The Conflict Count

This question has come up a few times, so let me say it here: The prompts in Writing Magic and on this blog are yours to use. If the resulting fiction is published I want to hear about it so I can cheer along with you, and a print acknowledgement, if you can, is always appreciated.

On August 31, 2011, Lexa wrote, How much conflict is too much/not enough?

My story has one main conflict— Lana’s parents are killed and she finds out she has powers. The problem is nothing else ever happens.

This happens in all my novels— there is a huge, tragic conflict that I really enjoy writing, and then it’s all perfectly easy to fix it by using a spell, fighting the king, etc., after ___ pages. I find myself keeping on saying ‘Have Lana’s flashlight blink out. Make Brielle’s wings unusable. Make Demi too tired to fight’ and as a result, my story is a lot more interesting, but my reviewers say it’s “Laying it on a bit thick” and that it “Seems forced”. Please help!
I’m divining two questions here: how much conflict, and how to avoid making problems seem forced.

We find major and minor conflict in most stories . Let’s use my quest novel The Two Princesses of Bamarre as an example because it’s simple and there’s only one major conflict, finding a cure for the Gray Death.

Not that there can’t be more than one major conflict. In Little Women, for instance, there’s Jo’s relationship with Laurie, Beth’s health, the family’s poverty, the challenges that each sister presents to herself. That’s four, and I may have missed some; the result is that the book is somewhat episodic. Jo is the main main character but each of the others takes center stage sometimes. Maybe the single major conflict is a family’s struggle to bump along in the absence of the father, although that seems pretty loose.

In Beloved Elodie (I’m liking the name again), the major conflict shifts when the biggest problem gets resolved and another urgent one pops up.

If you’re writing humor, always the wild card, the sky may be the limit for major conflicts. You can toss in the downfall of civilization, lost love, dead siblings, drowned cats, a curse on green-eyed men, and the spontaneous combustion of cookbooks!

I don’t know how many major conflicts are too many in a non-humor novel, but I certainly wouldn’t want to need more than the fingers of one hand to count them. In fact, I’d worry if I went beyond three, Louisa May Alcott notwithstanding.

Returning to Two Princesses, I included many sub-conflicts: monsters, Addie’s timidity, the king’s uselessness, the developing romance with Rhys, even the equipment Addie takes along to help her. Each of these sub-conflicts themselves subdivide in various ways. There are four kinds of monsters –  dragons, specters, ogres, and gryphons – and each presents a different threat. Addie’s timidity and the king’s coldness and cowardice take different forms in different situations. Addie’s magical gear presents diverse problems too. The seven-league boots bring her perilously close to an ogre, and her magic spyglass eventually irritates the dragon Vollys.

Can you have disaster overload? Sure. Anything can go on too long. This may be sacrilege, but, in my opinion, The Lord of the Rings trilogy could do without a battle or two. Which leads to another potential pitfall: sameness. We want to vary the troubles. Lexa, I like the flashlight failure and the wings malfunction and the exhaustion, because each is different from the others. If I were reading I’d be off balance, not sure what to worry about next.

However, for your inventiveness to work you don’t want the crises to erupt out of the blue. The out-of-the-blue-ness may be why your readers say your stories seem forced. Set-up is crucial. Maybe not in the case of the flashlight, because flashlights are prone to give out, but for the wings and the tiredness, the reader should have been given a hint that the wings could stop working (I’m guessing these aren’t organic wings) and that Demi’s energy sometimes flags.

I love tucking in hints like this because I love fooling the reader. You want to suggest possible trouble while making the reader not pay attention at the same time. So, for example, fifty pages earlier when Brielle receives her wings from master wing-maker Yuri and he says, “They will not fail you,” Lana mutters, “Yuri’s pride goes before Brielle’s fall.” Then the two skip off to look at Yuri’s other amazing creations. The reader is lulled, but when the wings give out, he remembers. Along with alarm for Brielle he feels a zzzt! of pleasure when he makes the connection.

In Two Princesses I didn’t think about major and minor conflict. I never do. And Two Princesses was one of my books that was the most miserable to write. As I’ve said here and on my website, I was trying to write a novelized version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which has an entirely different conflict. I came to the Gray Death very gradually. Initially it was just the reason the princesses’ mother was dead. And I no longer remember how I arrived at the monsters.

