There are three big book-changing questions you should ask yourself every day as you face your pages:
- What does my character want?
- How far will they got to get it?
- Who is trying to stop them?
Why is that important? Because that’s conflict. Conflict is the result of the relentless or dangerous or surprising obstacle that gets in the way of your character’s goal. And conflict is the engine that’ll keep your story in the air. Conflict, on every page, will keep the readers turning those pages as fast as they can, wondering: What’s gonna happen? How will this be overcome? And thinking: I hafta know!
Now you’ve read plenty of books where the conflict feels forced, or out of place. I mean, how many men with guns can burst into the room? But Raymond Chandler’s oft-repeated quote “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” doesn’t always mean a literal guy with a literal gun.
It means: when your story stalls, when there’s no problem—well, that’s your problem
One key is to understand the different kinds of conflict, and the progression of their challenges. And explore how you can use each kind of conflict in an escalating way to make your story develop into a page-turner. Here’s one kind.
Internal conflict is about your character’s value system. What they rely on, emotionally and philosophically, to make the escalatingly difficult decisions they’ll face in your book. Each one of those decisions will let the reader go inside the character’s mind and allow them to figure out whether they agree with the character’s choices. And that’s what makes us love a good book.
Does your character lie, just a little, to make someone else happy? Do they lie, just a little, to make someone unhappy? Do they cheat on their taxes? Steal pencils from the office? Do they choose their job over their spouse? Do they sabotage a co-worker, or devote their spare time to helping that colleague? Do they do what’s best for themselves, or for someone else? And what if they can’t do both?
Ask yourself: What do my characters value? And what will happen if they have to decide against their values?
Internal conflict happens when a character is faced with a choice or a dilemma. What should I do? What should I say? I must do this, but how will I explain it? Why will happen if I do that? I don’t want to, but I have to. I want to, but I’m afraid. I’ve never done this before, but I have no choice.
It’s about predicaments, quandaries, values, and sacrifice.
Every time you can put your characters—any of them—in the position to require them to make a decision, it’ll amp the power of your story. And as you relentlessly increase the difficulty those decisions, making the emotional stakes even higher and the psychological situation even more dire, it’ll rev the engine of your novel.
See how that enriches your book? As the author, ask yourself: why did they choose what they chose? That will open the door to a bigger book with more powerful characters, and if you’re lucky, because you have created a deeper, more textured psychology for your character, your book will take off in directions you’d never have predicted.
And now you’re asking—but Hank, what about the guy with the gun?
Yes. That’s the other kind of conflict. External. And come back to Career Authors soon to hear about that. (Wanna chat with us about conflict? Come to Facebook.)
And then? Get writing.
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