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Writing Contest Prep: Words from a Judge on CONFLICT

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

As we know, there is no story without conflict. And for a reader to be interested enough to keep reading a story, that conflict must be introduced right from the beginning.

Of course, in a contest entry, you only get between 15 and 25 pages (if you’re lucky, I’ve judged some that only allowed three pages!), which is about how much attention an editor or agent will give a sample of your writing. So it’s vitally important to figure out how to get not just any conflict on your opening pages, but to figure out how to immediately draw your reader into the story conflict—the conflict that drives the plot of your novel—into the opening pages without giving too much of it away.

Here are a couple of questions from the score sheet from the ACFW Genesis contest about conflict, and a little explanation given to the judges about them:

Are character motivations powerful enough to create sufficient conflict?

    Consider what you are given about the main characters and if there is enough potential for good conflict. You may not see a character’s goal or motivation, but there should be enough hints to sense if this is building up to something big. If you can’t sense that, then you should deduct points. Sometimes writers will use external conflicts—disasters, threats, etc.—to hide a lack of internal conflict.

    But also be wary of all character motivations spelled out in the first chapter.

Is a potential for conflict established that is strong enough to move the story forward?

    Think of the previous question as being character-focused, and this question as being plot focused.

Suggested Reading:
The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman
Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble
Plot by Anson Dibell

Comments I’ve made on past entries:

Kurt Vonnegut said that he taught his students to have their character want something on the first page—even if it’s just a glass of water. It’s not interesting to read about someone who doesn’t want anything—who has no goals. The greater the desire, the more interesting the story.

Above, I said each scene should start out with a goal that is an important step in the character’s game plan—a small goal that gets them one step closer to attaining the main goal of the story and end with a “disaster.” It’s not a disaster in the truest sense of the word: a car accident, a stock-market crash wiping out the hero’s livelihood, a death, or whatever. It’s a disaster in that it puts our character further into the hole of narrative debt—a setback, a redirection. In other words, you’re starting the scene out with a question: can the character do/attain this? This is how you build CONFLICT.

To keep a reader hooked into the story, the answer at the end of the scene should be no. Or at least yes, BUT . . . or yes, IF . . . —if it’s a yes answer, it cannot be unconditional. The end of the scene has two primary jobs: to answer the scene question (preferably “NO!”) and to make the reader want to read the next scene to find out when the character will attain that goal.

Sometimes, you may have to work a scene backwards. If you know the disaster that needs to happen—because of what comes after it, because it sets up what happens—examine the disaster and determine what it is that the disaster is stopping the character from doing/attaining. But don’t forget that all of your “disasters” must also fit logically into the main “disaster” (climax) of the story.

      “Well-planned scenes end with disasters that tighten the noose around the lead character’s neck; they make things worse, not better; they eliminate hoped-for avenues of progress; they increase the lead character’s worry, sense of failure, and desperation—so that in all these ways, the main character in a novel of 400 pages will be in far worse shape by page 200 than he seemed to be at the outset” (Jack Bickham, Scene & Structure).

A good scene will end with the characters making “backwards” progress; it eliminates options for an easy answer or solution; it makes the walls start closing in; and it has an impact on later events.

But one caveat: don’t contrive a disaster just to create a cliffhanger—hooks should be unexpected, but they should also be realistic and logical for your plot, the world of your story, and the development of your characters. Make the lead-up to the disaster subtle enough that the reader is suspicious something’s going to go wrong, but not so that they can see it coming from a mile away.

Having read your synopsis, it comes across that really the only major conflict between the hero and heroine is that they don’t talk to each other, and that’s a very difficult sell to readers to sustain their interest and for them to want to keep reading. Try to find something other than just misunderstanding caused by lack of communication as your main conflict between these characters.


It’s hard to tell if there is going to be any conflict for this story to build on. Right now, all we’ve got is a bitter woman and a confused, naïve man from her past. Apparently she’s got to have some kind of surgery, but not even the reader knows what it is, so it’s probably not all that important. We know that there’s conflict from their past, but because so much time has been spent just camping out in her negative thoughts, there’s no indication of why the reader would want to continue reading to see if there’s going to be any way that these two people get together—at this point in time, if these were real people, I’d tell the hero to run for the hills and avoid any further interaction with this highly unstable woman. Right now, her motivation is anger/negativity/bitterness. The hero’s motivation is . . . not sure. Maybe confusion over why she’s angry with him.

