Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48: No Conflict Between Characters

I slapped the FedEx guy this morning.

Okay, not really. My FedEx guy is totally cool. And he brings me cool stuff. I’d never slap him. But that got your attention, didn’t it? Way more so than if I ‘d said, “I thanked the FedEx guy this morning.”

The difference between the two accounts, of course, is conflict. You may not have thought well of me for slapping that poor, undeserving FedEx guy, but I guarantee you would have been interested! Conflict isn’t nice, but it’s inevitably interesting.

And yet writers sometimes create scenes in which there is no interpersonal conflict between their characters. The result, of course, is that everyone’s happy. Except for the readers–who are bored out of their minds.

How to Bore Your Readers With No Interpersonal Conflict

Here’s what your story looks like with no interpersonal conflict:

Geraldine walked down the road to the Averils’ house. The scent of jasmine wafted all around her as she entered the yard through the trellised lych-gate.

Percival’s sister Cordelia answered the door. She looked fetchingly splendid in a new dress of lavender organdy. She beamed. “Gerry, darling! You’ve come for tea after all. Percival will be pleased. Mama too.”

Percival was going to ask Geraldine to marry him today, she just knew it.

Overcome, she flung her arms around Cordelia. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”

Now just assume this scene keeps playing out without a hint of irony. Geraldine and Cordelia have a simply wonderful teatime with Cordelia’s simply wonderful brother Percival, who has a simply wonderful proposal in mind, after which he and Geraldine can ride off into a simply wonderful HEA.

Everything Is Awesome Lego Movie

James Scott Bell calls this the problem of “happy people in happy land.” Believe me, I totally get why someone would want to write this. It’s happy. All the characters are friends. They get along. They smile, they wave. There’s no violence, no dissension, no fear, no sadness.

Heavenly it may be, but interesting–or realistic–it ain’t.

How to Grab Your Readers’ Interest With Conflict

Here’s the thing about great stories and great scenes: they revolve around three simple factors.

Great Scene Factor #1: The Character Wants Something (Goal)

Great Scene Factor #2: The Character Runs Into an Obstacle (Conflict)

Great Scene Factor #3: The Character Doesn’t (Completely) Get What He Wants (Disaster)

Q. What does this mini version of proper scene structure tell us?

A. That if your character is happy, from the start to the finish of your scene, you have a problem.

You know that classic movie trope of the “perfect world”?

Edward Scissorhands Neighborhood

 

Truman Show Good Morning

 

Whoville

On the surface, they may all seem to be perfect examples of “happy people in happy land,” except–without fail–they’re all just masks of irony upon worlds of deception, corruption, and pain. In other words: conflict.

With that in mind, let’s see if we can write Geraldine and Cordelia into a more interesting scene.

Geraldine trudged down the road to the Averils’ house. The scent of jasmine wafted all around her as she entered the yard through the trellised lychgate. It smelled like regret.

Percival’s sister Cordelia answered the door. She looked fetchingly splendid in a new dress of lavender organdy. Her expression was flat. “You’re here for tea.”

Geraldine found she had to clear her throat. “If I’m still–that is, I know Percival is shipping out on this afternoon’s train. I wanted to say… goodbye.”

“You already did that.”

Oh yes, she’d done that and more. She’d tossed his proposal back in his face and stormed off. But she couldn’t let him go off to war without apologizing for at least that much. With Rupert missing in Flanders, Cordelia, of all people, should understand.

Geraldine cleared her throat again. “May I come in? Please?”

Cordelia barred the doorway with her arm. “What do you think?”

Not quite as interesting as slapping the FedEx guy, I’ll grant you. But it’s a big improvement on the first example, wouldn’t you say?

Evaluate every single scene in your book. Does your protagonist have a specific goal in each one? Is that goal being met with resistance of some sort?

Even low-key scenes in which friendly characters do nothing but chat must have some sort of undercurrent of conflict, fueled by the protagonist’s need to reach a goal. Otherwise, that scene isn’t going advance the plot, and, worst of all, it’s going to try your readers’ patience.

