The curse of a vivid imagination is that you can almost always imagine something that would make the situation worse. Strange noise in the middle of the night? Zombie apocalypse. Hacking cough and sniffle? No doubt the beginning of Ebola. It makes life anxious, but it’s great for writing fiction, and it’s even better for trying to amplify conflict.
With every book and every scene I ask myself “what would make this worse?” If a character is going to discover that she has been betrayed, who is the person that she will be most hurt by? How can she discover this in the worst possible way, or at the worst possible time? What can the person say that would make this news feel even worse? Imagine a man telling his fiancé that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony. Maybe it’s even worse, he’s in love with her maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man.
Most fiction suffers from not enough conflict, not too much. One way to boost conflict in your writing is to take common conflict resolution techniques and turn them upside down.
1. Pick the Right Atmosphere: In real life you want to choose the right environment to have a difficult conversation. You want to choose a place where the individual won’t feel defensive, trapped or uncomfortable, choose the opposite for fiction.
· Where is the worst place for the conflict to happen for your character?
· When is the worst time for that conflict to happen? Who is there to see it or be a part of it?
2. Address Issues Promptly and Clearly: While it is better for your relationships to address problem areas before they build up, in fiction a pressure build up is preferred.
· Is there a way to show your characters stewing about something before they blow?
· What are characters fighting about? Is it the real conflict? Is it that someone didn’t pick up his socks, or is it about feeling he treats you like a maid?
3. Listen and Maintain Emotional Control: Instead of listening and reflecting on what is said, allow your characters to lash out as soon as they disagree with a point, even if the point hasn’t been fully expressed. Because they are already formulating a response instead of listening, they increase the chance that they misunderstand what the other person is trying to say. Romantic comedies are often all about misunderstandings.
· What do your characters say versus what does the other character actually hear? If someone says “Are you going to wear that?” Does the character hear: “You look awful.”
4. Avoid Accusations: Fiction should follow the opposite behavior. Characters should use “you statements” not “I statements.” You statements put people on the defensive, such as, “you always do this!” I statements are personal and less accusatory, “I feel hurt when this happens.”
· What meaning does your character put onto events? Instead of: “You don’t spend enough time with me,” choose: “You don’t even like to be around me.”
5. Create win-win situations: In real conflict resolution situations we try to search out areas of common ground, in fiction make the characters believe they will either win or lose.
· What does your character believe they will lose if they don’t win this conflict?
· Is there a way your character can want two opposite things at the same time? They want to be in a committed relationship and they want to have total independence.
Readers aren’t interested in happy people leading content lives. Readers read for conflict. To see characters in difficult situations who either triumph (or don’t) over those conflicts. Would anyone find Gone with Wind interesting if Scarlet had to handle a patch of bad weather instead of the Civil War? Scarlett has to cope with death of her parents, a sister, her first two husbands, her daughter, Melanie, and the Old South. She faces down betrayal, hunger, sickness, and unrequited love. About the only thing Scarlett doesn’t have to deal with is zombies – and who knows, those might have been in the first draft.
When in doubt, go big. Add a zombie, have someone have a life threatening illness, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time. Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it.
Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in six different languages and optioned for film. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her latest YA release, Unraveling Isobel came out in Jan 2012 and she recently self published a romantic comedy, Do or Di, as an ebook.
You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at www.eileencook.com. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.
Isobel’s life is falling apart. Her mom just married some guy she met on the internet only three months before, and is moving them to his sprawling, gothic mansion off the coast of nowhere. Goodbye, best friend. Goodbye, social life. Hello, icky new stepfather, crunchy granola town, and unbelievably good-looking, officially off-limits stepbrother.
But on her first night in her new home, Isobel starts to fear that it isn’t only her life that’s unraveling—her sanity might be giving way too. Because either Isobel is losing her mind, just like her artist father did before her, or she’s seeing ghosts. Either way, Isobel’s fast on her way to being the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons.