CONFLICT WEEK—Conflict for the Sake of Conflict

First let me make this clear: Don’t do this.

Don’t add conflict to your story solely for the sake of having conflict in your story.

***

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out, I’ll go into a bit more detail. I see this often in adult novels where it sometimes seems authors are trying to increase their word count. Every page. Every paragraph of every page. Every word. There is conflict. Conflict builds upon conflict. It’s everywhere. And sure, some of this may be gripping and keep you on the edge of your seat, but if every time your character gets in the car and needs to get somewhere in a hurry and there just happens to be a major traffic jam or a garbage truck has accidentally dumped in the middle of the street, that’s a problem.

The edge-of-your-seat stuff wears off, and you’re left with the reader doing plenty of eye rolling and cursing (well, at least this is what I do). And audiobooks are particularly horrible to listen to when they delve into this extraneous conflict. The things take long enough to listen to as it is.

So why should we, as writers, try to avoid it?

This conflict has nothing to do with the main story (unless of course the main character’s mother drove the garbage truck or caused the traffic jam—then it relates). But normally, it’s just a mechanism to keep the reader anxious. And too much is too much.

I’ve heard there should be conflict on page one. And that whatever conflict is seen in page one (and chapter one) should be indicative to the overall conflict of the story. It should be a hint to the reader of what they can expect. It should help ease the reader into the world. In short, it should be related.

So no matter where you are in your novel, I leave you with this fun jingle:

Avoid the traffic jam.
Or your conflict will be spam.

Okay how about this one:

Don’t suffer eye-rolling fate.
Conflict should relate.


pjhoover_casual1 PJ Hoover—who never claimed to be a poet :)

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “CONFLICT WEEK—Conflict for the Sake of Conflict

  1. Ha! Big smiles for your jingles. They should stick with me, which would be useful if I ever *gasp* resort to meaningless traffic jams.

  2. Great post, PJ –

    Donald Maass is a big proponent of including lots of tension as am I, but only as it relates to the story. Tension keeps things interesting over the long haul of a novel. Tension is way more compelling than a “tea scene” in which a couple of characters are sitting around a table drinking tea and chatting. Now if one of those characters has one hand on the tea cup and the other on a pistol under the table pointed at the other character because he or she knows the other character is a psychopath who is as likely to drink tea as eat brains, well then… you have tension.

    But like you say, tension or conflict for its own sake becomes really obvious, and makes you want to put the book down. If there is no reason for the protagonist to be sitting at a table with a psychopath, then why do it?

    You are so right on how apparent it becomes in an audio book. Actually, certain “not-so-great” writing becomes grating in an audio book. Unrealistic dialog. Conflict for conflict’s sake. Pandering to the reader.

  3. I was going to bring up D. Maas, too. Perhaps writers are misinterpreting his advice, or even that chestnut about putting hurdles between the MC and the MC’s goal. I would think that manuscripts with this problem might get the feedback that the conflict or story does not develop enough; certainly a weakness of a fair number of ms’s I see is that the story doesn’t develop (and is thus too episodic, one little hurdle after another instead of developing/rising action).

    That said, I’m not sure that I’ve noticed what you mean very often; “episodic” sticks out to me way more in work for young readers. Thanks for giving me something new to think about and pay attention to, PJ!

    • Okay, I’ll have to read that Donald Maas book I have on my shelf, Joni. That’s two votes for it.
      I notice this way more in adult fiction, Joni, particularly in the suspense novels that really try to make it big time.

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I am revising a manuscript and thinking it needs more conflict, but the conflict on page one really IS the main conflict I want to pursue. “Keep it relevant.” Thanks.

  5. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks for the great advice. I’m contemplating this now as I worry if there is enough conflict in the beginning of my manuscript. But like you say, I don’t want to create it for the sake of conflict that doesn’t pertain to plot. Love your last jingle.

  6. The jingles are great – and it’s awesome advice: The conflict has to matter.

    That said though, I remember one time when people were late getting to work because a truck with a load of chickens crashed and there were live chickens all over the road. Another time it was a truck load of toilet paper (I admit strange things happen in NJ). Either of those could at least draw a laugh with the conflict.

    • LOL on the chicken and toilet paper, Chris! I think something like this is fine as long as it’s not done too often and not done during the extreme climax. If during the climax, I think that is when it feels the most eye-rolling worthy.

  7. The conflict should be like a roller coaster. You appreciate the terrifying rise and sudden plummets because you know that at some point things are going to bottom out and calm down.

  8. SocialAnswers

    Interesting approach, but don’t you think that conflict is inevitably a part of growing? In protagonists as well as the story itself?

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