Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Conflict

When I said I was going to blog about conflict on Tuesday, I'm sure at least some people assumed that I was going to say that you need conflict everywhere in a book: on every page, from start to finish, in every scene, passage of dialogue, etc. etc. etc.

I don't actually believe this! Sometimes a character needs to just stare at the water and contemplate the meaning of life and other great imponderables, like stock derivatives. Novels have quiet moments where there's not a hint of conflict that are serene and beautifully written and I wouldn't ever urge a writer to rip those out to introduce a gun battle.

But conflict is essential. I think of conflict sort of like a book's oxygen:

1. Your book needs it to survive. It doesn't need it constantly, but a book without conflict is pretty much DOA. It's not even really a book without conflict. It's just paper with words printed on it.

2. If any stretch your book goes too long without it it will also die (or rather, your reader will die of boredom).

3. You can use a lot of conflict to create a bright flame of a book that is relentless and charged, or you can create a slow burn that is more muted. You can also vary the degree of the conflict to do the same thing.

On this last point, some might also say that thrillers and other genre novels tend to put a lot of intense conflict on the page and the conflict comes fast and intense, whereas literary fiction tends to have less conflict. As a general rule this may be so, but it's not always the case. When you look at Ian McEwan's books, for instance, ENDURING LOVE in particular is a book where every word, exchange, moment... everything on the page is intensely filled with conflict. The characters are constantly in conflict with each other and with themselves, and it's an extremely intense reading experience as a result.

Now, there are two types of conflict in novel. There's conflict that happens above the surface, demonstrated through the actual actions and thoughts of the characters, and then there's conflict beneath the surface, which is more implied and unsaid. By way of example, there's the gun battle that happens above the surface, but there's also the character who is, say, freethinking in a 1984-type world. Even when he's not explicitly thinking about the world he lives in he's in implied conflict with the rest of that world.

So. Does your novel have enough conflict?

I personally feel that unless you are intentionally and specifically choosing to have a quiet moment you should always look for ways to introduce some degree of conflict. A character at peace with their surroundings and the characters they're interacting with is, well, completely boring.

A lot of times in novels it becomes necessary for things to happen that connect Plot Point A to Plot Point B, or to otherwise provide background information or motivation. Sometimes Character A just has to have a conversation with Character B where a certain thing happens so the rest of the book makes sense.

Too often though, writers focus on connecting the dots in a way that gives the reader the information they need to know without trying to tie the threads in a fully-realized scene that's interesting and engaging. Almost always it's best to try and introduce conflict to a scene in order to make it interesting and advance other aspects of the plot.

Ultimately, conflict is the reason we read novels. It forces characters to make decisions, it tests their strengths and weaknesses, it reveals what makes people tick. Conflict, ultimately is revealing.

A man serenely walking down the street is not a story. It only becomes a story when he is captured by space monkeys who try to force him to root for Duke. Now that's conflict.






105 comments:

Ink said...

Doesn't everyone root for Duke?

Julie Weathers said...

Donald Maass is an excellent teacher on this subject. This is another fantastic topic.

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

Everyone who is an imp and/or demon.

Ink said...

Really? I thought the Overlords commanded it. Cameron Crazies Ordinance No. 417, stating "All Shall Love Duke and Despair..."

7-iron said...

on #2 - what about the opposite? Do you think a writer can overdo it by having a stretch of too much conflict?

(hates Duke. sorry.)

Kiersten said...

Great. Now I have to go through and erase my March Madness space monkeys thread, because everyone will assume I stole it from you. Thanks a lot, Nate.

Space squid...it has potential...

Nathan Bransford said...

7-iron-

Yeah, too much conflict can exhaust the reader and it becomes difficult to separate the highs from the lows when there's no place to catch one's breath.

I know some people who don't like ENDURING LOVE for this reason. It's just extremely intense to the point of relentlessness.

Anonymous said...

yes, my question too:

I am in the finale of a novel and have to build the tension up to support the grand completion
AND
I am not sure whether I should add in a whole new conflict at this point to support that
or build up an existing one.

Any thoughts?

Kristan said...

Demon, hehe! You can't even really get in trouble for that one, can you?

Regarding conflict: I feel like literary writers fall into this trap more often than commercial writers, because they (we?) are seduced by the loveliness of the words and the mood and the voice... and all that jazz.

So I've had to work at amping up the conflict, which I think directly relates to enhancing the plot. Like you said, introducing conflict to a scene can really drive it forward, turning a situation into a story, an event into a plot.

For me it really helped to think of my story's outline, not just as a list of "what happens," but specifically as a chain of cause & effect: A happens, which leads to B, which leads to C, etc...

And if X doesn't cause Y, then X better be a DANG good/important scene for some other reason, 'cause otherwise it's dragging down my story.

Chris Bates said...

Bullshit, Bransford.

