Two Surefire Ways to Bore Your Readers – Part I: Skimping on Conflict

 

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, it’s critical to remember that part of what readers want from your book is entertainment. That is why storytelling has endured as one of the most beloved arts, from the oral traditions that gave us The Iliad and The Odyssey to the latest Marvel movie playing at your local cinema. Jesus Christ, not surprisingly, knew the power of a good story, as He famously used parables to illustrate life-changing, spiritual truths.

Do you suppose Homer’s The Odyssey would still be read in high school English classes if its hero, Odysseus, experienced smooth sailing instead of the vicious wrath of Poseidon and countless other larger-than-life obstacles? Would the Avengers and X-Men be as compelling without the high stakes, special suits, and spectacular special effects? Would Jesus’ parables, though they lacked the fantastical elements of myth and CGI, be as memorable and penetrating without their bold characters and rich symbolism?

No matter your genre, be it Sci-Fi, Romance, or Memoir, there are two surefire way to stop your readers from turning the page. The first one is…

A Shortage of Conflict

 

Without Scylla and Charybdis and other nightmarish monsters, Odysseus’ voyage would have been just another Carnival cruise. If there had been no bad guys for Iron Man to fight, he’d just be a narcissistic gazillionaire with cool toys. If the Prodigal Son had never left home to squander his inheritance and make a lot of mistakes, he’d just be another son. And your main character will be mediocre at best and boring at worst if you don’t drop some storm clouds into his sky.

Blog on Creating Conflict for Your Characters

 

To date, I’ve published six non-fiction books, and though they don’t feature any superheroes or Olympic deities, there is still plenty of conflict. Why? Because my personal testimony is teeming with it! Anorexia, binge-eating disorder, depression, obsession, low self-esteem, paralyzing pride…these words all describe the battle I fought, conquered, and now help others claim victory over through my writing. If I just wrote about fitness and faith without sharing my struggles, I wouldn’t connect with readers because readers, as humans, empathize with the challenges, fears, and heartaches of life.

Conflict is often hard to achieve in one’s writing because all of us tend to avoid conflict in real life, which is why most main characters (a.k.a., “the good guys” we most sympathize with) don’t go looking for trouble – they’re like us. I didn’t go out seeking to become dangerously skinny or develop an addiction to exercise. Odysseus didn’t ask to be captured by Polyphemus the Cyclops. The Avengers, in the most recent Marvel movie, didn’t ask to be ripped apart by ideological differences. The Prodigal Son didn’t leave home looking for a pig pen to wallow in. But trials are what brought about my and these characters’ change, and change is what reveals the core message of a story.

Most of us go out of our way to avoid confrontation, but to craft a story readers will stick with ‘til the end, we must create it for our fictional characters and explore it for our non-fiction ones.

If you’re writing fiction, here are a few tips to ensure you’re including plenty of conflict:

Treat Every Scene Like a Mini Story

Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end, that is, an inciting incident that sparks the action, a riveting midpoint, and a climax. Structure every single scene (and I mean every scene!) with these three points in mind.

What immediate action kicks off the scene (inciting incident)? What springs the main character of the scene into action (midpoint)? What’s the decisive moment at the end to which all the dialogue and action leads (climax)? If you can divide your scene into these three distinct parts, you can be almost positive you’ve got conflict!

Notice I used the word “action” a lot! Make your three scene points dynamic, full of lively verbs and sensory details that will pull the reader in.

Fun Fact: Climax is a Greek term meaning “ladder.”

 

Up Your Dialogue Game

What’s more interesting to read?:

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“Sure. I’d love to.”

OR….

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“Is that your idea of a romantic evening?”

 

The first example is flat and dull. The information is just filler material, indicating laziness on the writer’s part. If the information is really necessary to the story, it can easily be inserted through narrative, not dialogue. For example, “They grabbed a bite to eat and went to an early movie.”

In the second example, we receive a healthy helping of conflict in just eight words. Obviously, Character #2 is a wee bit resentful of Person #1. From all appearances, this is a couple in the midst of a rough patch. This snippet of dialogue helps enhance the emotional tone of the scene and shapes the characters; Character #1 seems to be making an effort, and Character #2 is having none of it.

Here are a few other examples of conflict-filled dialogue, using the same first line:

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“And being brainwashed by subliminal messages? No thanks.”

OR…

 

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“As long as it’s rated G. Even PG movies make me sick to my stomach these days.”

OR…

 

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“I left the house last week. I’m not ready to go out again.”

OR…

 

“Do you feel like going to a movie?”

“I’d rather hang by my toes and listen to nails on a chalkboard for two hours.”

Example of creating conflict through dialogue

 

Use Clear, Precise Language

Your word choice is responsible for painting a picture in the reader’s mind. But really great writers don’t just paint pictures, they film movies, adding movement and sound and taste and touch to their work.

Be deliberate about every syllable you write. Don’t just say, as E. L. Doctorow once noted, that it is raining, but describe the “feeling of being rained upon.”

Instead of saying dark or black, what about obsidian?

Instead of gun, what about a Chewser pistol or a Ruger?

Instead of dog, why not say it was a spunky Labradoodle or a moody Pug?

You get the idea. Think outside the box, avoid clichés (don’t say, “think outside the box” for example!), use the active voice (“I love writing” instead of “Writing is loved by me,” for example), and have fun selecting the just-right word for your settings, actions, and character descriptions.

 

Employ Opposite Emotions

“Opposites attract” is a well known saying, but while it may not always prove true in relationships, it is always true in storytelling.

In a good story, characters’ emotions never line up perfectly. Even in romantic comedies, the love interests are unequal.

For example, in the Katherine Heigl/James Marsden movie 27 Dresses, Heigl’s character, a perennial bridesmaid, is targeted as an article topic for Marsden to advance his career as a journalist. She is a romantic and he is a cynic, and yet they fall in love. And in one of my all-time favorites, 10 Things I Hate About You, Julia Stiles is a studious, anti-social shrew who falls for Heath Ledger’s bad boy character, Patrick. Her stubbornness and unapproachable air pairs perfectly with his own irresistible brand of rebellion.

These differing emotions will add dramatic energy to your scenes. Conflict is drama, after all! Make sure emotions are ever changing and ever conflicting with those of other characters, and always relate the emotions to the core need or motivation of your characters.

Blog on Creating Conflict in Your Fiction and Non-Fiction

 

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful! I’ll be back next week for Part II! Until then, comment below with how you’ve been making life tough for your characters in your current work in progress! Or tweet me at @dandersontyler!

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

PS: My newest non-fiction book is FREE on Kindle today through Saturday! You can check it out here!

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