Pub Rants

Conflict Is Not A Lifetime Movie

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STATUS: I rarely get a chance to read manuscripts during the day but I literally cleared my desk (and FedEx’d that final contract off to the author). So what fun, I get to read today. This is my kind of Friday.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? (JUST LIKE) STARTING OVER by John Lennon

A couple of months ago, a writer sent me an unsolicited POD novel. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m optimistic. I look at previously self-published works but only if I have requested it. Please query first before sending ANYTHING in the mail.

Back to my story. This novel just arrived in the mail. Because I’m curious, I flipped it over to take a quick look at the back cover copy. When I could stop laughing, I read it aloud to Sara and shook my head. Folks, a good novel shouldn’t be a melodramatic Lifetime Movie.

Needless to say, the unrequested POD novel didn’t get read.

But I have seen this in a lot of recent queries lately as well—where the writer has confused conflict with dramatic plot elements.

I just want to clarify here that these two things are not the same.

Conflict is what motivates and drives your character (and can be internal and well as external).

Dramatic plot elements are simply events that occur in the story.

Not the same thing. So what I’m seeing is that writers are confusing the two and making the assumption that if they have a lot of big events in their novels, that’s enough “conflict” to carry the story.

So a query (or back cover copy) will end up looking like this (and I’m just making this up off the top of my head.)

Jane Smith had the perfect life: a husband, two children, and a great home in the suburbs. But when her family is killed in what looks like a car accident but isn’t, Jane must unravel the truth. She must look to her past and discover that the old boyfriend who stalked, raped, and beat her might be involved. Can she hide the fact she gave up their secret baby for adoption? Will the crazy boyfriend learn this truth, track down her only living child, and kill that innocent soul as well?

But Jane can’t uncover the truth alone and she must open her heart to allow sexy detective Joe Boxer, who moonlights as a movie star, into her life and into her secret. Jane Smith wasn’t always a happy suburban mom. She originally worked for the FBI as a ….

And the list of huge events just continues.

I know it’s a Lifetime movie error when, as I read, I’m thinking, “what the hey? Now there’s a secret baby? She was raped as teenager? She led a secret life? She’s had huge tragedy in her life but now she’s meeting a movie star?”

It’s all too much. Like I said–Lifetime movie. And folks, what works well on TV doesn’t necessarily work in a novel. (Just like what works in a novel often doesn’t translate well to the screen.)

And don’t make the assumption that all Lifetime Movie-like queries are done by women or for a romance/women’s fiction novel.

No. The POD novel I received was written by a man and had a male protagonist but still a crazy abundance of tragic events to make up the “conflict” of the story.

And don’t assume you’re safe if you write SF & F. I’ve seen the same problem in queries for that genre. Just the context of the events are changed to reflect the SF & F setting.

24 Responses

  1. Vivienne King said:

    I’m not an agent, but I have judged several contests and it’s eerie how your fly by the cuff synopsis is so similar to what I often have to read. One or two of those elements would be great, but once you start piling on heaps of drama with a side of unbelievable, it just gets silly more than anything.

    ah well, you live you learn.

  2. Gabriele C. said:

    Now you point at it – I do have enough internal conflict in my NiPs but when I describe them, I tend to list the external plot elements only.

  3. December Quinn said:

    I’ve seen/read those too, Vivienne-where you find yourself totally out of the story because of the ridiculousness of it.

    It’s the “What the f?” factor.

  4. kis said:

    Now, of course, I’m obsessing about whether there’s too much drama in my novel. 😉

  5. Kirsten said:

    Kristin, I’d love to see a follow up post on conflict. Could you elaborate on how successful writers “do” conflict?

  6. Anonymous said:

    Sometimes I feel like my life is a soap opera. I guess now is not the time to publish my autobiography!! Let me know when the market is ready for me!

