Pub Rants

Got Conflict? My Author Linnea Sinclair Gives The Scoop

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STATUS: Doing great! It’s too early in the day to be anything but. I’m off a little early to attend the LightHouse Writers Festival here in Denver. They are having an evening welcome party to kick-off the weekend. Can’t miss that!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE SIDEWINDER SLEEPS TONITE by R.E.M

(thoughts on Conflict in writing)

Kristin asked me a week or so ago if I’d guest blog on Conflict. She credits my Denver workshop for an “a-hah!” moment she had on the matter (Conflict vs Complication), and even though I assured her I was not the source for that particular tidbit of writerly wisdom, she was unmoved. So here I am, a guest in my illustrious agent’s (cyber) house, feeling as if I’d better be on my best behavior and knowing I also have to be instructive, witty and insightful.

Good thing I’m on my second cup of coffee.

So let’s start talking about conflict (in commercial genre fiction, okay? Not literary or experimental fiction) by starting off saying that it’s honestly impossible to talk about just conflict. It’s honestly impossible to talk about any ONE facet of writing. You can’t fully understand conflict without considering characterization, and you can’t work with characterization without looking at word choice, and you can’t… well, you get the idea. Crafting a novel is like dealing with a can of worms. Conflict is just one of those slithery things you have to understand.

One of the most critical issues about conflict (in writing commercial genre fiction) that I’ve learned is that for conflict to work, it must be personal. That is, it must relate directly to the character and/or an aspect of the story line. Overlarge, impersonal conflict is a guarantee of a cartoonish novel. It will eventually fail to draw in the reader (or agent or editor) because it doesn’t answer one of the most critical needs of the reader: “Why should I give a shit?”

And yes, that’s an exact quote from an editor I interviewed a few years back on the subject of what makes a book work (or not). The “Why should I give a shit?” factor is huge when it comes to making a novel grip the reader. It also relates to two things I learned from Dwight Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER: 1. Readers read to experience tension, and 2. It’s the author’s job to manipulate the emotions of the reader.

But we’re talking about conflict, you wail.
Yes, we are. We’re talking about the thing that is the engine of the story (thank you, Jacqueline Lichtenberg), the thing that keeps the story moving forward, the thing that keeps the reader turning pages.

Conflict happening to characters about whom the reader/agent/editor gives a…damn. (I’ll try to keep it cleaner for my genteel Midwestern agent.)

Impersonal conflict—which can sometimes appear as complication—doesn’t light the “give a damn” fire and get the story wheels turning as much as personal(ized) conflict.

Let me give you an example: Alphonse is strolling down the street and a dog runs out of a yard and bites him. Police/EMT’s arrive, report is filed, Alphonse is patched up. End of scene. Okay, nasty thing to happen, but where do we go from there (story-wise) and how? And moreover, why should we?

Re-roll the video tape: Alphonse is strolling down the street and a dog runs out of a yard and bites him. Police arrive and find out the dog belongs to Alphonse’s ex-wife who has also mailed death threats to his house and left a headless chicken on his doorstep. Police seek out Alphonse’s ex but she’s not to be found. Suddenly, the story gets a whole lot more interesting.

Why? It’s personal to Alphonse (and therefore, also to the reader because reading is a vicarious experience, right?). It’s personal because this isn’t a random act that might not be repeated. This is a plot. A plan. Against Alphonse (reader). You—author—have just started the “waiting for the other shoe to drop” syndrome in the story. Because there’s a salient, logical (albeit crazy) reason for these things to happen to Alphonse. His ex is pissed off. The reader then rightfully expects further trouble. Oh, joy!

Now please, don’t point out to me that there have been X number of highly successful novels in which the reader didn’t know who was behind the dead-chicken-on-the-doorstep until the final page. Of course there are. I’m being simplistic here to make a point. Plus, in the novels where the antagonist is theoretically unknown until page whatever, the skilled novelist still drops in clues, red herrings and hints which tug—and sometimes lash out—at the reader’s emotions. Thereby manipulating the reader by making the conflict that happens to the protagonist feel personal.