Don’t make things easy for your characters. Keep them on their toes by challenging them in all their relationships. This does not mean every character has to have it out for your protagonist. But it does mean every character must have his own personal agenda–and that agenda shouldn’t line up perfectly with your protagonist’s.

Give it a try! Not only will you hook your readers, you’ll also have all the more fun writing these fascinating scenes!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What kind of interpersonal conflict is happening in your current scene? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48

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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. This makes me think of my first novel. There is a lot of happy times with the main characters who listen to some great music and see some killer concerts together. I can see how that might have become boring. However, they are in conflict with the outside world because they’re metalheads and in the 80s, metalheads were discriminated against. While I bring a lot of that conflict into the story, I have been told that I overpounded that point. I’m confused.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, go back to scene structure. The balance between scene/action/conflict and sequel/reaction/tension helps us properly distribute enough conflict to keep the plot moving without beating readers continuously over the head with it.

  2. When they say ‘conflict’ should be inserted into every scene, surely they don’t mean knock-em-down, in-your-face conflict. Not every scene. That would make an impossibly breathless story, would it not?
    Of course we’re talking about various levels and intensities of conflict.
    In my opening scene of my next historical novel, I have the protagonist trying on his new uniform and thinking how it will draw the girls. No conflict there, right?
    HOWEVER – what if it is the uniform of a Nazi SS officer?
    What if his benign and humorous doctor father is mildly opposed to the son going into uniform instead of following in the doctor’s footsteps? What if, in the same scene, the father suddenly finds out his son has been transferred to Berlin, four hundred kilometres away from home.
    These are conflicts. The first is a subtle conflict for the reader. Will the reader – knowing the history of World War Two – want to find out what happens to this charming, self-absorbed, self-satisfied young buck? The second conflict is between father and son – and yet doesn’t lead to opposition so much as the moment a son breaks away from his father’s influence. And the reader knows he is going from family safety toward great danger, and possibly to war crimes.
    I call this stuff implied conflict. Between the lines conflict. Conflict is there, but at a low intensity. This leaves a lot of room to raise the bar as the story goes forward.
    I hope to keep the reader engaged by a charming, youthful protagonist with an unreliable POV. That is, the reader knows from page 1 that the protagonist is dead wrong.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When we think of conflict as simply “an obstacle,” we can see it’s much more varied and complex than the idea of conflict as violence or altercation. It’s also important to remember that there is a difference between conflict and tension. Tension is basically just the *promise* of conflict to come and is usually what we find in the sequel/reaction half of the scene. In its own way, tension is just as powerful in gripping readers and moving the plot.

    • I am looking forward to reading this story, Lyn!

  3. As ever, a superb and challenging blog. Thank you! It’s made me really look at my current WIP. There’s a huge amount going on, although there aren’t that many characters. And, as you so accurately prophesied, there is little (if any) conflict between the characters apart from the main character having personal conflicts with her own belief system. Your email came in just at a point where I was wondering if things were a little tame in some areas of my novel (editing the first draft and finding it illuminating, to say the least) and now I’m wondering whether I should finish this edit with things as they are or try and bring further dynamics into certain relationships now, before I go any further. Well, it’s certainly given me food for thought and, as I firmly believe everything happens for a reason, I believe your post came in then to help me re-evaluate. Urgh… more pain! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Regarding whether to stop and incorporate this aspect of conflict into your current rewrite: I would say that depends on how in-depth you feel these new revisions are going to be. If you think they’d end up drastically changing the book, then I’d stop and work on these edits now, before progressing any farther with the book as it is. No sense wasting time editing chapters that are going to end up being majorly different.

  4. This is an Achilles heel of mine. In just about all of my early stuff, it would be happy-happy-happy, at least with the “good guys.” They’d never fight. It was fun to write, because, after all, these people were happy so it made me happy to write about it; but now I’m trying to remedy that. I think I was afraid that to have the “good guys” and friends fighting or what have you, would turn readers away, but I’ve learned that that’s not the case, by a long shot!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually find the interpersonal conflict among *allies* to be some of the most interesting and character-developing conflict to write, if only because this kind of conflict is usually much more complex and personal than the “vs. the bad guy” kind of conflict.

