As a reader, I’ve [privately, in my head] railed at authors about how dare you put my favorite characters through all these hardships. I love my characters! I want them to be safe and happy!
But as a writer, you have to be mean. Prevent your character from getting what she wants. Throw her into impossible situations. Tease her with death. Even when you write non-fiction and that character is you. (Well, maybe don’t tease yourself with death unless you’ve actually done something death-defying.)
Without conflict, your book is boring
Just about every book you’ll read on writing mentions CONFLICT. And for good reason: it’s the one ingredient guaranteed to keep your book moving forward—and keep your readers reading.
Because here’s an important secret about readers: as much as we say we hate watching our favorite characters go through hell and back, we’re addicted to the conflict. I mean, that’s why we read. To experience. To feel. To escape our own life, if only for a few hours.
Conflict is more than fighting—it’s any state of being besides “hunky-dory”
Hunky-dory is fun to say, isn’t it?
If everything your story is going well, you’ll get one of two reactions:
2. Anticipation for the conflict to begin
The second reaction isn’t necessarily bad, as long as you deliver it. Stephanie Perkins does this well in Isla and the Happily Ever After—the relationship takes off and then plummets. But without the plummet, readers wouldn’t have loved it as much as they did. And I wanted to rush through until I got to the point where the relationship blew up.
That’s where the book gets fascinating and difficult to put down. And that’s because, as Lisa Cron puts it, our brains are wired for story—we’re wired to look for, anticipate, and want the conflict.
Sometimes I call conflict drama because well, we know what drama is, even if we can’t give it a precise definition. Imagine a romance is going well. That’s not very interesting, is it? Now imagine one partner is lying to the other. Instant conflict, even if everything seems okay at the moment. It’s going to blow up eventually, and that’s how conflict is born.
A book isn’t a book without conflict
Okay, so fiction writers have an easier time with this—they’re in control of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in their story. But what if you’re telling your story? What happened happened and you don’t have control over it, right?
But this is what I tell my book coaching clients: your story isn’t meant to be told in a chronological, “this is what happened” way. Your job is to pick and choose which moments carry the most conflict and play those up. Stretch them out, give them more attention. You’re the teller of your own story.
How good are you at being mean to your characters?