What “Conflict” in Fiction Actually Is

We all know our stories need conflict, right? Too often, we think this means tossing more problems at our characters — or even torturing them. Not sure what to write next? Just kill off a few loved ones, have them get robbed, kidnapped, lose a limb, or maybe something subtle — like a flat tire or crazed clown attack.

But what actually propels a plot forward is not just problems, but CHOICES.

Your character’s story (hopefully) begins at a point where they can no longer ignore the problem at hand (also known as the tipping point). When your character takes action to try and solve their problem, whatever that action may be (even if it’s deliberate inaction or ignoring the problem), that’s a story. If they passively experience changes happening TO them with no cause-and-effect trajectory, that’s just a series of events in a row.

Your characters should begin trying to solve their problem by making choices — and at first, those choices should seem logical, but actually make the problem worse. This is the essence of heightening tension. Readers make this journey along with your main character. They fill with hope at every seemingly-logical choice your MC makes, then cringe at every failure, becoming more and more engaged in the outcome as the story progresses.

Simply throwing complications at them — like the aforementioned flat tires and lost limbs — are just events with nothing tying them together. See the difference?

This technique can also help solve the “soggy middle” problem that many novels suffer from. Is your second act dragging? Try having your MC make an active choice, show the consequences of that choice. However small the choice and consequence, this will increase the tension and improve pacing.

Your characters must make choices with consequences — that’s how you engage your readers and make them care about what happens next.

What choices might your character make that seem logical (to them) at first but will actually make their problem worse? How will your character learn from their choices? How will they finally arrive at a solution? How will the solution be different than the outcome they originally envisioned or thought they wanted?

Have you gotten feedback on your writing that was unhelpful, demoralizing, made you feel unworthy as a writer, or even caused you to quit writing?

I can promise you that it wasn’t about you or your writing, it was the insecurity of the person giving you feedback. The job of a writing professor, teacher, or coach is to nurture the impulse to write, not destroy it.

If this has happened you, with the subject “free consult” for a free 30-minute zoom call. We’ll talk about how I can nurture your confidence and help you see where you really shine. I’ll give you specific, actionable steps so you feel confident in knowing exactly how to improve your writing skills.

But however you decide to move forward, please keep writing! Your intuition, passion, love, and dedication to your craft is all that matters. Literally every other writing skill can be taught, so there’s no reason for you not to keep going. 🖤

Erin Michelle is a book coach, writer, & editor.

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