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The Most Annoying Type of Story Conflict

This week’s video talks about a type of conflict that works within the story, but which often causes more annoyance to readers than it’s worth.

Video Transcript:

If you’ve been following the series “Structuring Your Story’s Scenes” on my blog, then you probably know we’ve been talking about conflict quite a bit. But there is one aspect of conflict that I haven’t covered—and that is, in my opinion, the most annoying type of conflict an author can inflict upon his readers. This is what I like to call false conflict, and it kind of goes hand in hand with false suspense. Both, in essence, are attempts by the author to unnaturally manipulate the story—and, as a result, the technique is basically tricking the reader.

In false suspense, we’re telling readers something exciting or dangerous is happening when it really isn’t. In false conflict, we’re dredging up sparks between two or more characters over issues these characters wouldn’t naturally fight over. I’m going to say this is most common in romantic comedies. The author has to keep the two leads at odds throughout the story, because the moment the guy gets the girl, the story ends.

So even though these people are madly in love, the author throws in false conflicts, such as small misunderstandings that blow up into big arguments, petty squabbles, etc. This sort conflict works within the mechanics of the story. It keeps the characters from achieving their goals too quickly, and it creates the opportunity for interesting situations and dialogue. But when the conflict doesn’t make sense according to the personalities of the characters and the needs of the plot, it’s going to become frustrating to readers—particularly when it’s a little conflict that’s blown up into a big conflict for no good reason. So keep an eye on your story’s conflict, just to make certain your characters are always acting honestly.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the most annoying type of conflict?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I agree that this is probably the most annoying type of conflict, and that you find it a lot in romance genre novels. Now, I enjoy reading fluff (especially between heavier novels) but it gets frustrating from a reader standpoint when there’s some small misunderstanding (that, if it happened to me, I would simply ask my husband about) but ends up being this huge fight and suddenly the characters aren’t talking to each other anymore. False conflict like this takes readers out of the story as they think, Wow, what a drama queen, or something along those lines. As an author, you want to draw them farther into the story, not kick the reader out of it.

  2. I think the most annoying kind of conflict is the kind that comes from misunderstandings. The kind used in a lot of comedies. Sometimes I want to scream at the characters and explain what the simple misunderstanding is and put an end to it. The simpler the misunderstanding, the more frustrating it is to watch.

    So, in your opinion, what romantic comedies pull this off properly?

  3. Sooooo true. I get annoyed with conflicts that in real life would be solved with a single conversational exchange or even a text message.

  4. I think the kind of false conflict that annoys me the most is when a character struggles to overcome some conflict, makes progress, and then the author just pretends there never was any progress and has the character go through the process of struggling with the exact same conflict, sometimes over and over again.

  5. @Brittany: Ultimately, this type of conflict is most dangerous because it creates characters readers dislike. When the girl is treating her guy like scum for no good reason, we’re much more likely to side with him than her.

    @Bill: Just off the top of my head: 10 Things I Hate About You, I.Q., The Jane Austen Book Club, and Just Like Heaven seemed to have done pretty well at getting laughs while staying true to characters.

    @Kell: If authors have to milk the drama, something’s wrong, you can bet on it.

    @Sarah: That generally happens for one of two reasons – either the author didn’t have enough material to allow the character to progress from point #1 to #2 (instead forcing him to remains stuck on #1 for twice as long), or the author lost his bearings within the story and failed to realize he’d already covered #1 and/or that #1 was sufficiently covered the first time around.

  6. Totally agree on “simple misunderstanding” being the most annoying type of conflict. The scenario that really drives me bananas and is over-used time and again is the “He sees her with someone else, but they’re actually not TOGETHER-together.” Look. Just stay for .5 seconds longer and you’d see how it really is. Or .5 seconds earlier. Coincidences like that rarely happen in real life.

    Not that fiction needs to perfectly imitate reality, but it should at least try honestly.

