Thursday, September 13, 2012

gas in the trunk: why your conflict isn’t working (and how to fix it)

 One of the most cited reasons agents and editors give for declining manuscripts is “there wasn’t enough conflict” or “the stakes weren’t high enough.” For this reason, writers have learned to pile on conflict—checking for internal and external tensions in every scene, giving each character a backstory wound, defining clear and compelling story goals, etc.

But while these strategies can and do lead to stronger story telling, they can also backfire in confusing ways. Over the past six months, the freelance editor version of myself has noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.

“What’s going on here?” I found myself thinking again and again. “There’s so much drama, but I don’t give a tinker’s damn.” (No damns at all! Not a one!)

It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It’s like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it’s not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it’s in the tank—and conflict sort of works the same way.

Here are some of the weird places writers mistakenly stash their story’s fuel.

1. Conflict pertains to every character EXCEPT the main character

One thing I’ve seen a lot of lately are outlines that look like this:

Bonnie McPhee is a thirty-year old osteopath whose life has just hit a wall. Her boyfriend’s sister is facing life in prison, her parents’ house just got foreclosed on, and her neighbor’s son got diagnosed with leukemia. Then she makes a startling discovery about her great-grandfather’s past.

This story has so much drama—prison! deadly diseases! financial crises! dark family secrets!—but the protagonist’s role in them is unclear. Where’s Bonnie in all this? What does she stand to gain or lose? Why do we care that she resolves a dark secret from her great-grandfather’s past? What about her?

Obviously, it is possible to craft a great novel in which the protagonist’s friends and family are embroiled in crises—maybe the whole point is to show your MC’s journey from being a doormat with no life of her own to refusing to let other people’s drama dominate her existence. But if that’s the case, you have to really show that journey and develop it just as much as you’ve developed the other crises; in other words, make it into a conflict.

2. Conflict is MC’s, but does not relate to overall story goal

Another common place where conflict tends to drift off course is in a novel’s subplots. Here’s an example:

Joe Kerp wants to be the first blind person in space, and is taking exhausting astronaut training sessions in his spare time. Along the way, his house gets broken into by a neighborhood thug, his mean coworker tries to get him fired, his girlfriend runs off with his best friend, and a freak snowstorm kills his prized plum trees.

Yes, our protagonist is subject to many trials, but they feel random and episodic—nothing connects to anything else. Because the conflicts don’t connect to the larger story, the scope of their impact is very limited: you get a string of minor setbacks, none of which have any game-changing effect on Joe’s goal of becoming an astronaut.

Now, if the neighborhood thug stole his top-secret astronaut files, and his girlfriend proceeds to run off with said neighborhood thug, and it turns out Joe is the center of an international space conspiracy, that’s a different story. In general, conflict works better when it is tightly to connected to the internal and/or external story goals.

3. Backstory wound does not relate to story present

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If your novel contains a zillion flashbacks to the day your protagonist’s little brother drowned in a swimming pool while your protagonist stood by, helpless, you’d better make sure that themes of guilt and helplessness come up in the present story’s conflicts, whatever those conflicts may be. Otherwise, all those flashbacks are going to fall into the category of drama for the sake of drama—which does not make for compelling storytelling.

Now, two more quick/self-explanatory ones:

4. Conflict fails to escalate or develop

You’d be amazed how many ostensibly high-stakes novel outlines look like this:

Ch. 1 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 23 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 49 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 50 Bomb resolved! The End!

Sure, you can have a bomb on your cruise ship for the entire novel—but no matter how big the bomb is, you still need to find a way to raise the stakes. Maybe the only way to defuse the bomb is to throw all children under age ten overboard. Or to dump oil on the last remaining coral reef. Or…

Keep things moving. No conflict is “too big” to stagnate.

5. New conflicts are piled on instead of developing existing ones

You know how annoying it is when, instead of picking one movie on Netflix, somebody makes you watch the first ten minutes of fifteen different movies while they make up their minds? And just when you’re getting interested in one movie, they pull the plug on it and switch to a different one, and then a different one after that? So many manuscripts read like this:

Ch. 1: There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 2: Phone call from protagonist’s mother. Bank is reposessing the house!

Ch. 3: Protagonist discovers dark secret from great-grandfather’s past!

Ch. 4: Also, the ship’s captain and crew are all strung out on heroin, and protagonist is a former addict!

Ch. 5: Also, dead whales are floating up beside the ship—why?!?

Readers get tired of investing emotionally in plotlines that repeatedly get yanked out from under their feet. If you choose to put a certain conflict in your novel, commit to it.


I feel the need to mention that any one of these so-called conflict “problems” could work fabulously as conscious, well-executed artistic decisions or constraints. I could imagine an incredible, Waiting for Godot-style bomb-on-cruiseship story in which the conflict literally never escalates. Or a novel in the vein of Slacker in which there is no single conflict running through the entire story. My intention here is not to list “rules”, but rather observations on the most common failure modes in a certain type of manuscript.

Long story short: no matter how your novel is structured, make sure the gas is in the tank. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wasted energy…


  1. Thank you thank you! As I read this, I saw places in the book I'm querying right now where I now know I did it right! At least, I think it did it right. Sigh. Self-doubt never goes away, does it.

    Okay, but seriously, I thought of all the places the backstory wound comes back to haunt the MC in a very real way, the conflict relates to the MC, and the smaller conflicts all escalate the main plot conflict. And the overall conflict builds until it's freaking cataclysmic. You made my day with this post! It's the most reassuring thing I've read in a long time. Thank you!

  2. Duly noted (and tweeted), and what are your freelance rates anyway?

  3. so so so so helpful, so much to think about here. THANK YOU.

  4. also: that last example (#5) does sound a bit like Calvino's _If on a winter's night a traveler_ which is both a maddening and great, great book.

  5. Wow! My writers brain just went, "Oh!" Thank you, Hilary. You're ice cream sandwich is in the mail.