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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Building Conflict in Your Novel

This past year, I had the honor and privilege of serving as a judge in several different writing contests as well as the ACFW Genesis contest, and I’ve got to say that the manuscripts I had the pleasure of reading were impressive! The thought provoking ideas, the new voices, an unusual twist on an old theme—all of these excited me about the direction Christian Fiction is heading while reminding me how far we’ve come since the days of Catherine Marshall’s Christy or Janette Oake’s Love Comes Softly. But even in my excitement, I noticed a problem that ran through most of the manuscripts I read.

Little to no internal conflict.

I can only speak for myself but personally, I don’t like conflict in my daily life. The thought of working through a problem, agonizing over making the right choices, sometimes patterns that you’ve been living for a lifetime are, at least to me, EXHAUSTING. But in writing fiction, internal conflict is a necessary evil.

Why do we need internal conflict in our stories?

My husband claims that he fell in love with me one Sunday evening. I was asked to come forward and sing a request during evening service and as I made my way up the aisle closest to the wall, my stiletto got caught in the heating duct. With everyone in church watching, I pulled the duct out of the floor and placed it in a pew along with my other shoe then proceeded to the front of the church, laughing at myself. Dan said that in that moment, he knew that he wanted to spend his life with me because I could laugh at myself.

It’s a cute story but in reading it, it’s just that—cute. What if you knew the struggle going on inside me at this time? What if I had been trying to prove to this strapping young man that I was an elegant woman; that just speaking to him made me tongue tied, that I had already lost one boyfriend who thought I was too goofy and clumsy? Then it makes the whole episode seem like a horrible experience, something that would send me running from the sanctuary in embarrassment, thinking my klutziness had once again lost the man I loved.

Now it’s a story loaded with internal conflict!

Internal conflict usually comes from our hero/heroine’s deep desire for that elusive something they think they NEED in order to be happy. So how do you do that? How do you get your characters to spit out what their deep, dark needs are?

Get in Touch with Your Inner Two Year Old

The other night, Dan and I were sitting in a pizza parlor when this man comes in with this adorable little girl. Sunshiny blonde hair with the perfect button of a nose, she spent the next fifteen minutes, pointing her pink-tipped finger here and there, and asking the age old questions of every two year old on the planet.

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

When developing our characters, we need to ask the tough questions. While finding out what your character looks like or how they came to be in this place in their lives, the questions most readers are interested in having answered are the motivations behind the hero’s/heroines’ actions. As writers, we seem to run away from digging into these motivations and shying away from conflict. Is it because deep down, we hate the idea of conflict in our own lives so much, we can’t stand the thought of finding out the problems of our fictional characters, fearful they might mirror our own?

In my book, Hearts in Flight, Maggie Daniels is determined to do her patriotic duty and fly B-29s as part of the Women’s Army Service Pilots. Sounds like a great thing for her to do, doesn’t it? But when I dug deeper, I discovered her reasons were very personal and not nearly as noble as I had thought—that she was intent on proving herself to a family who never really believed in her. She was dealing with a respect problem and to a lesser degree, a pride problem that was keeping her from what could truly make her happy.

If you’re looking for more direction in this department, I recommend Laurie Schnebly’s Plot Via Motivation class. ( It is a phenomenal class, and one that changed my whole way of plotting conflict and helped me sell my first manuscript.

Don’t’ be afraid of throwing the kitchen sink at your characters.

The fun begins once you know what your character’s deep dark desire is. I call it the kitchen sink phase because this is where I look at my historical data I’m using as a setting and figure out what will cause my characters the most problems. This use of external conflict can rev up the internal conflict to the next level.

For example, the heroine/hero from my second World War II novel have two very different desires. My heroine, a 1st generation German American, is running away from a shameful secret—her parents are demanding she go to Germany to use her engineering skills for Hitler. So it didn’t take much to discover she seeks self-preservation, just to get through the war unnoticed, almost invisible. My hero is a reformed bad boy who found God in a POW camp and has returned home to prove to everyone that he’s not the man he used to be. By now, you’ve probably guessed that his deepest desire is to find acceptance from the family and friends he left behind.