  7. MTV said:

    What Kristin is saying really is important and requires some focused outlining to execute. My most challenging experience with it was when I was writing a movie that was autobiographical. The last script I wanted to write, but an agent thought it would be a great story, so I agreed to do it. Characters had to be condensed and eliminated as well as dramatic action elements. It was the most challenging thing I had ever done. My partner, a 25 year newspaper staff reporter whined as much as I did. Yet, it had to be done to make the story believable and get across the major points we saw as core elements of the story. In this case it was a “based on a true story” not a total fiction, however, the same thing applies.

    So, yes, charcter arc and dramatic action/conflict need to be ‘realistically’ balanced, otherwise the reader becomes overwhelmed. Even if the story is true, it is still overwhelming. So, even truth does not carry it. You must focus on the character conflict, not dramatic conflict. Dramatic conflict only provides access.

    By the way, after we got done, the agent didn’t like it!!! So it took two more rewrites and two script consultants to resolve and we never sold the script!!!!

    Still, it was incredible training.

  8. joanr16 said:

    mtv’s comments are very useful, but have more to do with scriptwriting, which is different from novel writing. For me, outlining is used to organize the events that occur (which, as I understand it, is a script in its entirety– just the stuff that happens; a novel needs even more organizing).

    My Sunday afternoon writing session led me to some insights about that additional organizing. Backstory is key. I find I need to work it out for all my main characters, so I can understand how they found their way into the framework of the novel’s story. In other words, my characters were “alive” before they entered the story, and I expect all of them to have “lives” after the story closes. Their individual backstories tell me who they are, what they want, what makes them flinch or suddenly not give a damn. The backstories point me to each character’s conflict that Kristin talks about. The characters’ conflicts must be examined, confronted, and in some manner more or less resolved through the events– the stuff that happens– in the story.

    End of insight. Now to make supper.

  9. Reviewer said:

    I review books. A lot. And I cannot tell you how my heart sinks when I get a book for review, read the back cover, and find this. In fact, as I was reading your “blurb” I thought the only thing you needed to complete it was the fabulous cop/investigator who makes Jane’s heart all a-twitter. And then, there he was.

    I know a couple of houses that publish this stuff regularly. But I refuse to divulge their names for fear of increasing the number of these books on the market!

  10. Demented M said:

    I’m a little confused by this post. I get what you’re saying, but I’m not sure then how to transform this bad example into a good query.

    We are often told that our queries should read like book blurbs which are very ‘buzzwordy’. Don’t agents want to know the main events that make the plot interesting? How do we strike a balance between Lifetime Syndrome and what agents really want to see?

    Please, please clarify this a or I’m going to get a complex about query letters.

    And just when I’ve cured my little obession with chapter lengths too.


  11. Shameless said:

    Don’t go and panic now, my dear fellow writers! What the agent means to say here is that there must be a mix – or this is what should’ve been said. Remember that lots of conflict and no plot is a right royal pain in the behind. And it works the other way. Most good writers – and put yourself in that box if you like – do this conflict and plot thing naturally. The example talked about here is a crap outline that eight out of ten writers would probably never come up with. When did your synop look like that. Readers will tell you what they like. Go and get hold of some! Give your draft to dozens of ordinary book-buying readers and see what they say. THEY are the ones who buy these things. Agents muck up. They make bad decisions and some have lousy rules. Often the books they choose and think are good never sell. Don’t rely on agents for all the answers, they often don’t have any better idea than the rest of us. Readers are the ones who judge. And YOU are the writer. Listen to yourself to find out whether it works. Be honest with YOURSELF. It also has to be said that I have enjoyed a couple of books that have been totally PLOT DRIVEN! They were “lifetime movie books”, whatever that term really means. So, don’t panic!

  12. Anonymous said:

    I think what she is saying is that your story can be about Jane losing her family and how that changes her. Or it could be about her hiding a secret baby from her family. But if you put all these events together, Jane will end up in a catatonic state and so will the reader. 😉


  13. Brian said:

    Similarly, some copy can go the other direction and do the minimal, movie trailer version:

    He’s the world’s deadliest assassin…

    He’s been hired to wipe out the entire Supreme Court…

    Only one man can stop him: Lance Largechest, CIA hitman, is that man!

