“Dan stood on the wet paving, his arms limp by his side, his jaw hanging in horror, as he peered through a crack in the curtains. Before him a man crept towards the figure of his wife as she lay on the sofa.
“Leave my wife alone,” his mind screamed silently. His mouth formed the words but no sound would come.
On the sofa his wife smiled and opened her arms invitingly. Dan did not notice his car keys drop from between his numb fingers. They landed in a puddle at his feet with a dull jangle. At the sound, the stranger turned toward the window. Dan’s heart skipped a beat as he recognized the swarthy features of the man inside his home..
He wondered how hard it would be to murder his best friend.”
Did that little excerpt leave you wanting more? I hope so - that was the point.
Conflict is the driving force behind all good fiction. Without it, there is no story. The good news is, creating conflict is much easier than you might believe.
Many new writers believe that adding conflict to a story is as simple as inserting violence into the plot line. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conflict in the example above is only present in Dan’s emotional state. Physically, he has not moved from the window.
Let me give you an example of writing without conflict.
Dan arrived home from work. He stepped out of the car and hurried up the drive to escape the rain. Through a crack in the curtains he spied his wife awaiting his arrival. She was curled up on the sofa, a serene little smile on her face. His car keys fell from his grasp and he stooped to pick them up, before hurrying into the house.
Now, tell me - would you like to see 400 more pages like this?
Did you happen to notice that Dan’s point of view is exactly the same in both examples? He is still outside, peering through a crack in the curtains, watching his wife on the sofa. The difference is, I have created tension and suspense by adding emotional conflict about what Dan is seeing and feeling.
Also in the first example, I have added the hint that it is raining. This is to introduce a sense of physical conflict. Dan’s first impulse should be to run into the house. He ignores this impulse and endures the physical discomfort, because he is emotionally preoccupied.
In the second example, there really is no reason for the reader to want to continue. Nothing special or unusual is happening to the characters. Nothing untoward is going on. Where is the point in continuing to turn pages?
In the first example above, Dan is trying to deal with the conflicting emotions of watching his wife with another man. The final line, however, introduces an element of risk. Morally, murdering a man is incomrehensible to most people. And yet, faced with a big enough emotional dilemma, Dan considers the risk. Most importantly, we touched on a nerve inside Dan that shows the reader why he is acting and feeling the way he is.
Inserting conflict for the sake of it becomes pointless unless the character is facing a certain degree of risk. In this scenario, Dan could be imprisoned for the rest of his life if he proceeds with the intent of murder. The situations and feelings that your characters must live through should still feel believable to the reader.
If I had written that Dan simply walked into the house and punched his friend in the face, the risk becomes non-existent. Dan has nothing to lose (except maybe his wife) and the reader has no reason to continue reading.
Most people can relate to Dan’s feelings of helplessness and hopelessness while he stares into the window. This situation also encompasses some peoples’ deepest fear, so the suspense is more poignant because of this.
But, even though Dan is contemplating murder, most people can empathize with him, because the dilemma he is in is one that people can relate to.
Imagine how you would have felt if Dan had raced inside, thrown off his coat and joined in with trysting pair? The conflict is diffused, the empathy is shattered and the reader is thrown off balance.
When creating a scene, bear in mind that your readers want to see the protagonist win. But there is no point in winning at all if the stakes were never high enough to make them care about your hero in the first place.
Raise the Stakes
Okay, Dan’s wife is having an affair with his best friend. Is this enough conflict to keep a reader turning pages in anticipation for 400 pages? Probably not.
Sure, Dan is contemplating murdering his best friend. But he hasn’t actually done anything. He’s still staring into the window, remember? Is this enough to keep a reader enthralled for another 400 pages? I doubt it.
Once the initial shock of the first conflict is over, the reader is going to want fresh conflict to keep the suspense high.
It’s time to raise the stakes.
“A rolling boom of thunder heralded a flash of lightning and the rain gave way to a barrage of stinging hailstones. Dan shook his head, his daze lifted, and backed away from the window. He ran through the blinding hail back towards his car, his mind working furiously. He had always kept a small gun in the glove compartment, but he no idea whether or not it was loaded. A quick check reassured him that it was.
He swallowed down the tears that threatened to overcome him at the thought of shooting the two people he loved most in the world and ran back to the house.”
So now Dan is no longer simply contemplating murder. He’s really going to do it! This forces the reader to start asking questions. Will he do it? And if he does kill them both, will he get caught? How will he ever escape a double homicide charge?
Not only does this increase the tension of our little story, but it throws the reader into a kind of dilemma, too. Is it possible to still feel empathy for a protagonist who is about to become a cold-blooded killer? Your reader will simply have to keep reading to find out.
Once Dan kills his wife and best friend, where does a writer go from there? Once the trysting couple are dead, then what? Of course, Dan will need to contend with escaping the long arm of the law, he’ll have to face his own conscience …
Or we could lead the reader into a situation that is even more menacing than the first.
“Dan crept into the living room, arm outstretched, gun wavering uncertainly before him. With an effort, he stilled his shaking hand and took another step into the room. The entwined couple on the sofa had not yet noticed his entrance. He took a deep breath, steeling himself against the nausea that bubbled up from the pit of his stomach and poised his finger over the trigger.
“… and so, darling, if you push him down the stairs, it will look like the perfect accident.”
“Will you help me with the… you know… the body?”
“Of course. No one will ever know. I’m too high up in the force to be questioned about an investigation like this. “
Phew! Just when the reader thought it might not be okay to like a homicidal husband as a protagonist, it turns out that his cheating wife and best friend are plotting to kill him anyway.
The problem is, he knows that they want him dead and he can’t go the police - not now that we know the friend is a member of the police force. Who would ever believe his story over the word of an officer?
Is it likely the reader will continue to turn pages to find out how he manages to beat these odds?
Creating conflict should be as simple as continuing to ask yourself questions during every scene - and then forcing yourself to be honest about the answer.
Ask about the actions of your characters
Is your hero reacting in a realistic way to the conflict you have thrown at him? Would he really do that?
Ask about the situations you have written
Would he really go and get a gun?
Is the situation really desperate enough to contemplate murder?
Ask about the continuity
Does this scene move the story forward?
Should I stop the story to describe every piece of the scenery to my readers so they get the mental image clearly?
Is a scene showing Dan sitting on the loo for forty minutes, humming the theme song to the Simpsons going to increase or decrease tension?
But most importantly, ask questions about your readers
Why should the reader care what happens to your characters?
Why should the reader keep turning those pages?
Why would the reader want to read what happens next?