Conflict with Mary’s Lamb

Asimov at 6 weeks
Asimov at 6 weeks

What is is that makes the reader keep turning pages?  What keeps the story interesting?

Just think of Jerry Springer.  We’ve all watched the show and thought, “Damn, those are some effed up people.”  But we keep watching–especially when the fights break out.

It’s all about the conflict, baby.

For example, do we really care that Mary had a little lamb?

But it’s a pretty lamb–white fleece.

Nope, sorry.  That’s boring.

Okay…  Well, it followed her to school one day, and that was against the rules.

Ahhhh…  Now it’s interesting.  Now there’s a conflict.  Now we want to know what’s gonna happen to Mary for breaking the rules.

Do you see my point?

Another example: Cinderella.  If she was just some pretty, poverty-stricken girl with a loving family, we wouldn’t care.  But, when that family is hideous and cruel, we suddenly want to know how Cinderella is going to overcome it.  Cinderella’s happiness is at stake.

Okay, so you’re probably saying, “Duh, that’s obvious,” but it’s not as straightforward as you might think.  I can guarantee you a lot of stories (many are my own) are missing this critical element.  And the main reason is that writing conflict, putting our main character (MC) through tough times, isn’t fun and isn’t easy.

We like our MC–usually, anyways.  If it’s your first story or book, your MC is usually just modeled after yourself, so it’s hard to put him/her through crappy things.  We want him/her to have that awesome flat in New York City or prince charming or the ability to scale a cliff, but if there isn’t anything bad going on in the MC’s life, then there isn’t a story.

Well, let’s add some conflict to that perfect MC’s life.  Let’s put something at stake and give him/her a reason to act.  It could be that his brother just died with a mysterious secret, his wife is cheating on him, she didn’t get that promotion at work, or her family has arranged an undesirable marriage with a snotty prince.  Now there are stakes, and now we want see how the MC will deal with it.  Will he/she be able to handle it or not?

Conflict, conflict, conflict.

There are different levels of conflict.  The main conflict is the plot. But each scene can have conflict too, tension.  In fact, you want each scene to be tense until the end when we have a resolution.  Yes, you can have scenes where you’re character takes a breather from the overall conflict (maybe the psycho killer isn’t in the house at that moment or the school bully isn’t at school that day), but you’d better make some other source of tension.  Perhaps internal?

Sweet.  Billy Bully isn’t at school today.  I’m not gonna go home with another black eye.  But, wait…  Why isn’t he here?  And, why, even though he’s gone, do I still feel compelled to keep my head down, to look over my shoulder, to….

Internal conflict.  Maybe even more interesting than external.  Why?  Because we can relate to it.  We can identify with it.  Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to be scared of a bully, but I do know what fear feels like, I do know what low self-esteem feels like, and I know how I deal with it.  Why I keep reading is because I want to know how the MC deals with it.

Example: Lolita.  I can in no way identify with Humbert Humbert’s desire for little girls, but I can identify with his inner turmoil and his overwhelming desire for something.  I want to know how it turns out–will he give into his desire for young Lolita?  Why does he keep doing it if he knows he’s wrong?  How will all his internal conflict be expressed as externally?

Do you understand?  I’m sure you do.  Here’s my suggestion for today:

Think about your favorite books/stories/myths.  What’s the conflict and why do you keep turning the pages?

Think about your own story.  What’s the overall conflict?  What’s the conflict in each scene?  Why would a reader want to keep turning the pages?

I’m out–I need to do this to my own manuscript.  Best of luck,


What I’m Listening To: Do You Wanna Date my Avatar by The Guild