What the hell would you know about writing? Big man, sitting large in your office – downtown San Francisco, uptown attitude.

You think you can turn at random to page 201 in some part-time novelist hack’s worthless writing manual and quote at free-will?

Next time I’m sweeping by Montgomery Street you better hope you’re out ‘doing lunch’ somewhere else with the safe literary crowd.

I’m joking, of course. Just trying to create a bit of conflict for the readers!

Love your stuff, champ!

Nathan Bransford said...

chris bates-

You totally had me. In retribution I'm sending one of my crazy anons after you to teach you the true meaning of conflict.

Bane of Anubis said...

More good stuff - and, yes, when I grew up Hell was also known as Tobacco Road. Of course, I also grew up a UCLA fan, but have them going down in rd 1. So much for loyalty :)

Chris Bates said...

Nathan, self-doubt often begets conflict! :)

Ink said...

On a serious note, I sometimes shy away from the term "conflict", because people so often take it too literally, too graphically, envisioning fistfights and gun battles and missing the subtler forms of conflict. I think "tension" is a good word because it seems to encompass a wider array of possibilities. Of course, I could simply be, in the immortal words of Clive Owen, "whistling Dixie out of my ass."

Blogger Challenge: Name that film!

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

P.S. Sorry for the scatalogical humour. I don't even like scatalogical humour. A writer's compulsion towards certain words is a strange, strange thing.

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

Yeah, that's a good point, tension is a good way of thinking of it, especially when it's not happening through action.

Anonymous said...

Exactly what do you mean by crazy anon :(










You're trying to start conflict aren't you! JK;)

Mercy Loomis said...

To pull a quote out of some part-time novelist hack’s worthless writing manual, conflict is the glue that holds your story together.
My problem is I let my characters think about things too much. Gotta keep it to short doses and get back to some sort of action. Inner conflict is great, but no one wants to read about it for more than a few paragraphs at a time - if that much. Get it out of their heads and into some sort of movement in the story.

Mira said...

This is a really good article.

Although, I prefer stories that are boring and completely free of conflict.

Like where I ask Nathan for a signing contract, and he sends me one.

No conflict, but a beautiful ending.

Chris Bates said...

I think we are all naturally drawn to conflict. It may not be the essence of story-telling but it sure is an attractant. Take note of how often we all surf the net latching onto forum/comment boards. We may read all the comments but we home in on those comments that push and pull, jibe or joust with each other. The beats of each comment may keep changing but we follow the tension with interest.

Humans love a tussle.

It’s why we gather around a school-yard fight, but couldn’t give a damn about a geography lesson.

Kristi said...

I can't imagine anything worse than routing for Duke (my siblings are all Chapel Hill grads so they made me pick UNC in Nathan's NCAA contest).

As far as conflict, I also think the pace of the conflict depends on the age group for which you are writing (in addition to genre). My novel is for middle grade readers and the conflict comes fast and furious, whereas I think you can stretch it out a bit for adults (who presumably have longer attention spans). Good post! :)

hentry said...

How can I tell whether my protagonist is experiencing conflict or just a hassle?

Andy said...

Go Heels!

That is all.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

good blog, Nathan.

Kristi said...

Sorry - Freudian slip. Should have been "rooting" for Duke - but I hope they get routed!

JohnO said...

I stumbled across Jack Bickham's work Scene and Structure not long ago ... the two of youse are in agreement.

His point was that a character goes into a scene with a goal, somehow gets his ass kicked, then has to recover and come up with a slightly different goal (this is his sequel), then it's onto the next scene, where boot comes toward ass yet again ...

So as Nathan and Kristan noted, it's all about conflict.

Case in point, I am currently in conflict with all my sentences that have gone awry. Time to kick ass and red-pen.

jimnduncan said...

Not much to add this time around, as I pretty much agree with everything said, other than the Duke part of course. I'll root for any team 12th seed or lower.

On a little different note of conflict, and a big dose of humility, I offer this (becomes the subject fascinates me).

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/jpeg/PIA11828.jpg

Not this doesn't give enough sense of 'place' in the universe, but if you zoom in and look at the fields of stars, you'll notice that half of them aren't even stars at all but other galaxies millions of light years further away. So that little picture you are seeing, actually contains billions upon billions of stars.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the reason dialogue falls flat is because it lacks conflict. It might characterize, it might be witty, it might even advance the plot (a teeny bit...too much and you've got the most egregious exposition), but if it doesn't have any conflict, it's going to sink fast. In agreement with Nathan's post today and yesterday: Conflict means Someone wants Something. And something or someone stands in the way of his/her getting it. The force of opposition should be equal and meaningful (v. unequal and trivial). Complex conflict is also good (versus conflict that seems coincidental or too familiar or stupidly, frustratingly complicated).

Easy to say, hard to do!

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan -

Looked forward to your post today, and was not disappointed. Fascinating topic!