Alphonse is now scared and therefore, so is the reader. Alphonse is scared because he knows this problem is not going to stop. The biting dog was not some random coincidence that most likely will never happen again. SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN. And it ain’t a matter of if…

Noted SF author Jacqueline Lichtenberg states in the World Crafters Guild on her site that conflict is “an urgent and undeniable MUST prevented from materializing by an equally formidable CAN’T.” Complication and random conflict can be amusing and even annoy the characters in your novel, but they don’t qualify as being FORMIDABLE. They can go away. An antagonist hell-bent on making your protagonist fail will not go away, and the reader—if you’ve structured your plot, pacing, characterization, word choice and conflict properly—knows this too. Well-written conflict is an undeniable I MUST slammed flat up against an equally formidable YOU CAN’T.

If nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen—or intend to bestow on your protagonist—then you’re not building tension, excitement and anticipation by the best method: conflict that is personal to the characters and the plot. Keep conflict real, keep it personal, and keep it coming.

~Linnea Sinclair

RITA© Award Winning SF Romance


Other Links:

Sim Gen School
Conflict Integration Workshop
Conflict & Motivation
Conflict & Story

21 Responses

  1. Reid said:

    Thank you very much for the post!

    Sounds like with very little adapting, Alphonse’s story could be the next horror movie, rife with scenes of torture and animal cruelty. Eli Roth would direct, and the chicken-head scene would take fifteen minutes to unfold. In the climactic scene, Alphonse has to remove his own kidneys to buy his freedom and stop his ex-wife before she runs an entire animal shelter through a giant cheese grater.

    This film has been rated NC-17.

  2. pjd said:

    Nicely explained. As I was reading this, many examples came to mind of stories that I’ve read that really worked or didn’t because of this type of issue. I think you’ve laid it out clearly, and I experienced just this type of a-ha myself this week: I had been struggling with a short story idea that had a great plot gimmick, but it wasn’t until I promoted the character conflict and relegated the plot gimmick that I really felt like actually writing the story. Until that point, it seemed wooden and contrived. After that, it just flowed.

  3. Jeff said:

    Great points—conflict defined as I MUST vs. YOU CAN’T puts my philosophy on what drives stories into a much more succinct form than I’ve ever been able to. I have a few professors who should read this. ;-p

  4. Bran fan said:

    Isn’t that Dwight Swain book the best? There’s a reason it’s been in print so long. Everyone, go out and buy it right now!

    And while you’re at it, buy some of Linnea Sinclair’s books too.

  5. Sherry Thomas said:

    Thank you, Linnea. It’s never too often to be reminded what real conflict is.

    Wish I could write about the elements of writing with as much clarity and authority as you!

  6. Kris said:

    That’s interesting you spend time talking about how to produce tension. I’ve just read the “want list” of many top female agents and all they want is chick lit, women’s fiction, and fantasy. Rachel Vater only wants mg, ya, and fantasy. You can write the world’s most intense suspense, and all you’ll get from most female agents is they don’t want books with violence, abuse, rape, danger, threats, or extreme tension. I’m guessing they scare kind of easily? Just kidding.

  7. LadyBronco said:

    I was beginning to wonder if I was on the right track with WiP 2, but I feel better after reading this, Linnea – thanks!

    (Loved Games of Command BTW!)

  8. Linnea Sinclair said:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’m on mini-book tour in Ohio and answering right now via Holiday Inn freebie wireless… 😉

    ROFLAMO, Reid! Great movie script, for sure.

