Monday, July 21, 2014

Consequential Conflict

By Karen Albright Lin

Some of us walk around looking for a battle, but most of us try to avoid conflict.  We dread the “conversation” we have to have with our son who just got a full-face tattoo of a praying mantis eating its mate.  We refuse to challenge ourselves with the Class 4 rapids our first time in a raft.  We resist the urge to use a few choice words when the IRS threatens an audit.  We are cavemen doing whatever we can to avoid the cougar that will inevitably stalk and eat us.
Self-preservation is an instinct.  So it can be a challenge setting aside our reputation-preserving, risk averse, considerate and conscientious selves to create that most essential element of fiction—CONFLICT.

Conflict is about high stakes.  It’s not simply a disagreement about whether a shirt is gray-blue or blue-gray, unless the discussion is between a savvy cop and a color-blind murderer.  No ho hum disagreements please. 

True conflict requires consequences.  That’s not to say that all conflict has to be bigger than life—like an antagonist holding your hero over the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Sometimes the conflicts are quieter, yet just as devastating, as likely to thwart a plan or create an obstacle between a character and her goal.  The beautifully written Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, is a relationship book with neurotic baggage as obstacles.   

Conflict can be found in surprise, even sideways humor:  When Dawn met “Mr. Sexy", she had no idea that his first name was Chip and his last was Dale. 

Conflict can be fear:  Ben saw the clown’s face frozen in a scream as it floated in the shadows of the forest.

It can be self-contained like a trail of insecure thoughts:  I’d doubted, believed, doubted again; I’d dared to speak of what I shouldn’t have even known; I’d become my own Grim Reaper.

It can be a bitter divorce, the denial of a call to action, a guilty admission.  And yes, it can be a machete at the throat.

We can think of a book as a series of conflicts, some smaller ones resolved along the way and at least one building to a black moment when our character must face the choice between two bad alternatives, the ultimate test of his moral fortitude, a climax of inner conflict.  This need not be a life or death moment, but your hero’s choice needs to lead to life-altering consequences.  Ask yourself: how will my character’s life change depending on how she handles this particular conflict?  If you don’t have an answer to that question, you lack the power of consequence. 

Readers crave cause and effect that matters.  They love to see courage they can admire and enjoy books that put their own life challenges into perspective.  They return over and over to books that get the adrenalin pumping, the endorphins rushing, leading ultimately to the satisfying release of tension.  Our readers ride a chemical roller coaster on the waxing and waning of conflict, but only if it is consequential conflict.  

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at