  7. Ooh I love Sarah’s response… count that as mine, too!

  8. @Kiersi: Yup, just ran into that one in a book I finished this week. *bonks book against head*

    @Jessica: Then ditto my response to her. :p

  9. Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. In my current WIP, I had a side plot of a journey where 3 friends set out to rescue the hero. The journey added conflict. My editor pointed out that the journey didn’t connect to the main plot and seemed to be an unnecessary conflict.

    So I went back and connected the journey to the main plot by having the antagonist ask the 3 to head out on the journey (he masquerades as the good guy) to help rescue the hero, only to send his minions out after them to kill them. Now I have a sub plot and added conflict that connects to the main plot.

    Whew!! Writing is hard.

  10. what’s that line about story construction, about using coincidences to get people in trouble is hilarious, but using them to get them OUT of trouble is cheating?

    Every time I see the second one I snap out of the story, flip to the author’s photo in the back, and give him/her a good stern talking to.

  11. @Ruth: But isn’t great how just a little tweak or two can pull in disparate elements and suddenly make them work?

    @Arlene: That’s why I never put my author photo in the back. :p Seriously, though, that’s excellent advice. Coincidences may happen in real life, but they’re not always believable even then!

  12. Loved this video. So true, and I love how concisely she states how and why false conflict is a problem. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Great advice:) I don’t like reading books where I feel like I’ve been falsely led on a ‘merry chase’ …;( I’ll need to look at my own WIP…and sure I haven’t done any ‘false advertising!’ Great Post:)

  14. The conflict in “Anna Karenina” annoyed me so much: everyone’s beaving like a short-sighted, inconseuqential, selfish prick there. I’d have never believed such a story could happen in real life if I didn’t know that Tolstoy based it on the life of a real woman – Anna Pirogova. Sometimes, life has more of ridiculous and annoying conflict than fiction

  15. Well done!

  16. I recently edited a romantic suspense novel that was long on romance and short on suspense. The author had made use of the “false conflict” device, and turned what had potential for depth into pettiness and childishness. I hated the female lead, who snarked on the male lead and sniped at him for no good reason. In the margin of the manuscript, I noted that she was “showing her backside”, and that robbed any sympathy the reader might have for the character.

    Fortunately, the author did go back and make the necessary changes to turn the character back into a mature grownup once more, but still relied on forced conflict and false suspense in other areas of the manuscript. She had a specific formula for the book, and there was no deviating her from that plan.

    I let it go. Hey, it’s her vision, and it’s going to print.

    Perhaps part of the reason these manipulated conflicts occur in fiction is due to the lingering formulas that are still being employed, and that I recall being pushed at writing conferences when I was a younger: “In a mystery, the crime must be committed by page___,” or “There must be at least one embrace and a kiss by the end of chapter___.”

    Whatever. Story comes first, page number be hanged.

  17. @Jessi: Thanks for commenting!

    @Lorna: It’s funny (funny/strange not funny/haha) how we are so often guilty of the very flaws that drive us crazy in other people’s works.

    @Grigory: All of this high and lofty talk about characters’ bad behavior being nonsensical does kind of gloss over the fact that people in real life *do* get worked up for no good reason every day of the week.

    @Bill: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Elizabeth: Bickering instead of bantering. The latter is enjoyable and endearing, the former never is.

  18. This is one area where my novels could use the most work. I found this post helpful. Thanks.

  19. Kiersi’s comment pretty much mirrors my feelings. I hate when a character’s mate just happens to catch them getting kissed by some random hanger-on and the mate doesn’t wait that extra 5 secs to see them push the person off and decline their advances. Then the rest of the story, the character is running themselves ragged trying to explain.

  20. Ohh… this post is very interesting :D
    I think it depends from the characters, as you said. There´s a point where I made my characters fight over something stupid, just because she´s to shocked and stressed to listen and too emotionally charged about loosing her daughter and him trying to handle it with a cold head. So she has to burst, doesn´t she?
    Big hugs,
    M.