So what kind of real life history would pump up the internal conflict in my fictional characters? When I started planning out this book, I found so much local history(a natural suspicion of outsiders and the fear of German spying, a hospital that only had four beds for black patients, a polio outbreak that shut down schools) that would challenge my hero/heroine’s long term desires, throwing the kitchen sink at them came easily. Use external problem to heighten your characters’ discomfort over their internal conflict/deepest desire.

Conflict (in a story) is your friend.

In closing, don’t run from injecting conflict in your stories. That’s what makes a reader pick up a book and read it—to see how a character works through a problem they themselves might be going through. Conflict makes your characters believable and compelling while giving hope to those of us who love to read fiction.

A romantic at heart, Patty Smith Hall is an award winning, multi-published author. Her stories of encouragement and hope can be found in Guideposts, Journey and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul. Her Genesis award winning manuscript, Hearts in Flight, was released by Love Inspired Historical in July, 2011. Her second book with Love Inspired Historical will be released July, 2012. Patty resides in Georgia along with Dan, her husband of 28 years.

Hearts in Flight blurb:

Serving her country as one of the Women's Army Special Pilots is Maggie Daniels's dearest wish. But there are obstacles to overcome above and beyond the enemies in the Pacific, including her overprotective family, skeptical fellow pilots—and handsome, distant squadron leader Wesley Hicks. Whatever it takes, Maggie will prove herself to Wesley, until she succeeds in winning his admiration…and love. Wesley can see that Maggie's a first-class pilot. She's also too fearless by half. The war has cost Wesley so much already. Can he let go of his guilt for a chance at happiness—and can he learn to trust in God…and Maggie…enough to believe in love for a lifetime?

Contact Patty HERE


  1. This is a FANTASTIC post, Patty.

  2. I love your thoughts on conflict Patty.
    I agree that we shy away from adding MORE problems to our characters. I catch myself saying things like this about my character under pressure:
    "Ok, this is where I quit and close the book."
    But when I am a reader I never put the book down if there is a lot going on for the characters.

    The second story I wrote was littered with conflict and I haven't sent it away yet, thinking it is too much.
    Can a story have too much conflict?

    I hope I find the right balance in my writing.

  3. I enjoyed this post and I'll probably read it a few more times. Thanks for writing it! I adore conflict in books. I think Tolkien summed it up in the Hobbit: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

    I just finished writing a little book about a bounty hunter ("retrieval agent") whose fiance was killed in a mugging the previous year. He's completely shut down emotionally and lives in isolation. Then he gets a job to visit a neighboring world and find a woman who has been a missing person for twelve years. The fun of the story is watching the hero slowly peek out of his shell and finally begin to heal. (And of course there's people trying to kill them both, and they wind up fleeing across this other world and having adventures.)

    I like conflict in stories.

  4. Oh, Patty, I too hate conflict and confrontation in my own life. I sure can give it to my characters though. In the one I just finished the internal conflict is deep for the hero and he wrestles with it until the very end.

    Thanks for a great post. Conflict is what drives our story forward.

  5. Jodi, when I read your post, all I could think of is the HBO show, Big Love. Now, I don't know if you ever watched--it is a bit out there--but the biggest problem I had with that show is it had WAY too much conflict! The viewer never got to take a breath of air before the next problem hit them with a bang!

    So yes, at least in my opinion, you can have too much of a good thing. But the good news is you're not afraid to put conflict in your story and so many writers seem to have that problem. Best advice I can give you is have a critique partner--someone you really trust--read it and give you their opinion on it.

  6. Wait a second....You judged my entry this year! That being said, it's something I still work on. When the plot naturally grows out of deep internal conflict, the book is soooo much easier to write :)


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