If you rewrite this so that there’s much more action/interaction between characters (and possibly add a couple of other secondary characters), you’ll be building much more conflict and tension than by just camping out in the heroine’s and hero’s thoughts so much.


If I hadn’t had the synopsis to read, I probably would have scored conflict lower, as it’s somewhat unclear where the story is going just from reading the excerpt.


So far, I’m not really connecting with the conflict of the story, other than the she’s there and he doesn’t want her there; and she has something to hide. What’s unique about this story that will make it stand apart from all the other proposals crossing your dream agent’s desk?


Study published books’ opening chapters to see how conflicts are introduced in the opening pages.


This is one area where, even though the synopsis isn’t judged, it can affect the scoring. If I’d only had your fifteen pages to read, I probably would have ended up scoring these two elements as 2s rather than 3s. You’ve told me in your synopsis that there does seem to be a good amount of conflict to come; however, as I mentioned under STORY, you haven’t started in the correct place to show the reader that there is a high level of conflict to come between these two characters, no hint that it’s going to be more than just a clichéd historical forced-marriage romance. If you can find a way to start the story at a point where the conflict level is much higher, where one or both of the main story conflicts are beginning to be revealed, these scores would come way up.


Is a potential for conflict established that is strong enough to move the story forward? For the hero, yes, there is conflict established for a story for him. If the thrust of the plot is the “rich girl falls in love with poor boy despite societal conventions” (and despite his being spurned by a rich girl before) then I’m not sure that works as a strong enough conflict to drive a trade-length romance novel.


Other than the fact that it looks like this story is going to center around the heroine deciding between two men, I’m not sure what the conflict of this story is—where the plot is headed. In Beginnings, Middles & Ends, Nancy Kress writes:

      “Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since the function of stories is to make us both think and feel. . . . Thus, a romance promises to entertain and titillate us, to confirm our belief that ‘love can conquer all,’ and to transport us to a more glamorous world than this one, where the heroine (and by vicarious identification, the reader) is beautiful, well-dressed, and ultimately beloved. . . . As a writer, you must know what promise your story or novel makes. Your reader will know. She may buy your book because it belongs to a genre that promises certain things . . . or she may come to your story without preconceptions, in which case she’ll form them pretty quickly from your characters, tone, plot, and style. . . . By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised.”

Determine what the implicit promise of your story is and make sure that you’re expressing it from the first line of the story.


There’s more setup for the conflict/plot of this story to be about her becoming a caretaker for her mother if her mother has mental deficiencies after the surgery than there is for this to be a romance novel. Sure, she ran into an old flame and had a little bit of a flutter of regret, but that could happen to anyone—could even make her situation worse by having to live in the same town with her ex-fiancé to take care of her mother and witness the fact that he’s moved on with his life without her. Great conflict, just not necessarily the set-up for a romance.


I had to score this lower than I really wanted to. You have a strong conflict for the heroine—but it’s between her and her ex-boyfriend’s mother. Right now, there’s more potential for this to be a situation where the ex-boyfriend comes back and the story is about his trying to win her back again, not about her moving on with a new love. I see no conflict between the heroine and the hero at all—and that’s what makes a strong plot for a romance novel: the conflict that involves both the hero and heroine.


There is good conflict in this story, but I don’t see the romance element—especially since the hero/heroine are at a physical distance from each other and don’t actually interact except for over the phone.


Because so much of the conflict building is skipped over in the two-week gap in the action, it’s hard to know exactly what the conflict of your story is. If the only conflict in their relationship is that he’s a Christian and she’s not, it’s not going to be a strong enough conflict to sustain a plot. There is a hint that there would be a reason she wants to avoid the police, but the reason behind that is never shown to the reader (for example, you have her think about her “injured” shoulder—which at first I thought was hurt during the action of her scene, but then realized it must have been something that happened to her and the reason why she’s on the run).


I can see where there is conflict for your main character—financial problems and having to tutor someone she sees as privileged. But because she is an unlikable character, her conflicts really don’t matter to me as a reader. Make me like her, and then I’ll sympathize with her and root for her to overcome these obstacles.


I see it, I understand it, and I believe it. For all of them.


I feel the conflict building on every page—whether it’s internal, between the main character and his grandmother, or between him and the world-at-large. Good job.


I can see the immediate danger to the characters, but I can’t see what the ultimate conflict of the novel is. Make sure the main conflict (the Quest) is defined within the first chapter or two.


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