of the recipes mentioned in the cat café novels.

Kris also writes romantic suspense set in the Southwestern U.S. If you love Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels, try Kris Bock’s stories of treasure hunting, archaeology, and intrigue in the Southwest.

Kris Bock Website | Blog | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Instagram | Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter 

Take it away Kris...

To write a strong novel or story, you need characters in conflict. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character—what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily. If those aspects are strong, your writing will be dramatic.

Let’s start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Not really.

But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

Why is it important to the character?

The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

Why is it difficult for the character?

Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself.

You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges—he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally, we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus, he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts)

Build Strong Characters with Fears and Desires

As this exercise shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s desires. If they crave safety, put them in danger. But if they crave danger, keep them out of it.

In my adult romantic suspense novel, The Mad Monk’s Treasure (written as Kris Bock), Erin likes her adventures safely in books. But when she finds a clue to a century-old lost treasure, she’s thrust into a wilderness expedition full of dangers from wild animals, nasty humans, and even nature.

In contrast, Coffee and Crushes at the Cat Café is a low-angst sweet romance. Kari wants to take care of everyone around her, so when a sexy master baker asks for a job at her new cat café, Kari assumes Colin will be perfect for Kari’s sister. Kari has to learn to admit her own needs and wishes while also dealing with the stresses of welcoming sixteen shelter cats to her new business.

(Here's more on The Core of Every Novel: The Big Want & The Big Fear)

Creating Great Characters for Kids

In my middle grade Mayan historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person’s accomplishments more impressive. In Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome—childhood health problems, poverty, a poor education. I showed his successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.

Build a Story with Plot or Character

Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges. Others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

To Build Story Conflict:

What does your main character want? What does he need?

Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence.

Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty.

Perhaps your character has a temper, is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.

Before you start, test the idea.

Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Learn more on writing strong plots from earlier posts by Chris:

About Advanced Plotting

Take your novel to the next level.

You’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.

This book can help.

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help you work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. A dozen guest authors share advice from their own years of experience.

Chris Eboch: Amazon Barnes&Noble | Kobo | iBooks

Kris Bock: Amazon Barnes&Noble | Kobo |

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