  5. Love your Anne of Green Gables references! 🙂

    While the chief conflict in my WIP is the protagonist vs. herself, there is also a lot of interpersonal conflict, which increases the internal conflict because she feels it is all her fault. This was a good reminder to try to keep the conflict in every scene.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • I didn’t pick up on the Anne of Green Gables references until I read your comment! How awesome!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, you caught that, did you? 😉

      The more layers of conflict we have going on, the more interesting things automatically get.

      • Ironically, though I enjoyed the Anne books, I recall parts that are definitely “happy people in happy land.” Of course, the first time I read Anne of Green Gables I had the flu, so I didn’t really mind…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Of course, Anne’s own writings went in completely the opposite direction to end up as hopeless melodrama. :p

          • Anne of Green Gables was famous (or infamous) from the first day of publication (1908) as the “Glad Girl”. It was never quite clear whether the moniker was a joke. But, as I recall, the book was classified as a children’s story, and it gave young people all over the English-speaking world a valuable lesson in optimism, and in looking for the best rather than the worst in life.
            And I wouldn’t mind that level of popularity for my novels !!!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Wasn’t that Pollyanna?

          • Yes, it just shows that the key to success is not writing the perfect book, but a good book.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Truth. The passion in a story counts far more than its technical perfection (which isn’t, of course, to say the latter isn’t important).

  6. Ah YES, this is exactly what’s wrong with the chapter I was struggling with all yesterday. I start with my MC being a little worried, but then she warms up to the other character by the end with no clear moment of resolution. So your post is perfect timing — thank you!

    Although come to think of it, it might have been perfect timing no matter which chapter I was working on. Hm. Note to self: go back and re-evaluate all previous chapters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Paying attention to proper scene structure is incredibly helpful in figuring out if your scenes have enough conflict–and exactly where they’ve gone wrong if they don’t. Take a look at your character’s scene goal, and then make sure that you have something getting in the way of that goal and either obstructing the character’s ability to accomplish it or at least complicating the outcome.

  7. Definitely a golden rule of writing–especially for when we’re in the middle of a story (or a scene) and unsure *which* things to include.

    I like to think of conflict and pace in terms of a moving car. If the road is clear, the car just zips forward with no reason to slow down, and likewise a time like that only takes a few lines (or none at all) to cover in a story. It’s when there’s an obstacle–or if not yet, the driver’s still worried about an obstacle ahead–that it slows down. And gets worth writing about.

    “Add a speed bump, or speed on by.”

    • That’s a really good way to think about it!

    • I love this metaphor, too! Really helpful advice — the characters aren’t necessarily going to be dealing with relentless conflict and action, but the lulls don’t need many words.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great way to look at it! Conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle. But I really like this metaphor, since it also provides a guideline for what to dramatize in a story and what not to. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I totally agree. I read a novel recently that was supposed to have a romantic subplot. But the way it was presented, the two characters met, were immediately attracted to each other, went on a few very nice dates and had a good time, and didn’t have any significant problems until near the end of the story. The problem they had then seemed contrived, with the woman jumping to an obviously irrational conclusion that was easily cleared up. Needless to say, this didn’t make for a satisfying romantic story.

    On the other hand, I am even more annoyed when a romantic story has the two characters acting like children just for the sake of conflict. Conflict is important to make it a story and not just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but I think it’s just as important to dig deeper and come up with legitimate conflicts between mature adults, and not rely on characters overreacting or failing to clear up misunderstandings that should be easily solved.

    And of course all of this applies outside of romantic plots and subplots, but that’s the example I had in mind…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. In fact I wrote a post about this very thing: “The Most Annoying Type of Story Conflict.” We need conflict in our stories, but we never want conflict just for the sake of conflict. The conflict has to be the result of an obstacle that is directly interfering with the protagonist’s scene goal (which has to be somehow directly related to his pursuit of his story goal).