The point is, you don’t need to think it all out ahead of time or plan out your conflict levels unless your mind works that way. Maybe just decide what you want your main character’s problem to be. Lexa, it’s great that that part comes so easily to you. Start writing or outlining, whichever you prefer; consider what obstacles you can throw at your main, imagine a few secondary characters with troubles of their own, and keep going. As for the hints ahead of time, you can go back and write them in, as I often do.

In the case of Lana, the death of her parents is probably permanent, and she’ll have to keep dealing with it. Your summary suggests some interesting questions: How did they die? Does Lana want revenge? Or does she want to save others or herself from suffering the same fate? Who else has powers? How are these other powerful characters using theirs? What powers?

Here are three prompts:

∙    Let’s set up a situation not so different from Lana’s. Josie’s best friend dies of suffocation, but whatever smothered her is gone. A week later another girl dies the same way. Meanwhile Josie finds that blushing enables her to teleport but only when she’s really embarrassed. She can’t fake it or squeeze her cheeks to make them red. Write Josie’s quest to discover what happened to the two victims. You can change either the cause of death or Josie’s strange power to suit your story needs. Build in at least three obstacles to Josie’s success.

∙    Take the funny road with the disaster deluge above. Write a story that involves the downfall of civilization, lost love, dead siblings, drowned cats, a curse on green-eyed men, and the spontaneous combustion of cookbooks! Handicap your main character with double vision, an inability to pronounce the letter t, and a fear of metal.

∙    The fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” is simple. After the last fairy ameliorates the awful gift of her predecessor, the conflict is over. The finger pricking is expected and the hedge is no obstacle for the prince. Dream up more conflict. Make the prince and princess earn that wake-up kiss.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This was really helpful – thanks. :). Some of my stories are simpler than others, but I'm the kind of person who likes complication, at least in my writing. For example, in my fantasy series, each book has 3 MCs, and each one has his or her own story, goals, fears amd trials . . . it can get complicated to tie them all up, although it's a challenge I love. I'll have to review this post when I feel like my story is getting too complicated.

    I know exactly what you mean about the fun of dropping hints – I love doing stuff like that. :).

    @Gail and writeforfun – by abstract, I mean . . . well, its hard to explain. A feeling, more than anything. A voice that doesnt give much detail, that's very much in the moment, focusing more on the thoughts and feelings of the MC and less on the surroundings. It has build up to important parts, but it's all emotional. It gives you a lighter, less solid feeling about the story. Kind of dreamy. I'm not sure if I'm explaining it right or not. I read a book kind of like that last summer – Bird, by Angela Johnson. That's kind of what I had in mind, but not exactly. I don't know . . . the voice feels right for my character. She's dreamy – that's what the story's about. I'm just not sure if that kind of voice would get too frustrating.

  2. I've never had this problem. I always lay it on too thin and give my characters the easiest way out of everything. I end up adding a lot of struggle when I revise because I'm just not creative enough during the first draft.

    Jenna Royal – I say give it a try. You may be right on with the voice, and you may not. You never know until you try! Then you can show it to other readers and see what they think. Once I read You Are a Dog by Terri Bain, which was a dog book written in second person POV. It was unusual, but it had an interesting effect which made it memorable.

  3. I find it refreshing when things don't happen perfectly. For example, once I had a character be taken hostage by the villain. The other character is holding a bow and arrow. He's never fired an arrow in his life. If he misses, the other character will die.
    He can't miss.
    He misses.
    They get away anyway, but you get the point.
    P.S. Lexa- Your story sounds awesome!

  4. @Gail, I loved your humorous story prompt. It reminded me of the Dare Machine at 🙂
    Also, if you don't mind me asking… why was the ending of the Princesses of Bamarre so sad? (It was, in my opinion.) I think all of your other juvenile books have a relatively "happy" ending.
    @capng, your story sounds so cool! Funny, at least. Even if it wasn't meant to be. XP

  5. I have a question, but it’ll take a little explaining (sorry it’s so long!) I’m from Indiana. I’ve read a tiny bit of “the Hoosier Schoolmaster,” which is supposedly written with Hoosier dialect, and it doesn’t seem all that abnormal to me. I’ve read other books, even modern ones, that are a little harder to understand because I’m not used to the expressions they use.
    I write my characters’ dialogue as though they’re ordinary people, so I use ordinary words, like “pretty big,” “you guys,” “gonna,” “anyhow,” ect., in their conversations even though they aren’t standard.
    The problem: Most of my characters aren’t from Indiana, or even the Midwest! Is any of that considered “dialect,” and am I using too much of it? I’ve never noticed if I talk any different from people anywhere else in the country, but I must, right? I want the dialogue to seem real, but I don’t want to be unclear. Should I stop using substandard expressions in their dialogue, or do you think there isn’t any difference? Or should I try to figure out what words are used in other areas of the country – and the world?

