Thursday, December 9, 2010

Conflict/Action--The essential element to a good story

I was over at a writing website reading/critiquing someone's posted first chapter. Though there were several issues with the writing itself, the main problem that several people mentioned was that nothing really happens. Nothing to propel the reader with that feeling that you need to read on and find out what happens. This writer was very appreciative of the suggestions/edits I (and others) gave and then they went on to post chapter 3 (notice that chapter 2 was skipped...hmmm). In chapter 3, something finally happens; There's a gorgeous hot new guy at the school and it's big news for the students/girls who live on this island where there is only one high school.  However, there was still one thing missing:  CONFLICT. Several people had made this comment to this person's work and the writer thanked everyone for our feedback and was anxious to get back to doing re-writes (YAY!!! Good sign. Not someone who gives up after some tough but honest feedback). The writer then made this comment: Conflict is tricky. To which I responded: Conflict is not just tricky, it is ESSENTIAL.  And then my brain started trying to figure out an analogy of how to help someone understand why conflict is the driving force to a story. Here's what my brain came up with:

Imagine you just moved to a new neighborhood. There's a girl next door who is your age, but you go to different school. She invites you over. You're hanging out in her room. On her bed. Her mother calls her downstairs to help her with something and she says, "I'll be back in a bit." She leaves the room and sitting right there on the nightstand, next to the bed, is what appears to be her journal. You know it's sooooo wrong to read someone's journal, but think, hey, if it was so private, she'd have put it away or hidden it, right? This is a good, quick way to get to know your new friend. So you pick it up and begin to read from the beginning. And it goes something like this:

Tuesday, September 7th

School started. My teachers already gave us homework. I went to the mall with the girls after school. I didn't buy anything.

Wednesday, September 8th

I ate bran cereal with banana for breakfast. I almost missed the bus for school, but I made it. School was okay. I think I might try out for the math team this year.

Friday, September 9th

Yay. Friday already. There should be a rule that teachers are not allowed to give homework on the weekend.  Me and the girls made plans to go see a movie. That will be fun. I wonder what movie we'll choose?

Sunday, September 12th

Had a good weekend. The movie was funny. Ate popcorn and candy and balanced it off with a diet soda.  Today I helped mom clean the house and then she and I went grocery shopping.


Okay, so at this point, aren't you ready to put this diary down (if you haven't already) and think to yourself that you don't feel bad for prying into her private book, but what you do feel bad about is that this girl has the most boring life ever? You see that there are a million more entries, but this crap is BORING. Most people will put the book down at this point because you assume there is just more of the same. Unfortunately, if they had kept reading on, they would have eventually gotten to this:

Monday, December 11th

Gina totally humiliated me in the gym today. When the teacher wasn't looking, she ran up behind me and lifted my shirt. Everyone saw that I stuff my bra. Everyone laughed at me, especially the guys. I wanted to fucking die. How could she be so evil? How could she get pleasure from someone else's pain? I don't want to go back to school. EVER.

(Does she have your interest now?)

Tuesday, December 12th

I faked being sick today. I just couldn't handle facing everyone after what Gina did to me. Callie says that everyone was talking about it today at school, but a lot of people felt really bad for me and think Gina is a bitch. That made me feel a little better.

(Don't you want to know what's going to happen when she goes back to school? Are you bored anymore?)

Wednesday, December 15th

I went back to school today. It was horrible. People were laughing in my face and making all sorts of jokes. Someone filled my locker with toilet paper. I suspect it was Gina and her stupid bitch cronies, but I can't prove it and no one is saying anything. She and her friends were huddled and whispering something at their table during lunch. They kept looking over at me with these stupid grins on their faces. I feel like they are up to something and it's freaking me out.

Thrusday, December 14th

Gina has humiliated me for the last time!!! I fucking HATE that bitch and she is so going to pay. I know where Dad hides the key to the gun cabinet and where he keeps the bullets. That bitch is soooooo dead!

(Whoa! Does she got your attention now? Aren't you dying to know what happens next?)

This was an example to show why there needs to be some sort of conflict/action early on. If you don't get something going soon enough, then chances are someone will put the book down before they can ever get to it. There might be some exciting things to come, but if you don't grab your reader in a timely fashion, they'll never know. So why make them wait? It doesn't necessarily have to be the first chapter, but if you wait too long, chances are you'll lose them before you can pull them in. And if it's not in the first chapter, you better make sure there is SOMETHING that pulls them in whether it be a strong interesting voice, or the creation of a world that makes your reader want to explore more of. Something magnetic to hold them until they get to the WHOA stuff.


  1. I completely agree! You've outlined the need for conflict in a very neat way. We're conflict-lovers, all of us, and the safest place to experience it is probably in the pages of a book.
    -New follower :3

  2. Hey L.T. Thanks for commenting and for joining!

  3. Fabulous post!! Love your example. I too have seen this a lot, but not the post you were talking about since I haven't been on the forums lately. But I really get what you're saying. And, as you suggested in the last paragraph, it doesn't necessarily have to be the conflict that drives the reader to keep going, it just has to be INTERESTING!!! One of my favorite books (Catalyst by LHA) doesn't have much of anything going on in the way of conflict for the first few chapters, but the voice just keeps you going.

    And now I'm off to take care of my drippy nose. :(

  4. Another sandtrap for writers to aware of - the info dump after the big send off. In other words, the first chapter is fine and gets the reader hooked, but then the author leaves you hanging for the next 2 chapters as she/he fills you in on all the backstory that they THINK you need in order to understand what just happened. It'd be kind of analogous to reading your Dec. 11th and then backtracking to the first day of school.

  5. So true Angie. Great point! I do not enjoy that either. The set up of something coming with the abrupt halt while they shove blah blah blah who cares into you. Just show me what the hell happened!!!!

  6. I love this post! Your analogy rocked :D

  7. Great post and great point! And you're right, tension doesn't have to be some sort of super-confrontational conflict, either. I've definitely been pulled into a book by sexual tension more than once :)


Blog Design by Use Your Imagination Designs images from the End of Love kit by Lily Designs