      Just as important, the character needs to be pursuing that goal in a logical way (or have a logical reason within the story for *not* pursuing it logically). Whenever authors have their characters doing things the hard way *just* to create conflict, readers are always going to see right through that.

  9. I love slapping the FedEx guy! Slap em’ again for good measure will ya? I enjoyed that better than the revised portion. A good slap goes a long ways. But I know it’s not always going to be a physical confrontation.

    NOBODY lives in happy land. Life is boiling with conflict. It’s everywhere. There’s internal and external conflict. This reminds me of a movie I saw with Will Smith as a superhero. Most of the first half was him battling his inner demons, which he didn’t even realize come to think of it. He didn’t like himself nor did the crowds didn’t like him. His internal conflict totally affected his behavior and everyone around him. Until he met the impact character that helped him change.

    My brother and I had PLENTY of conflict between us. It started verbally which usually progressed to some form of physical confrontation. Him pummeling me basically. Even though I was stronger and bigger than him, I couldn’t or wouldn’t lay a hand on him. I wanted to pummel him but felt much too guilty.

    Thanks for the post. I think I’ll have a blast with it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Nobody lives in happy land.” That’s exactly why I think it’s tempting sometimes to let our characters live there. It’s a vicarious escape from our own problems. But the great thing about conflict is that it is also satisfying, in letting us vicariously *work through* our problems.

  10. To be honest, I don’t know that I can see it clearly. I worry that I’m too close. I know in my heart of hearts where characters have conflict, and what their backstory is and the secret bits and bobs in there, but am I getting that out on the page?

    I’m only a few chapters from the end of the first draft, I expect this will be something I look to polish on a review.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just do you best in the first draft–and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s hard to have any objectivity until you’ve gained some distance during revisions.

      • Thanks for the advice!

        As I approach the end of the first draft I find I’m increasingly nervous, as if my inner writer fears my inner editor (they HAVE been warring these past few months).

        It’s a gift to hear from someone who’s been there done that

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The trick is training your inner editor. He’s really your friend–just there to try to make you a better writer! As long as you don’t let him get carried away to the point he starts bashing your writing to no productive end, he deserves a front row seat right up there next to your muse.

  11. Christine says:

    So, I have the conflict. My two main characters are very angry at each other. My problem is that my guy character is heartbroken because the woman he loves just banished him. I am having trouble writing from his perspective. Any suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The trick is to get deeply inside his skin. Imagine how you would feel in his position and go from there. Free write conversations between you and him, if you have to, figuring out the heart of his motives.

  12. There is a more insidious form of “happy people in a happy land” that can hide in plain sight and is much more common, and that’s the Mary Sue. On the surface, the Mary Sue appears to live in a very unhappy land: there are all sorts of problems arrayed against her and lots of unhappy people doing unhappy things or having unhappy things done to them. Perhaps the Mary Sue appears unhappy as well: it’s tough when you have dichromatic eyes and a white streak in your hair you can’t dye out, because people think you’re weird.

    Yet, despite all that, everything winds up breaking the Mary Sue’s way. Despite the fact that she’s pursued by a dozen intelligence agencies from every major power across the world, she’s always a dozen steps ahead. Despite the fact that she’s forced into hand-to-hand combat with men five times stronger and faster and better trained, she’s five times strongerer and fasterer and betterer trained and never in any danger. Despite the fact that she’s trapped in the unescapable prison, she is the key. Despite the fact that she’s a social outcast, handsome, smart, and athletic men fall for her at every opportunity and would gladly sacrifice their lives for her after the first seconds upon meeting her.

    In short, all the perceived conflict of the story is an illusion. You are left with a whole world the exists to elevate the Mary Sue, not stop her. And what more happy a world can there be than that?