  6. Writeforfun,
    I live in the NY and I've never even been to the Midwest, but I use phrases like that all the time. I think it's fine to make your characters talk like that, you want them to seem real. On the the other hand you could always make your character's from the Midwest if your really worried.

  7. @writeforfun, even around the world people use terms like that. Now, however, if your novel was set in China in the 16th dynasty, you probably wouldn't hear someone say, "That's awesome!" But I think that anything goes, as long as it's realistic.
    @Gail– thanks!
    I have another question… it's really hard for me to get motivated and actually SIT DOWN and WRITE. Even if I have some great scenes that I want to write, I can't figure out the filler. ??

  8. Brianna and Agnes – Thanks; that makes me feel better!

    Gail – thank you! I can't wait!

    I think I'm just a little paranoid because I've never left the state, so I have to go on what other people say, and those I've talked to who have traveled always insist that we're very different from other areas of the country. And I remember reading a book series that was written by a British person, and I was baffled by some of the expressions he used.

  9. @ writeforfun – I'm from Texas and we use all those expressions too. But, we do have a few that are different. I started thinking about this when I wanted to write a character with a southern accent; I found it's very tricky to do! So one thing I've started doing is keeping a list of things we say that I think other don't. Things such as we say "fixin' to.." instead of "about to" as in "I'm fixin' to go to the store."

    Even if you have never gone out of the state, the fact that you read a lot (and likely watch tv!) probably means you have a pretty good idea of how people talk all over.

    If you want to write a dialect on purpose, one of the best tips I've heard on writing dialect is that it's not necessarily writing how the words are pronounced, but in the order your words are said. Writing a different spelling can be distracting, such as I just wrote "fixin'" instead of "fixing." You might consider using words like "gonna" for only one distinct character.

    @Gail – I have a couple of picture book sitting on my hard drive from writing prompts in "Writing Magic." Yes I *wish* they were published. That would probably require submitting them though. 🙂 I've never gotten them to the point that I felt they were ready for that (I focus more on novels), but I do have fun going in and tweaking them from time to time.

  10. I like it that you bring up Two Princesses, because I really enjoyed the way you wove conflict into such a complete, satisfying plot. I'm becoming more and more fond of the short story, because you can stick to your favorite aspects of an idea without trying to put in endless words you don't even care about just for the sake of making a novel out of two plot points.

  11. My daughter recently discovered your books in the English-language section of our local library and she's enjoying them so much she wanted to thank you for writing them, so we looked you up and landed here.

    Which is to say: Thank You! There's a spirited American girl in Japan who is absolutely *living* your adventures right now.

    (And imagine my delight when I found out your blog was so full of sound advice and fun writing prompts. I'll be following along!)

  12. @Gail– Um… "filler" as in the little stuff that happens between the monumental scenes, I guess. I've got a ton of ideas for big scenes that move the plot along, but obviously I can't jump from some guy threatening them in their house to her being shoved in a locker at school to jumping off a cliff. The one thing I have trouble with is the things that go in between, the sort-of mundane things that we don't think about but we have to make them interesting enough to keep the reader hooked.
    Does that clear it up?
    I never quite get how some authors can take normal school life and write an entire novel…

  13. I'm a diehard fan of your books, but I find some things in Ella Enchanted and Fairest that confuse me.

    In Ella Enchanted, it says Prince Charmont visits the Featherbed and talks to Aireda about Ella. Yet in Fairest, it is Prince Ijori that comes to the Featherbed, not Char. There is no conversation mentioned between the two. Also in Ella Enchanted, it mentions the mother and father, Ollo, Yarry, and Aridea, but no Aza. I understand if Aza really wasn't created at that point. Of course, she could have still been at the castle. 🙂
    Don't get me wrong, I have read most of your books and love every single one. Ella Enchanted and Fairest are brilliant books. Your Princess Tales are very appealing to me and A Tale of Two Castles is superb. You inspire me to write. I still have yet to send a book to a publisher, (actually I'm not done writing the first chapter) but someday I hope to see my books in print.
    All I have to say now is PLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE keep writing! Your books are AMAZING!!!!!!!

