Writer’s improvement hell – conflict

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Conflict. All by itself, the word isn’t so imposing is it? Much of the time it’s used to describe something extremely real and horribly bad -but it’s somewhere else, not a whole lot to worry about. If we drop it into the writing context though, it suddenly grows to 300ft, sprouts wings and has a thong of flame. This thing will kick your ass. It’s a huge imposing beast that, from one angle, looks like a world dominating demon, on the other, might be a fresh pile of dog poo in your front yard. Either way, there it is – causing problems.

Conflict is what makes a story. You don’t have one without it. Yet, I feel like it’s one of the lesser talked about aspects of writing. I picked up my Fiction First Aid book, which is a pretty reliable resource for debugging problems, and flipped to the index. Characters are covered over the course of some 50pages, while the topic of conflict is packed into a mere 4 pages! Now, I’ll concede that lots of the conflict comes from your characters, but conflict is what causes the suspense in your story. That suspense is what keeps the reader thinking Then what? and turning the page instead of going to bed.

As I face the completion of the first full draft of my book*, I’m starting to think about** polishing and all the little bits that need to be shored-up or just flat re-written. Now, this is where the writer’s improvement hell comes in. One of these things is tweaking things so that the conflict is present in a way that keeps the reader interested enough to continue turning the page. There’s conflict a plenty in the book, what’s I think is still lacking is that extra bit of suspense associated with it.

Sounds like you know what needs work, so what’s the problem?

Well, first of all, I THINK I have this problem. This is a case where I’m too close to the work to precisely see where these problems are present. The few people who have read the early drafts so far haven’t said this is an issue, but I think it’s going to take a full draft before someone might take a look back and say: you know what? this book just wasn’t exciting enough***. Not only that, I’m not entirely sure how to fix the problems without overdoing it or just plain missing the mark. My solution is to try and look at the story as a reader instead of the writer, and try to understand where a little more suspense is necessary. Another thing I will do is ask others to read the work to see if they found it interesting and compelling enough to continue. Finally, I’m planning on taking a break from editing as it nears the end. It’ll be time to do a bit of reading and thinking about how other authors manage suspense, or fail to, and use that as my guidebook when I go back over it again.


*Curse you chapter 19! – in the end, I will defeat you. I will OWN you. You won’t have any choice but to do my bidding. Then, we’ll see who’s laughing.
**Read: Become paralytically consumed with, really
***Read: Needs more suspense – the conflict wasn’t resonating.

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13 thoughts on “Writer’s improvement hell – conflict

  1. efrussel says:

    First off, a horrible Emily pun-question: if you have a thong of flame, are your cheeks burning? 😛

    Sorry, can’t help myself.

    Anyway, I have to say–I think part of the reason conflict is dealt with so little in writing advice is because conflict is instrumental–no, wait, it IS–the the thing everything else in your story is made from. Good world building isn’t describing trees and elves and bridges, it’s describing the conflict that exists BETWEEN these things, and the solutions created therein. Good character building is a matter of mastering and correctly deploying conflict between characters and other characters, characters and themselves, characters and the environment, etc. Good plot is obviously almost entirely about conflict.

    Sometimes I think the best way to deal with it IS to more or less ignore it. If your story is progressing, after all, it’s because there IS conflict, and that conflict is changing. Conflict, after all, isn’t always PvP. Pretty much anything can be conflict, and often is. A description can be conflict, if a character is looking at the described scene and comparing it to something else. Conflict you insert deliberately often falls flat, or comes off as too contrived. The best conflict happens in a story because that’s just the way the story is going, and it has to happen.

    That’s my take, at least. Also: I just used the word conflict WAY too much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I made the mistake of trying to read this on my phone when I got to work. After I picked myself off the floor and stopped laughing, I concluded I should not be trying to read comments at work. Flaming underpants aside, this is good insight. I know a couple of my characters need some work – developing the tensions there might spur what I feel is missing. Thanks!

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  2. Well, after all, that’s what beta readers and revisions are for. You’ll get it, don’t worry.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess half the battle is recognizing what our story is lacking. I wonder if you have considered having a beta reader read your story when it’s complete? It’s hard to give up control over our babies but I’ve found it invaluable. I’ve learned things about my writing and my stories from my critique group that have set me on a new course. Good luck on that pesky ending. I’m sure you’ll find your way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have considered beta readers. I usually ask my wife to read through early drafts to catch anything major, which is helpful, and I’ve also got two beta-readers who’ve gotten drafts of the first half. I made some major revisions from their feedback, and plan to use it to help me expand plot. I expect once I get further along, they’ll tell me what’s missing. I certainly hear about what’s working. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Matt Bowes says:

    I will point out, in a humble manner, that I come highly recommended as a beta reader. Why, I’ll have you know that I have all sorts of public… no.

