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Lightning Bolts and Dinner Dates: Creating realistic conflict

Writers hear a lot about character motivation: you have to know what your characters want and why they want it, and you have to make sure your readers know it, as well. But just because we all know what your protagonist wants doesn’t mean you should let him have it. A character struggling against obstacles to obtain what they desire is the driving force of a book and provides the tension that keeps us reading. Most authors understand that they have to be tough on their characters and they try to stick it to them, but too often, I read conflicts that don’t feel real or that, in real life, would be easily solved. So, how do you know if your conflict is realistic and provides enough tension to sustain a novel? Your conflict might not be serious enough if:

Your conflict can be solved by someone asking a question. If your protagonist is only in dire straits because they’ve failed to get information that is readily available, readers may feel annoyed that your character didn’t take the obvious step of obtaining this information right from the start. The last thing you want is for your readers to wonder on page three hundred why Jane didn’t just ask Bob that question on page three and save us all the trouble.

Your conflict is due to a misunderstanding that should have been easy to clear up. I see this one a lot. A female character is mad at a male character whom she thinks is cheating on her after seeing him with another woman at a restaurant. The other woman is actually his sister, but when confronted, he can’t get a word in edgewise. The female character accuses him and storms off, while he stutters and splutters and wonders how he can convince her of his love. In real life, this would never happen. No one would let the other person leave without telling them the truth. If they somehow did leave, the wronged party would call or text or e-mail or something to explain what had really happened. The conflict wouldn’t last more than five minutes because the person who had been wrongly accused would make sure they were vindicated. But in novels, I see this type of conflict play out over days and chapters. This is ginned up conflict and readers won’t stand for it.

Your conflict relies on a deus ex machina ending for its resolution. Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machinery” but it is used to describe a contrived plot device where an unexpected power or event saves a seemingly hopeless situation. Your protagonist is being swept down a raging river towards a waterfall with no help in sight when, just in time, a lightning bolt hits a tree, which falls into the water in front of him and he is able to climb ashore. Or less dramatically, your detective, who has been unable to discover the identity of the murderer, happens to stumble upon the murder weapon, completely coincidentally. He doesn’t solve the murder through his wit and skill but just by chance. We’ve all watched movies or read books with endings like this and the common reaction is, “Oh, give me a break!” You do not want this to be the reaction to the end of your book.

There is nothing really at stake. Let’s say at the beginning of your book, Penney runs a red light and just as chapter one is ending, we hear the police siren start to wail. We flip over to chapter two to see what happens . . . only to find Penney politely apologizing to the officer and receiving a warning before driving off to pick her son up from daycare. What?! How boring. Now suppose we had turned the page to find Penney flooring it because she’s skipped out on parole and, if she’s picked up by this cop, she’s going to prison for ten more years. Now we have some tension, now we have something at stake! And while your whole book doesn’t have to be as intense as a high-speed car chase where someone’s life is on the line, there does have to be something real hanging in the balance. If your protagonist’s life isn’t going to change much, regardless of the decisions they make, your readers aren’t going to care much what happens. Create conflicts that have real consequences for your characters to keep your readers interested and turning the page.

A meaningful, realistic conflict is vital to an engaging story. Make sure you are giving your characters something real to fight for so we have a reason to cheer them on.

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