Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Conflict, Part 2 - When is it too much?

Working on: AA's for ODWTC
Listening to: Nada - dh working from home this morning
Reading: To Marry The Duke, Julianne MacLean

Today's post should be much shorter than yesterday's, or at least that's the hope. I did get a bit carried away. But I wanted to touch on Lacey's original question about how there can be too much conflict.

It's a bit of a tricky balance, to be honest. As you're writing you're always looking for, as Donald Maass puts it, "tension on every page". You need sustainable conflict. You need goals and motivations. If that's lacking, you have a flat, uninteresting book. Without strong conflict, the framework collapses and so does your story.

You would think after this much time, I would know this when I reached book 7 for Romance. But I fell into the trap. Most of you remember the struggle I had with my novella, and the conflict was a big part of the reason why. It didn't feel right as I was writing it, so I kept piling on the conflict. Something would happen and I'd need to know the why, so I'd throw in another issue. I didn't realize that was what I was doing at the time, of course, or I would have known better. As much as I hated doing 2 heavy sets of revisions on it, my editor was right. She saw what needed to be done and made me do it. Imagine my surprise when I got the copy edited text and read it through and could actually SEE the potential in it. I do think that come November, readers are in for a lovely, heartwarming, emotional Christmas story.

One of the consequences of having TOO MUCH conflict is that your book lacks cohesiveness. It lacks, as I said yesterday, that central leader, guiding it towards that fruitful ending. (I know, enough with the apple tree analogy, but it works.) Kate Walker did a brilliant post on conflict a while back and the title of it is something that is stuck in my mind for all time.

Keep it simple. Go deep.

My CP, who most of you know is Michelle Styles, also told me this once and again - in my brain forever and ever. Don't add conflict, add complication.

Once again - CORE CONFLICT. Keep your conflict simple, but don't skim the surface. Complicate it. Make things worse. Solve one problem but create another. But remember that conflict is your SUN. Everything revolves around it. You can't serve more than one god at this point.

So now I can hear your minds do we know when we're adding complications and not conflict?

Ask yourself if this is part of the same issue rather than a different issue altogether. Is it tied in or out of the blue? Do you know how I can tell if someone has gone really deep with conflict? When I get to the end of the book and I think, gosh, how did the author fill up all those pages? And yet I was never bored, always turning and turning. It was because the core conflict was strong and the complications drove it forward.

If I think about The Rancher's Runaway Princess, for example, the core conflict is this: Lucy doesn't disclose her true identity to Brody because she longs to feel at home at his Ranch and to be treated normally, not like a Princess. But when she starts having feelings for Brody she knows she should come clean, and if she does she knows that it will be over. Brody already doesn't completely trust her at the beginning but he too develops feelings, even though he's been burned by his exwife. And yet they need each other - she needs to broker this deal and he needs the alliance with her father. That's it. They need each other and if the truth comes out, it'll screw up everything. Not to mention hearts in the mix.

All the other things that happen - the tension, the development of the romance, those are all just complications of the main story idea. It is so strongly tied in with goals. Ask yourself what your characters want. Ask yourself what stands in their way and why. Then complicate the hell out of it.

I don't know how to explain it any better than the simple principle of Keep it Simple, Go Deep. If you want to do a litmus test of your conflict, write your blurb, or just try writing out your conflict. Not the complications, but what it REALLY is about. If I did this for Marriage at Circle M, for instance, it would read "Mike wants to rekindle a romance with Grace, but she's hiding a secret that will change everything." Everything else relates to that - before and after the secret is revealed.

You should know right away if you have too much.

I hope that helps, ask any questions and I'll answer and maybe have a lightbulb of my own.

***EDIT*** Michelle just e-mailed me with another great point and I have been caught in this one too. Make sure the conflict is in the now and not in the past. What happened in the past can complicate what is happening in the now, but it can't be the main conflict.

Keep it simple and keep it in the present.

This is especially true of shared past stories. The backstory always brings conflict to the table, but it is all about the NOW.


  1. This is so helpful, Donna. I love it when you talk about writing.

    Here's a story situation I once used. I'm posting it here as an example, just to see if I've got the right idea about what you're saying.

    The h has lost a husband and child, and is scared of the same thing happening again so refuses to start a new relationship

    She's forced (by the external plot) into the company of a clueless single dad struggling to organise his kids.)

    The core conflict would be her fear of letting a child and a new man into her life.

    Does this mean that if I'd written a scene where the H and h were arguing over childrearing methods that this scene isn't really relevant because this conflict isn't related to the core conflict? (Going off on a tangent?)

    Is this an example of adding too much unrelated conflict, or is it feasible that the H and h would clash over this issue and it belongs in the story?

  2. Sure they'd clash over this issue, and it is totally plausible because you can do so much with it. Why are they clashing? Is it her way of distancing herself from her feelings? If you can look at it and say, okay, what is this argument REALLY about, it's definitely a complication.

    If you add something completely different, it's conflict. I'll give an example. In my novella I had my core conflict, but then I also had a whole other level of conflict about the heroine feeling like she and the hero were from totally different worlds. That wasn't what the story was about. And in my editor's words: "by just focussing on the main conflicts each character has, and deeply exploring these, your story will feel stronger and more cohesive."

  3. Thanks Donna! Another great blog. More interesting and thought provoking advice which I will use (and NOT forget!) for the current and future wips! Take care. Caroline x

  4. "If you can look at it and say, okay, what is this argument REALLY about, it's definitely a complication."

    Thank you, Donna.

  5. Donna, thanks for taking the time to define and show examples of conflict and complications.

  6. Thank you Donna!
    Tha 'what is the arguement really about' helped show me how everything needs to relate back to that central conflict.

    Really interesting post.

  7. Gosh, great post, Donna! I wish I'd had this to read before I started subbing last year. Sigh. I'm writing Modern Heat and that's mainly internal conflict - such a difficult thing to get a handle on, at least it was for me.

    Anyway, I'm getting there and this certainly is an indication I'm on the right track!

  8. Ah ha!

    I think I'm going to have a close look at what's what now sometimes the whole thing makes me a bit cross eyed.

    Question: If the heroine is pregnant and becomes ill (flu etc) giving the hero a chance to look after her and perhaps demonstrate that he cares for her even if he does it through the book is it unnecessary conflict?

    Thanks again Donna!

  9. Really useful Donna, thanks. Funnily enough I was thinking yesterday about whether you could have too much conflict. Are there any conflicts that you think are too heavy for a romance novel or is it down to the execution?

    Thanks again,