by Martha Rogers
Goals, motivation and conflict, three elements all our stories need. The essence of every story is conflict, but for me, that is the most difficult thing to add to my novels. I dislike confrontation and will go to great lengths to avoid it. I get very angry with others, but rather than getting into an argument, I will have conversations with them in my head and tell them what I think and feel. If someone has done or is doing something that needs to be corrected, I fret and stew until it comes to the point I must say something. I’m not sure why that is so difficult.
Conflict, whether inner or outer, hurts. In many editing situations I’ve had to rewrite scenes because the conflict was lacking or very weak. Donald Maas has great information on conflict in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, as do Randy Ingermanson and a number of others. Ane Mulligan presented a course on GMC on our ACFW loop, so it’s not like there’s no information on how to put it in our writing. Even after reading several craft books with chapters on conflict, I still have trouble.
Donald Maas says conflict is experienced every day, but most of it is forgotten. In our novels we want conflict that holds the reader’s attention, is meaningful, immediate, large scale, and not easily resolved or forgotten. The conflict happens in and to people with whom the reader is sympathetic.
For me, conflict in what a character wants to do and should do isn’t as difficult as writing the conflict between people. Other authors seem to have no problem with getting their characters into heated arguments and situations with others. I have conflicts within the characters, but when it comes to conflict between or among my characters, I tend to avoid those scenes and just talk about what happened in a later scene. Okay, so I tell about it rather than show it. How often have I seen that on one of my manuscripts?
Problems that are easily resolved don’t provide the conflict two characters need to hold the interest of readers and keep turning the pages of our novels. They want to see the characters in battle whether physical or emotional.
I went through some major revisions in order to insert the “off scene” conflict into the plot of my latest novel, Love Finds Faith. The conflict was there, but it needed to be seen by the reader as it happened and not in discussion or thoughts about what happened. One of these days I hope to get past that barrier the first time around and not have to rewrite as much.
Today is my 78th birthday, and ideas you might want to share regarding conflict would be a great gift for this old gal with a Sanquine personality. After all these years, I’d still rather hide out than confront.
Martha Rogers is a free-lance writer and the author of the Winds Across the Prairie and Seasons of the Heart series as well as the novella, Key to Her Heart in River Walk Christmas and Not on the Menu in Sugar and Grits. Love Stays True and Love Finds Faith, the first and second books in her third series, The Homeward Journey, are now available. Martha is a frequent speaker for writing workshops and the Texas Christian Writers Conference. She is a retired teacher and lives in Houston with her husband, Rex. Their favorite pastime is spending time with their nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Martha, happy birthday! Just wanted to slip in here to greet you. I used to avoid conflict, but at some point I breached that bulkhead and now I have to guard my mouth to keep from being contentious during confrontation. I had to face my fear of rejection to reach that point. Once I finally got how faithful Jesus is, it helped. Perhaps you could start with a character wrapped such as I was and walk her through the learning cycle of how to confront with love. Sending best wishes to you who was once long ago a critique partner of mine.
Thanks so much for sharing your difficulty in this. I am still unpublished, so I definitely can’t offer any writing advice. I am in a position of asking questions and trying to learn. However, your post reminded me of the issue of boundaries and righteous anger, which then led me to think of David and Goliath, and subsequently, World War II, oddly enough; in my haste, sometimes I’m tempted to label something as “righteous” anger, when it is more a matter that I’m the one who is angry, period. However, I do think there is such a thing, and especially when something is an affront to God.
I noticed that your post mentioned that you just turned 78. My mother is 76 and was in first grade when WW II ended. Despite her youth at that moment, it instilled a sense of patriotism in her that has lasted a life-time. It’s difficult for me to fully appreciate her experience, but I can definitely see how there are times to choose sides, and although some argue that war never solves anything, I can’t imagine the horrors of a world with Hitler in charge. There are just some boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed and, for the sake of peace, everyone needs to know where those boundaries lie.
As far as David, I also think about what might have happened, had he done nothing. It seems that the rest of the Israelites believed, or were tempted to believe, that they were safer to accept that their fear was real than to act, when it fact, their danger was an allusion, to some extent. And the thing is, if we are either ‘for God or against God’, to give into anything, or anybody ungodly, is to join forces with God’s enemy, so to speak, in my opinion, to join forces with evil- easier said than done sometimes, but nonetheless, what I believe to be true.
What I’m wondering about is, if it would help to think in terms of forcing characters to take sides, to choose strictly between good motives versus evil motives, to be either for God or against God, as we are as real people, in the grand scheme of things- even though in real life of course, no one is perfect, but for the sake of your own comfort level in creating conflict. And if a character has to choose between being strictly on the side of good versus evil in a conflict, would it be helpful to then see his or her anger as either righteous or not, in the grand scheme of things- actions that are not necessarily in direct conflict with a particular person, so much as against evil?
I know what you mean about being non-confrontational, but then sometimes it helps, if I know that I need to confront someone when I know my motives are pure, my cause is just, to try to do so erring on the side that to do nothing would not help either of us, and in fact, I would be doing both myself and that person a disservice. It’s just me, but sometimes I try to think in terms of setting boundaries that will be helpful for everyone to understand and, in the case of writing I suppose, that would include my reader. Is this a way in which you’ve tried to think of things? Thanks for asking for our opinions. One thing I could definitely recommend is the book by Christian author Henry Cloud, “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, and How to Say No”. Perhaps thinking in terms of setting boundaries in conflict would help. What do you think? Thanks!