  14. Brianna–I've added your question to my list.

    Maddi–I've added yours too, for when I answer questions about my books, although in the case of yours, I may just have goofed, but I'll go back and try to figure it all out.

    • I goof a lot. You should see some of me stories. I wrote something for a Legend of Zelda thing and it was published with lot instead of lost, sees instead of seeing… it was a mess! 🙂

  15. writeforfun- those phrases are just fine for most places I think, as long as it's not too different- such as England or Australia (I lived in England and I'm American, so it was hard to get learn their language!). They use different terms, so if you have characters from there, I'd do some research, but otherwise, you'll be fine. 😉
    Brianna- One thing that I have learned by reading is that scenes linking important scenes are great places to develop characters- show how they act in small arguments (like figuring out what type of pizza to order), how they take surprises (she's dating HIM?!), etc. Hope this helps.

  16. Maddie – I read a blog recently about the myth that a "perfect" book exists. It doesn't. You will find at least small errors in most books. I was a text book editor for a while and I often couldn't believe what made it to 4th proof! Then the book prints and you still find errors. 🙂 But finding errors *between* books? That takes a really dedicated reader and is the highest compliment.

    Brianna – welliwalks had some good ideas on filler. You might also think about foreshadowing something that will be important to a bigger scene. Such as if say, Jim's car won't start when he is trying to get to the airport to catch his true love, then have him have trouble getting his car started one morning when he wants to go get donuts. That way the car trouble won't seem contrived.

  17. @Erin Edwards and welliwalks… thanks a lot, that will really help.
    @Gail… thanks!
    Another thing… (wow, lots of questions this week. Great post, by the way, Gail) in my novel, a very pivotal part is when my main character, Amelia, is going to commit suicide. This is really important because as she falls off the cliff (yes, she falls, she decides not to commit suicide after all) she finds the secret door to the underground lab, and… yeah. Do you think that's too dark for a juvenile fiction book? That's the audience I was shooting for. It's got nothing else in it (cussing, sex, other dark moments) that would make it a young adult book… and I don't think it could be as long, either. What do you think?
    Another thing… Gail (and anyone else), what is your view on 1st person present tense? I was reading The Running Dream by Wendelin van Draanen and realized it was written in present tense. Do you think this would be harder to write? I barely noticed it, but I would think it would be interesting to try noveling like that. I think that the only hard thing would be keeping it consistent.

  18. Brianna–I'm not sure. The contemplated suicide more than the secret lab may push it into young adult. But I'm not an expert on this. Anyone else have a thought? And I have a post coming up (eventually) on tense.

  19. Erin Edwards – fixin' to? I've never heard that before. I like it! Does everyone down south say that, or just Texans? And thanks for the advice!
    Carpelibris – what a neat link! I had no idea such a site existed!
    Welliewalks – Thanks! What kind of expressions do they use? Brits, I mean. I’ve got two of those.
    Brianna – I've never read anything in first person present before. Maybe you could give it a shot. If you don't like it, you could always switch over later.

  20. @ Brianna – I think the contemplated suicide would make it more young adult content. I don't know that I would have been allowed to read a book like that when I was younger – my mom didn't really want me reading stuff like that. That's just my two cents, though – I think the opinion would vary from person to person. Also, young adult books don't necessarily have to be super long (although they tend to be). I've ready some good short ones. :).

    @Brianna – I think 1st person present tense is cool! I agree, it's hard to keep consistent – I've written stories where I switch back and forth between past and present tense. It's weird when you catch yourself doing it.

    @Gail – I forgot to mention earlier, thank you for the permission to use the prompts! I'll be sure to let you know if something I write with them does get published. 🙂

  21. I guess so… I was planning on it being, she's contemplating it then decides not to, but then she's pushed/tripped off the edge of the cliff. The reason she's contemplating it is because her father has been abusing her. I guess that's another component that would label it YA. ??
    Thanks guys for your input!

  22. fantasyauthor says:

    I’m wondering how to create conflict and tension without it always being a life-or-death situation? I’m writing a fantasy story and I want to make it tense and slightly suspenseful without it always being a near-death experience, but I’m not entirely sure how.

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