    PJD and Jeff, my understanding of conflict (well, let’s be honest–I don’t really understand it but understanding it to the level I do) comes squarely from the combo of Lichtenberg and Swain. Too bad Swain’s no longer here–he and JL could have had a love-child that could have ruled the commercial genre fiction world! ::evil grin::

    kris, please don’t confuse tension/conflict with action. A car going over a cliff may be tension or conflict–but not if you’re Superman and can fly. The YOU CANNOT can be internal, it can be a gi-normous (that’s author JC Wilder’s combo of gigantic and enormous) dose of self-doubt. Well written conflict does NOT require guns, car crashes or explosions. It CAN contain these elements but they are not in and of themselves conflict. So yes, as Diana P points out, conflict exists in fantasy and YA, etc.. Conflict exists in every successful commercial genre fiction novel because conflict (bows to Jacqueline L) is the “essence of story.”

    ~Linnea, teaching two workshops today at the Elyria library

  9. L.C.McCabe said:


    I wanted to thank you for your post and also recommend to you one of my all time favorite books. It is Audition: Everything an actor needs to know to get the part by the famed casting director Michael Shurtleff.

    It is an amazing book that was written for actors, but I have found it indispensable over the years when it comes to understanding what comprises good drama.

    I wrote a post on my blog over this book several months back, and it can be found here:

    In essence Shurtleff’s philosophy can be summed up in three words:

    Conflict is Drama.

    That’s why I love it so much.


  10. Travis Erwin said:

    Thanks for the insight. I had heard similiar examples but your explanation of makign the conflict personal sheds more light on the subject.

  11. Jim Stewart said:

    I really like your “conflict versus complication” point. I had a falling out with a friend when I tried to explain the same point to him in a workshop. It was worse because I didn’t have the right words. If only I’d read your blog first.

    I wrote a longer response here.

  12. Wackjob said:

    Excellent post! I remember discussing an idea for a play with a writer friend, and he kept saying, “Raise the stakes.” It annoyed me, but at the same time made me realize how undeveloped and half-baked my story was. I had the characters, but no real plot. It’s still stuck at that stage, pardon the pun. My guess is that it is not ready to be told yet, and there are other, more urgent things to write.

  13. Kim Stagliano said:

    Good grief, what’s next, a visit from John Edwards? Just had this conversation yesterday about my MS. Conflict versus complication. Thanks, Kristin, your info is invaluable.

  14. Termagant 2 said:

    That’s okay, Kris. They don’t want romance, either. That’s probably because there’s no market for it. Just ask Nora R and a huge group of Harlequin writers…

    I submitted a proposal to an agent whose web site said they wanted “Inspirational Fiction, all kinds.”

    When I finally got the “no-thanks” 6 months later, her answer was that they don’t rep romance writers.

    Thought romance was fiction. My bad.


  15. Chelsea said:

    Linnea –

    This was wonderful. My favorite novels are definitely ones with characters I couldn’t help but “give a shit” about.

    kris – I think it’s a brilliant idea to come to a well-respected woman agent’s blog and complain about the type of manuscripts women agents want. But seriously folks. If you think fantasy/YA fantasy have no conflict, check out Holly Black, Marion Zimmer Bradley and, oh, I dunno, Tolkien?

    My advise is, if you don’t respect women agents preferences, you probably shouldn’t work with them. If you ARE a woman, you can always become an agent and take an interest in the kinds of fiction current female agents don’t “seem” to.

    termagant – I would look up the definition of “Inspirational Fiction.” It may sound like any kind of fiction that “inspires” you, but in reality generally speaks to a metaphysical aspect, often based in Christianity.

    I’m a little unclear on the reasoning behind going to an agent’s blog and complaining about unrelated rejections. These agents are going out of their way to give information that is extremely helpful to writers. How about being thankful for that (to those of you who aren’t.)

    (Thanks Kristin! And Linnea!)

    Just a thought.

  16. Termagant 2 said:

    Chelsea, we were talking terminology, which we’ve discussed on this blog many times before.

    I write Christian fiction, particularly romance, and in every sphere of endeavor I’ve seen before, romance is classified as a type of fiction.

    I stand behind my original commentary.