Creating Conflict: or, The Joys of Boiling Oil
By Holly Lisle
You're sitting at your desk staring at your
manuscript, realizing that you've written ten or fifty or three hundred (ouch)
pages in which nothing really happens. People talk to each other and they go
places and they do things, but you couldn't find enough suspense in what they're
doing to fill a thimble, and you're creeping up on the sneaking suspicion that
your book is a wash, your ideas were stupid, and your characters are duds. Or
worse, that you are. Maybe it's time to throw in the towel, admit defeat, take
your parents' advice and go into the family wax-dummy business.
Don't do that.
You can fix this.
It may not be easy, but if you want to save your characters and your idea and at
least some of the work you've already done, you can.
You're going to need to dig a bit. But, hell,
if you don't, you're looking at a long future of gluing fake eyebrows on bee
byproduct. You have a compelling reason to succeed at this, right? You'll do
pretty much anything to avoid the future everybody else planned out for you?
Just like they'd do just about anything to have you follow in your father's
footsteps and be the next Wax King or Wax Queen.
Well, that's conflict.
You have it in real life. You have something
that you want enough that you're willing to suffer for it, work for no pay to
get it, endure the slings and arrows of outrageous disbelief and mockery if you
can just have it. And on the other side of the fence, the person who is doing
the arrow-slinging has equally compelling reasons for standing in your way.
Now you just have figure out how to move
conflict from your life to the page.
There are three types of conflict; you deal
with all three every day, and so should every one of your characters.
Get out your notebook, or open up a new
document, or grab your quill and parchment. We're going to do some
Bob Vanilla is twenty-five; he has held a few
jobs in his life but nothing that ever thrilled him; he's had a couple of
girlfriends, but no one who ever thrilled him; and he has a brother named Jim
and a sister named Jane. If ever the Muse tossed out a character born to lie
dead on a page, 'twas Bob.
Your job is to fix his life -- fiction-writer
style. Which means you dip him in batter, dump him in boiling oil, and don't
take him out until he's brown and tasty. You're going to mess with his mind,
trash his relationships, and top it all off by dropping a comet on his head.
For the Wee Gods of
Storytelling declare -- THOU SHALT HAVE CONFLICT ON EVERY PAGE.
And if thou wants to sell thy damned story,
Creating Internal Conflict (Bob Against Bob)
Bob wants something.
A lot. He wants something so much that he would do almost anything to get it.
What does he want?
Maybe he wants to be a championship surfer,
riding the waves in Hawaii and bringing home the big-bucks endorsement deals
from ... uh ... Nike Surf or Toe Jam Board Wax.
But Bob is going to have
trouble getting want he wants because something inside of him stands is his way.
Maybe Bob is afraid of something. Maybe a
sister that you never met, Janet, got eaten by a shark. Maybe Bob almost drowned
in a bathtub when he was seventeen, and now he's terrified of more than three
gallons of water in any one place.
Or maybe not.
Maybe Bob wants love and passion and a lot of
hot sex at least once a week. And is secretly in love with a girl who is
beautiful, and kind, and funny, and stacked like a triple-decker beef burger,
and who is witty and virtuous but not too virtuous.
And maybe Bob looks like a flounder, and has
half the self-confidence.
Maybe he hates his dull life and has always
dreamed of becoming an Army Ranger, only he's weak and skinny and just about to
become to old to enlist, and he's afraid of the dark, and of snakes, and of
being shot at, and he doesn't know if he has what it takes to be a hero. He
thinks he might just be a jellyfish.
Whatever he wants, it's the biggest thing in
the world to him, the one thing that could, if he got it, drag him out of bed in
the wee hours of the morning and keep him up all night. And the first thing that
stands in his way in himself.
Write down five different things that he
might want with a passion. Write down five different internal conflicts that
stand in the way of his getting what he wants (one for each desire).
Creating Interpersonal Conflict (Bob Against Someone Else)
Okay. You've messed with Bob's head. Good.
Hope you made it tough in there for him. Now you're going to cause him problems
with the people around him.
Because Bob wants
something. A lot. And people around him don't want him to get what he wants.
I'll take Bob and the Army as my working
conflict. Bob wants to do something that matters with his life. He wants to go
to work every day knowing that he's contributing to something that's bigger than
he is; he wants the sense of mission and purpose that a job as a Ranger would
wants him to be safe and stay way the hell out of harm's way.
wants him to take over Vanillaville Mini-Widgets and spend the rest of his life
making light switches and those little rubber things that cover telephone
number-pad keys. (You're not the only one facing a grim future in the family
His current girlfriend,
Jill, wants him. She is head-over-heels in love with him (and the nice lifestyle
that a VP in Vanillaville Mini-Widgets could give her). She want him to marry
her and settle down in Vanillaville so that her mother can come over and visit
every day. Jill also wants fourteen kids, and is determined to get them. From
And his best friend
since kindergarten, Jeff, wants Bob to stay put, because if Bob goes out and
does something big and important with his life, Jeff is going to be left at home
playing poker and drinking beer alone -- and the dullness of Vanillaville is
going to become very sharp and clear to him.
Bob's mother may cry and fake
fainting spells and check herself into the hospital to convince him not to go
Bob's father may lie to the
recruiter and tell him Bob has a criminal record
Bob's girlfriend may poke holes
in Bob's condoms
Bob's best friend may clip out
every article of Army Rangers getting hurt or killed in action that he can find
These are the things the people who
are doing to keep him from getting what he wants. Imagine what the guy who can't
stand him will do.
Write down five people who want Bob
get what he wants, exactly what each of them wants (and why), and what each of
them will do to stand in Bob's way.
Creating External Conflict (Bob [and perhaps others] Against Something BIG)
But you aren't done with poor ol' Bob. Hell
hath no fury like a writer on a roll, and now, with internal and interpersonal
conflicts all brewing at the same time (because Bob didn't suddenly get big and
strong and grow a stainless steel backbone when his mother faked the heart
attack, after all), you're going to drop one more conflict on his head. The
Aliens from Bugeyed IV might drop in on
Vanillaville and the rest of the country for a little snack.
Terrorists might kidnap Bob's girlfriend and
hold her hostage.
A comet might aim itself right at
An earthquake, a tornado, a torch-carrying
mob from Cinnamontown bent on the destruction of its arch-rival, food-shortages,
plague, drought, a million dollars missing from the Library Fund tip jar. You
need something that Bob can't ignore -- and that no one else with any sense can,
either. Something big. Something powerful. Something that will push Bob to be
the hero he wants to, but is afraid to, be. That will give him reasons to win
people to his side, that will cause him to make powerful enemies, that will
change him and everyone around him forever.
In a story with smaller scope, the external
conflict can be the IRS taking the hero's mom and dad's house for back taxes, or
the school burning down, or the appearance of the rare Yellow-Backed
Purple-Butted Bark Chewer in woods that haven't seen one for a century. To the
right hero, even that sort of thing could change the world forever.
Hurt Bob. Hit him with something on the
outside that smacks him upside the head with a fifty-pound rubber mallet and
that says to him,
Go. Go now. Do. Be. Or
the dream you hold dear, and everything that hangs on it, will die.
One external conflict, and what he's going to
do about it. And who is going to help him, and who is going to oppose him, and
And there's your book. Or your story. Focus
on what Bob wants, what his people want, and what the universe intends to do to
him; give him obstacles worth struggling over and let him struggle with
everything in him, losing some and winning some, and you'll never spend another
day trying to tug vinyl pants over melting wax legs.