When is conflict not a conflict?

In between partying at the RWA NQ Roadshow and finishing off the first draft of ‘Burning Lies’ I’ve been judging a few contest entries. One of the common issues I see is conflict that doesn’t last the distance. I’m finding conflict that could (and should) be easily resolved. The conflicts aren’t bone deep, soul deep, life-changing. For good tension in a story conflict needs to be all of the above.

So what’s not sustainable conflict? (With a little help from Zeus.)

Solved over a cuppa!

Conflict should not be something that could be resolved over a cup of tea. If it’s a squabble over a difference of opinions then it’s nothing more than that. There needs to be more depth. There needs to be a goal and a motivation that throws up a conflict.

Equally, conflict is not a tiff between friends, a lover’s spat, a misunderstanding. That would be a lack of communication and would lessen our hero and heroines appeal…

Make your conflict life-changing. Make it important to your characters. And when you think you’ve nailed it, ramp it up another level, increase the stakes, up the ante and make us care about how your characters will weather their conflict.

A spat between friends...


18 thoughts on “When is conflict not a conflict?

  1. Cathy, I think Tai Chi might be more appropriate to bring out the inner angel in Zeus.

    As Joanne commented elsewhere with Staffies it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog…

  2. Excellent point, Phillipa. Cause and effect. Fear is a large part of inner conflict for some characters. Morgan had a fear of repeating the patterns of her childhood so wasn’t prepared to risk anyone getting close emotionally hence disaster after disaster. Some characters have stronger external conflicts and in suspense novels that’s often what drives the story although you can almost guarantee there will still be some inner obstacle to resolve or overcome as well.

  3. good post. this is a subject close to my heart. I once read somewhere that if the conflict can be solved by a good talk, then it’s no good. But, often conflict CAN be solved by a good heart to hear. That’s not the point. The point is that so often men and women AVOID talking about the issue because…because…and ther’s the root of your conflict-because of fear of rejection, fear of looking weak, fear of having to face something they’d rather not face, fear of newfound intimacy…on and on in the fear department! Lily’s reluctance to challenge William about his infidelity in TFOD is about her fear of what he might say, that he may confirm her suspicions. So she doesn’t ask, she hides from it. So their problems could have been solved, had they talked, but they couldn’t face the consequences of having that talk. And I think many couple live for years with unspoken conflicts. So as an author you have to dig deeper into the personalities of your characters to understand why they won’t talk.

  4. Sarah, you ramped up the tension nicely yourself in those three emails 🙂

    If I get time today the ‘What Conflict Should Not Do’ post will be up. Next week, after I survive two simulator sessions in the hot seat, I’ll post my thoughts on layering conflict and how that works!!

    Now back to manuals, checklists and aircraft data….

  5. How odd, my Gravatar’s not loading. I wonder why not? I’ve posted on your blog before and I do have a Gravatar account — for 2 of my 3 main gmails (not for my other 3 mailboxes). Maybe it wasn’t kicking in for the Webbiegrrl Writer email addie…let’s see what happens (as Lois’s Emperor Gregor would say! 🙂

  6. OMG, I never get tired of looking at his face 🙂 I just love Zeus’s ears, the way the tips droop–and I am telling myself he’s one of those dogs who have ONE (and only one) that will stand up when he’s got a question in his head. *haha* I love how expressive a dog’s ears can be!

    But onto the subject of the blog. You know, of course, that as I read your cautionary remarks, I was doing a mental calculation of my current WIP and the main conflict between the main Hero and Heroine? So far, so good. There was one thing you said, however, that had me wondering if you’d elucidate so here I am to ask for more 🙂

    You said “when you think you’ve nailed it, ramp it up another level,” and this is a technique I use in plotting and planning story arcs, not just for building conflict. I got it years ago from Robert A. Heinlein and heard it reiterated well by Lois McMaster Bujold: “Ask yourself, What’s the worst thing I can do to this character? and then do it!” My biggest problem has been that I think of unresolveable conflicts *haha*

    What you’re saying sounds slightly different, though, so please, do say on. What precisely did you have in mind when you said to “ramp it up another level”?

  7. ‘Mentoring and support’? Cathy, that’s very funny.

    Under those terms Zeus and his teddy bear are merely being supportive of each other’s differences and any dispute would be ‘open and honest discussion leading the way forward to a reconciliation…’

  8. Well, according to the Government, Afghanistan is not a “conflict”, it is a “mentoring and support mission” 🙂

  9. Ah, the tension! My treasured hand-painted coffee cup and Zeus!

    He had to dwarf them and they are the smallest cup I own – very tea-partyish. He was sooo nervous around them. I had to set them down then slide him across to them because he kept backing away if I moved them towards him! He’s been well trained to avoid coffee mugs and wine glass when they are left on the floor next to some one tapping on a computer…

    Two more photos to come about what conflict should not be and then a post about what conflict should be – not that I’m trying to add tension or anything 🙂

  10. You put your Tanya Sarianti’s down in front of Zeus????? I’m shocked!! And how come I can’t see Shattered Sky or Wings of Fear on the bookshelf, hmm? (Which by the way is much too neat)

    I think that would have been one helluva workshop Helene 🙂 Brilliant idea – I hope you paid Zeus well. 🙂 Now are you going to give us some examples of conflict versus misunderstanding? And does the conflict have to be in the romance or can it be in other parts of their lives?

  11. Karly, he was very obliging – I think we should have put him on the stage 🙂

    These two photos are part of a series I took for my Conflict workshop at the RWA Roadshow. (I wanted some humour for the ‘what not to do’ section.)

    The conflict is so important in any story, but particularly in romance and it’s something I grappled with when I was starting writing. I hope my judging comments help clarify it for some of the new writers.

  12. LOL such a willing and wonderful model you have there Helene! I am picturing the goings on behind the shot and what you’re telling this poor animal as you’re taking the photo!!!
    But VERY valid comments about conflict!

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