    Stop. Apparently no public acclimation. That could change at any time! I did a beta read for a book and got two paragraphs in the afterword, which is probably better than just a mention in a list, right? I’m fantastic at it.

    So, drop me a line. Send your precious over, and I’ll whip it into shape with all my readerly insights into important stuff.

    You, meantime, sir, please just WRITE YOUR CHAPTER. You’re worse than the gawky girl with glasses at the dance. You aren’t going to get to dance unless you go out there and um, this illustration isn’t very good, is it? Don’t let that stop you. Put away the shiny distraction of the other book. Tell your wife you can’t see her for a week. Hack your way to an ending, and then triage what you wrote.

    Remember: If I was a potato, I’d be called a commen-tator.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ok, so I should send you my stuff and have you read it and tear it apart, because it would be a learning experience for my ego – I will probably hit you up on the offer. Also, you nailed it, except that I was the gawky guy at the dance with a bad haircut and an Atari t-shirt. Still am. So… off my Ass and on to getting it done. I’ve abandoned my new idea for now to get back to the nitty-gritty of my main project, which sadly doesn’t involve finishing the last couple of chapters just yet. Instead, I’m reworking the main character. Frankly, he was a whiny little bitch, and it wasn’t very pretty. Just reworked chapter one, and was abused by my wife for not having chapter 2 ready. So, that’s where I’m at.

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  5. Matt Bowes says:

    Okay, I hear ya, I’ve been reworking my little thin booklet for those evil passive voices that spring up like weeds. But you need to finish. Get the end. Then you send it out for commentary and edits, and take the notes of your beta readers/editors and THEN rework it. Else you’ll rework it, then get the suggestions and notes and rework it again.

    You know it’s unedited, and you’re going to have some funky writing habits that’ll draw comment. Big deal. That’s why it gets a read and editing from someone besides you. Maybe you’re bad at commas, or you love passive voice, or you are adverbly, or there’ll be problems with pacing or the other Top Twenty Things Novice Writers Do That Make Us Barf (I need to write that post. It’s a great title, isn’t it?). As I said, big deal. Which is a funny way to say it ISN’T a big deal. Language is strange.

    Are you planning to use a line editor or developmental editor?

    I can be reached at my super secret email, matt dot bowes at gmail.com.

    Does that even stop spammers anymore?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, I do need to finish. I do have a line editor, erm, lined up, and she would be willing to give a crack at the developmental editing, though I’m thinking a different pair of eyes will be better for that. One of the approaches I try to take in editing is that I try my best to sort out the known problems so that my editors can focus on the stuff I’m not seeing. So far I’ve sent out the first nine or so chapters, and I’m working through their comments and feedback. I really want to send out for more review, but I know I need to fix the stuff that’s already been noted. It’s one of the reasons I’m tabling the finishing of the book to sort out the character. The other reason is that I hit a chapter that was dependent on having those character issues sorted out. I think I also, probably, have issues with many of the things you just pointed out – commas are a particular problem, partly because I insert them as a pause out of habit, which I don’t always catch until a 3rd or 4th reading.
      Incidentally, I don’t know if the dot at stuff stops spammers any more. I suppose if you really wanted to try and keep that down, you could do something like: matt dot b0w3s at gmail dot c0m – then tell folks to replace the 0 with o and 3 with e. I think a bot would have a hell of a time working that out – can barely understand it.

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      • Matt Bowes says:

        Aw, okay, I sort of see the dilemma. Some of the developmental stuff is going to butterfly effect the rest of the book, so you make a change early on and it’s going to make a cyclone of change at the end.

        Nevertheless, it will be worth it.

        Memorize the comma rules and employ them religiously. You’ll be a better writer for it. I saw some blog by a bigshot editor that said “just write, fix crap later” but I thought, “Maybe that’s a relativistic point–like what flavor of ice cream you like. There’s no right answer, you either edit up front and put out clean copy like Mozart, or you’re a 5 edit sort of author, like Salieri. The end result is still the same: A gleaming manuscript.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve heard that ‘write and edit later advice.’ It’s not bad advice, I see where they’re coming from, but I’m a 30 or 40 edit kind of guy, and I’m good with that. Eventually, you do get to the point where you’re not making any actual improvements. That’s when the editor comes in to slash and burn.

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