Career Authors

Ow. Pow. Wow. Secrets to Creating External Conflict

adding external conflict

When I started writing my first book, I’d take my daily pages to my husband, five at a time, and he would dutifully read them. I’d hide around the corner, and wait to hear the sound of chuckling or responding or reacting. He always did, and I was so reassured.

Until, when I got about 50 pages in. There was no reaction. None. Silence. I slunk into the den, despondent. “It stinks, right?” I whined. “I’m terrible.”

He paused. I could tell he was trying to figure out how to put what he was about to say.

“Sweetheart?” he said. “Is something going to happen soon?”

I burst out laughing. And that’s when I learned a critical writing secret. On every page of a book, something has to happen. (Imagine.) But how do you do that?

Conflict

Some is internal, about value systems and decision making. And we talked about that essential internal conflict here.

But how about external conflict? Super-big big bang-bang action is easy if you’re writing spies or war or intergalactic battles. But remember, confrontations can be fought on many different levels.

No matter what it’s “about,” your book is all about conflict. If you’re having trouble making something happen, and you’ve already had the guy with the gun burst into the room (or he’s coming in later), where you are in the manuscript dictates how you can ramp up the tension with ramped-up conflict. And you don’t need a war.

One trick for finding conflict—is to think of some other words for it.

Obstacles

What obstacle can you put in the character’s path? Obstacles can appear on many levels. Take a simple example: from a person’s glasses steaming up, to dropping and breaking their glasses, to having the glasses fall overboard, to having someone punch the character in the face and have their glasses run over by a tank.

When a reporter knocks on a subject’s door and the person answers, and then the reporter asks ”Can you give me information?” and the person replies “Well, yes, I can.” that’s not so interesting, right? But if the person isn’t home, or they open the door then slam it in the reporter’s face, or they refuse to answer, or they start screaming, or they pull out a gun—well, there’s your obstacle. And your story takes off from there.

The car breaks down. The cell phone battery fails. (I’ll give you one occurrence of that per book, though.) The computer crashes. The elevator stalls. The train is late. There’s a blizzard. Or even a puddle. The bridge is out. The door is chained shut.

Your character is hungry. Tired. Drunk. Sick. Hurt.

Good obstacles! But how can you make them even more difficult?

They’re out of food. They have to stay awake. They’re in a car accident. Taking too much medicine. In the hospital.

Your character faces an obstacle or confronts a barrier, then has to make a decision. And your book zooms ahead.

Mistakes

But what if you have your character make the wrong decision? The story takes off, but in the wrong direction. Things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They’re geographically lost. They meet someone they otherwise wouldn’t. They confront the wrong person. They make a wrong turn. They ask the wrong question.
What would happen as a result?

Now, you try it

Take each of those words and try them out in the scene you’re working on. Ask yourself—what’s my character afraid of, and what if that’s exactly what happens? What does my character desire, and who might prevent them from getting it? Who’s trying to manipulate her, and why, and what will happen next?

Every time you create a conflict, your brain will fire with ideas. With setting, with motivations, with new characters, with necessity or action. Because once there’s a problem, you the author must solve it.

And there’s your word count for the day.

And oh, ps. My first book? I cut every one of those fifty pages. (And it won the Agatha Award.)

What kinds of conflicts do you use in your books? Come chat with me on the Career Authors Facebook page.

Now. Get writing.