    • JSchuler, this is the very reason I find the ‘Mission Impossible’ movies boring. It doesn’t matter what impossible situation Tom Cruise… oops, what’s his name? falls into (hanging out of an aircraft ????), we know it is only to demonstrate how impossibly brave and competent he is. Will he ever die? Probably not until maybe the twentieth movie when he dies of old age.
      Which proves the exception to the ‘rule’ of Mary Sue. People apparently love Ethan Hunt unconditionally.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Great thoughts, guys! I totally agree. This is where we circle back to the necessity of consequences. Everything the protagonist does in a story must come back at him with a realistic balance of pros and cons.

  13. I think we should work to make our feedback more dramatic:

    “This post sucked. Worst advice ever.”

    It might spice things up a bit and show our ability to create some drama. I suppose it might be better than Happy Land feedback that is effusive and appreciative. 😉

    Thanks for your work, K.M.

  14. Aarrgh. Yes, Pollyanna, not Anne…………..

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      But, in truth, Pollyanna and Anne would probably have been good friends! 😉

      • Pollyanna, published in 1913 – same period as Anne of Green Gables. Long before W Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are only three rules for writing good fiction. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

  15. Actually… I never had this problem.

    I guess because my stories are always sparked by a nice, juicy, raw conflict. 😄 Happyland is usually what happens when I was lazy develping character arcs. 😅

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, whenever I start writing “happy land” characters, I usually bore myself to tears. :p

  16. Having everyone happy and helpful to my main character was a big problem in my first story. Had to totally revamp the manuscript to make sure (nearly) everyone was upset with him. Made the story much more exciting.

  17. As I was reading this, I was running my WIP through my mind. I came up with some conflict that should be in the story. After all, it is an action story with other genres mixed in. But even as I was rewriting it for the first time, I felt it need something more. Then it dawned on me. It needs more conflict!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This raises another good point: action, although usually born of conflict, isn’t necessarily going to always be conflict, in and of itself. Remember, conflict is always the result of an obstacle between the character and his scene goal.

  18. Janosch H. says:

    I actually don’t fully agree with this post. When reading books, I’m a fan of subtlety and personal conflict as well as quiet scenes. As such, I usually appreciate it if not every scene has an open conflict. I think the most powerful scenes can be ones that don’t have any conflict at all between the characters, but which carry a undercurrent of the internal struggle of one of the characters (Kind of “unhappy character in happy land”). This kind of scenes are, in my opinion, great for both characterisation and to give the reader room to breath and take their time to think (and they carry an interesting sense of dichtonomy). Then again, I’ve been told often enough by others that they did not care for my favorite books because “nothing happened”, so I think it’s a matter of personal preference.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t disagree with this at all. However, it’s important to realize that subtlety is in no way at odds with conflict. A lot of writers get hung up on the idea that conflict has to be an in-your-face argument. But in the context of a scene, conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his scene goal. As such, it can manifest in countless different ways and with different intensity levels. You can have entire scenes in which there is no outright conflict, but in which the subtext is providing that necessary goal obstacle.

  19. When I was a kid, I hated reading books where people suffered. Even minor issues made me cringe. I always swore I could never be a writer because I’d never be able to hurt my characters and I’d only ever write boring happy tales!!

    Fast forward to the present, at 23, I’m practically cackling gleefully as I kill off my characters and outline painful pasts for them. Progress of a sort, I suppose!

  20. You had me with the FedEx guy 🙂

  21. It’s hard sometimes because you like your characters. I find myself holding back because Clara is such a nice girl you don’t want her to fall over a cliff.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48: No Conflict Between Characters K M WEILAND HELPING WRITER&#821… […]

  2. […] a viewpoint character, James M. Jackson tells how to deepen character, K.M. Weiland corrects the common writing mistake of having no conflict between characters, and Christopher Kokoski explains what to do when an unlikely character takes over your […]

  3. […] Most common writing mistakes, part 48: No conflict between characters. K.M. Weiland. Helping writers become authors. Then, she helps us figure out which scenes to include in act one. […]

  4. […] lack of conflict in stories is a common error among beginning writers. A writer will often painstakingly develop a setting and characters and then produce a story that […]

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