Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Importance of Conflict in Novels

I wrote a review of Elizabeth Berg's novel The Last Time I Saw You. After reading the review, my friend Peg Case commented, "Good grief -- can't a book be written about people who are happily married?" (See the review here: The Last Time I Saw You.)

Peg's comment reminded me of something Bonnie Hearn Hill said to me when I took one of her writing classes. I don't remember the exact words, but it was how I needed more conflict in my writing. She said I was probably a nice guy who didn't like conflict, but I needed it in my writing to hold the reader's interest.

She was right about me. I don't like conflict and have avoided it all my life. But I wanted to write a book people would read so I started studying conflict and looking for ways to include it in my manuscript. Since I was writing a story about two people who get back together after thirty years and fall in love all over again, I had two protagonists and no antagonist in the story. No villain. No one to stir up trouble.

I added a character who was mean and let her get in the way of the progress of the main characters in the book. For more conflict, I made her meaner. I think you'll like the way it turned out. But, still there wasn't enough conflict.

One day I saw something on All My Children, a soap opera my wife never missed, and I couldn't avoid without leaving the house. On this day, I saw what Bonnie had been telling me about conflict. On the show, two characters could argue about something until one was convinced the other was right and then the other would wonder why and change positions so they could continue the fight. Evidently TV viewers and readers like this.

There is a scene in Where Love Once Lived between the female protagonist, Karen, and her best friend Cathy where this happens. Cathy is trying to convince Karen to tell Brian, the male protagonist, about what happened in Karen's past. Karen disagrees at first, they argue about it, and then Karen agrees. Cathy then decides Karen shouldn't tell him. It sounds silly describing it here, but I think it works in the story.

There are other ways to build tension in a story, but a certain amount of conflict keeps the pages turning.

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