    Bullet points work well when there’s dynamic music and explosion images to back it up. I’ve even seen it work (more or less) on some BCC but it usually ends up sounding like, “Yep. Seen it before.”

  14. Elektra said:

    It’s like that show ‘Good Times’, where you just start to feel depressed because anytime they get a light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be an oncoming train. You have to wonder if they perform human sacrifice or something when the cameras aren’t rolling, to have ticked God off so much.

  15. Anonymous said:

    Never posted here so I’ll have to be anon. But for those that are confused, check out some common methods of story structure (hero’s journey, etc) and compare to the synopsis Kristin gave us. I think you’ll see the difference.

    Here’s my take on what AK is saying:

    Bascially, a series of unrelated/randomly placed dramatic events is not a cohesive conflict. It’s episodic. It doesn’t flow in a logical, progressive, rising manner.

    Conflict is a book-length problem that gets resolved in the climax and not before that. If your main conflict is resolved early, the story is over. Or…it becomes episodic because now you have to think up new problems to throw at your characters. Often they’re unrelated, and end up seeming contrived.

    If done right, each event in the story should be a unit of the main conflict, not little explosions of melodrama. There can be sub-plots, of course, but they are secondary and shuold be woven in such a way that supports the main conflict.

    Take the first Stephanie Plum novel (just read it, so it’s fresh). The main conflict revolves around Stephanie (bounty hunter) trying to bring in Joe Morelli, who is charged with murder, so she can collect some money and pay her bills/eat, etc, but he’s gone missing. That’s oversimplifying the novel, but this single problem lasts throughout the ENTIRE book. It’s the one problem, even though there are other, related problems, that carries the plot along.

    Hope this helps.

  16. Beth said:

    Anonymous said: If done right, each event in the story should be a unit of the main conflict, not little explosions of melodrama.

    That’s it exactly. Very well put.

  17. Anonymous said:

    I agree with Kristin, but I’ve had editors ask for the Lifetime movie. I know an editor who would have loved that plot. The more you can heap on there, the better. Secret baby – check. Sexually abused by uncle — check. Sexually abused by father — check. Beaten by cheating, alcoholic husband — check. Losing child in custody battle — check.

  18. Carolina said:

    My life has been a literal Lifetime Conflict; however, I think writers who focus on conflict to that degree forget that characters need to develop and grow in the process. If the character goes from one conflict to another-you end up with a stressful waste of time.

  19. Bill in Detroit said:

    Oh crud … no sense me writing an autobiography, then. 😉

    Actually, yeah, I get your point. Some time back I agreed to review a POD on a blog in exchange for a copy. I said the few kind words that I honestly could. But the book was really, really, bad. Judging by her recent e-mails, the author is now selling Avon.

    There is a LOT of bad writing out there. Writing is a craft with little room for error.

    What you are talking about is the “kitchen sink” approach. Did the woman decide to try the wild side only to find out that the wart on her lover was not a birth defect? Did she realize this after four ninjas had her locked in the trunk for the long drive to China as the concubine of an aged Vietnamese Colonel? Or, did it dawn on her as each of the engines on the old prop plane carrying her the final hundred miles up the delta conked out one after the other?

    You can add plot elements until your nose bleeds … but that is not storytelling.

  20. Anonymous said:

    “By the way, after we got done, the agent didn’t like it!!! So it took two more rewrites and two script consultants to resolve and we never sold the script!!!!”

    “we never sold the script!!!!”

    Before posting the above, did you read your comment?

    Tell me, was it your goal to please the agent (etc) or to sell the script? It sounds like you eventually pleased the agent. In fact, it sounds like you eventually pleased everyone -except-a-buyer-. Maybe the agent would like to buy the script …