  21. @Mary: Identifying problems is 75% of the work. Happy rewriting!

    @Melissa: Situations like that certainly offer some interesting possibilities. The problem is that most of them have been done to death.

    @Meryl: “Stupid” conflicts over deeper issues don’t qualify as false conflict, since they’re really symptomatic of buried issues and very authentic conflicts between characters.

  22. Oh, I just watched a movie with this problem. The characters were actually very complex and engaging, but they were ruined by a story line that forced them to react in predictable ways, rather than exploring the issues raised by the situations in a way that would have been honest to the characters. And, you know, not a stock rom-com plot.

  23. I’ll usually forgive a crummy plot if the characters are compelling. But there does come a point where you just want to throw your popcorn at the screen and ask the writers, “Why?”

  24. :D Thank you! I´m happy to hear that, it´s exactly what´s happening with my characters… they have had a lot buried for 17 years ^^

  25. The kind of conflicts you’re talking about are not just acceptable, they can actually be a great way to subtly explore the story’s “iceberg” – the 9/10 under the water of your story.

  26. Yes, that´s… sort of the point :P
    I´m trying my best so it won´t be too abrupt, and make the reader understand how she feels.
    I was also wondering about some of the coments I read here, and I do think coincidence is a part of life and a story won´t ring real without some of it. But maybe that´s just because I believe in destiny!

  27. The key to making coincidences work is properly foreshadowing them. If they don’t come completely out of the blue, readers are much more likely to accept them.

  28. You are right… and I do think some times they are more likely to happen than others :P Same with what they said about the character not waiting five more seconds… depends on the big picture ^^

  29. Great post. Reminded me i need to be careful while plotting/writing my romantic comedy and that i haven’t seen 10 Things I Hate About You in a while =)

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  32. Two for the price of one! :D

  33. Well my least favorite type of conflict is implausible conflict. Like: Am I suppose to believe that in this waste land, the protagonist as finding a whole army of space marines?

    Which is why I’m doing something different, where said marines are instead other tribes, who are just in just as much danger as the hero, and each tribe has their own special force that has to take apart weapons to learn how they work.

    I like stories where the protagonist feels like he is the bottom of the food chain, but the said conflict fits in to the setting given in the world building exercise.

    Oh, I had a hard time not choking up, when I thought about some movies where said dramatizing is deliberately made as cheesy as it gets, and hammed up for all its worth.

    I want to have conflict that makes sense in context with the plot, like in Thomas Harris Silence Of The Lambs. (I read that when I was 17, big mistake.D:)

  34. grammar correction: I meant is fighting, not as finding.:3

  35. The conflict *is* the plot, so if it doesn’t mesh well, you know something’s seriously awry.

  36. Exactly the reason I don’t watch rom-com movies, or read chick-lit fiction.

    I hate the way that if these two characters would simply explain themselves, often the conflict can be avoided. Such as the woman walking in on the man hugging another woman. Let’s say it’s his cousin, but the woman doesn’t realise this. More often than note the male won’t tell her until much later, rather than explaining there and then who she is.

    Makes me facepalm.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      At the very least, it makes you realize how lucky you are to live with comparatively reasonable human beings. :p

  37. I read a fair amount of fluff, too, and I see this kind of contrived situation in shoujo manga (manga aimed at girls) all the time. I suppose this is somewhat Japanese chicklit, illustrated, YA edition? A love rival appears and tries to steal the heroine’s handsome boyfriend. She either outright lies to the heroine about the boyfriend, or sets her up by ensuring the heroine sees the rival with the bf in a compromising situation. Instead of talking to him, like most normal people would do, the heroine runs off crying and/or breaks up with her hurt and bewildered boyfriend. A series of contrived misunderstanding follows, which could easily be solved the old-fashioned way, you know, by simply talking to each other. Drives me up the wall!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always useful for writers to ask themselves, “How would I address this situation in my own life?” If the character’s reaction is totally out of sync with that answer, it’s probably a sign realism is lacking.

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