I'm sure I've talked about conflict before, but I want to do it again. Why? Because I'm judging a couple of contests right now and the one thing that strikes me the most is the lack of conflict in these entries. Some are gorgeously written, with pretty words and lovely sentences (and proper punctuation, ha) that just make my grammarian side sigh happily.
But they've got no conflict, which makes my impatient and time-conscious side tap mental fingers against my brain and try to rush me through the pages. I'm BORED. And bored is not good when reading a story. You don't want to bore people because that is the kiss of death. If I'm bored, the agent or editor is probably going to be bored too.
How do you know if you've got conflict? Well, you can start by summarizing your central story question. I mean in one sentence too. Because if you can't do it, then you may have a problem. Example: a burned-out former detective is forced to take one last case when the woman he's never gotten over crashes back into his life with a killer on her tail.
Not the best example, maybe, but there is a hint of conflict there. This, btw, is for my novella that was published in serialized form in a local Hawaii magazine. What are the questions this sentence raises? How about: why's the detective burned out? Why didn't things work out with the woman? Who's trying to kill her and why? Will the detective succeed at saving her?
If you can't summarize your own story question in one sentence, then try it for your favorite novels. And then compare and see why you can't do it for your own. A woman from an unfeeling psychic race must confront the emotions she isn't supposed to have when she encounters a shapeshifter who claims she's his lifemate. (Nalini Singh's Slave to Sensation — fabulous book, btw! There is of course MUCH more to the book, but that's my attempt to show conflict by stating the story question in one sentence.).
A woman whose husband spontaneously time travels must try to build a life with him that's anything but normal as he unwillingly moves back and forth through time. (The Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger)
A man with a secret identity must try to save a trio of priceless vases, and capture a sadistic killer, if he's to have his criminal past wiped clean so he can be with the woman he loves. (French Twist – Roxanne St. Clair)
Maybe these sentences aren't how the authors would phrase it, but the point is that each sentence raises a question (or several) that makes the reader curious about the outcome. The entries I'm reading do none of that (actually, one did — you can bet that one scored high, even though it's not a storyline I'd normally purchase).
There are a lot of good writers out there. A lot of people who can string together lovely sentences that paint good pictures of settings. But if there's no oomph, no story, what's the point? A recitation of bland events, no matter how beautifully described, is not something that deserves to be published. The only thing getting you published is a great story question where the outcome remains in doubt until you resolve it for the reader (hopefully toward the end of the book and not in the first 50 pages). Believe me, it took me a long time to understand this concept. I used to worry about the words and the sentences much more than the what and why. Not anymore. Good writing is important, but good story is probably more so. Hone them both, figure out what conflict is, insert plenty of it into your story. Put your characters through hell. Don't be nice to them.
What's your story question? (In truth, in romance, you can probably write one for the hero and one for the heroine.) Are you being too nice?
Edited to add: check out this post over at Agent Kristin Nelson's blog. Apparently, the conflict thing was on her mind this week too. 🙂
Excellent post, Lynn. I’ve judged a few contests too, and found the same issues. Great prose, but the story lacked conflict.
Hey, Tanya. It’s frustrating, isn’t it, when you get great writing but still have to mark someone down because they don’t have any conflict? I feel so bad doing it. I want to see them face to face and explain myself because I can’t in good conscience give a high score even though the writing is pretty. I know they’re probably frustrated when they get their scores, too.