I love pacing and balancing all the various elements of fiction when writing novels or short stories. Conflict is important, moving the character from Point A to Point B to however many points of conflict within the overall plot, making sure there's an extreme low point for the character at which point all seems lost to them, and then having them somehow solve the problem and come through the other side, the character transformed as a result. As in real life, we tire from constant conflict. I also love writing about my characters slowing down, smelling the roses or bandaging their wounds, pouring a stiff drink or sweetly flavored coffee ... then, damn!, there's another conflict. I try to think of it as life in literary form. Our lives are never stagnant.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is such a wonderful example of how to accomplish this. In the midst of one conflict after another, the man also took time out to just spend time with his young son.

Crazy Anon said...

My services are for hire. All I require as payment is a piece of Tiramisu from Ariolo's on Fisherman's wharf.

Kristy Colley said...

This was a good reminder for me. Actually, all your posts have been the past week+ so many thanks.

Anita said...

I think the temptation after reading this post is to say, "Yeah, well my book's not a thriller."

Doesn't have to be a thriller to have tension/conflict. Every page of Bridget Jones has conflict.

Oh, and Julie's right about the Maass thing.

Rick Daley said...

One thing I struggled with is tying in motives for the actions that drive conflict, but to do it without interrupting the narrative flow.

But I know this now, and the revisions are coming along great.

WORD VERIFICATION: split. What I have to do, because I need to take my son to the dentist.

ryan field said...

This is why I always like to do an in-depth, chapter by chapter, outline before I begin a book. You can insert the basic conflict in the outline without making yourself crazy, and then while you're writing the book you can add and enhance as you go.

Hilabeans said...

Hey Nathan -

The Sacto Kings are losers!

How's that for conflict? :)

J/K - having lived in that part of NorCal, I would be fibbing if I said that I've never donned a purple shirt while wading through the violet masses at Arco.

Myra said...

So, my question is, when you come to the end of the roller coaster of conflict and approach the platform of the final pages, how do you avoid chucking the reader off the ride without stopping dead in your tracks?

I don't want my resolution to be an info dump, and I feel like my wrap up is...boring. (My epilogue, however, is fabulous.)

That's my conflict!

Rachel said...

Thanks, Nathan. This was a very timely post for me. I recently went to a workshop where Donald Maass talked about the importance of tension/conflict. Since then, I've been having an ongoing discussion with some of my fellow workshop attendees...should we have conflict on every page...should we ever give our characters a break? I'm going to forward this blog to them.

Brian Davidson said...

One of the things I like about writers that use conflict well is that they vary the quantity and location of the conflict they use. I've read plenty of writers who have conflict/resolution in every single chapter, and that drives me crazy. Or there's a chapter of conflict followed by a restful chapter, followed by conflict, et cetera, until I want to puke. Use conflict, but use it wisely, please.

Cadence said...

Connie Willis (I'm pretty sure) called all that connecting from Point A to Point B "walking down hallways." Now that I have a concrete visual for that process I can tell more quickly when my writing is devolving into too much "walking down hallways."

Heads up, Nathan. Next week I'm going to query you for my staggeringly beautiful and hauntingly lyrical novel about the Ninja Space Monkeys who are really Kaiser Soze. (I wish, because that would be genius!)

I second Myra's question. I usually have the opposite problem from her, though, where everything just....ends. "...So Loralie decided to wear the purple socks. The End." What about that?

RW said...

Jesse Lee Kercheval's textbook Building Fiction has a discussion about internal and external conflict that was helpful in a very practical way for me when I was starting on my rewrite. It helped me look at each episode from the perspective of what it did to complicate or heighten the conflicts.

T. Anne said...

I like the conflict to feel fresh as I read on in a novel, not ruminated to the bitter end. I read somewhere that developing arcs, in at least three or four equal points in your novel can help.

Christine H said...

I thought when I was writing my current (and first) fantasy novel that maintaining conflict would be a problem. It's not. In fact, the only problem I'm having is deciding which conflicts to include and which to leave out as the plot gets more complicated. This surprises the heck out of me, because I've always considered myself one of those dreamy, literary types previously mentioned.

My point? Get to know your characters, and the conflict follows naturally from what they think, say and do. It's the best lesson I've learned from this, my first adventure.

Vancouver Dame said...

Conflict is a part of real life, since we all have our own wants,needs, and experiences. Conflict provides the setting for change to occur. I prefer introspective conflict in small scenes to balance the physical and direct conflict in longer scenes. The small conflict supports and hints at the large conflict, affecting it in various ways.

Conflict is basic, and how our characters deal with conflict reveals certain character traits. Whether the character is the instigator or the recipient of conflict can affect which action is taken.

BTW - I think it's great that you select these writing topics to post, and I for one don't mind hearing your take on what you, as an agent, think about a certain element of the novel. A little insight for how an agent's mind evaluates quality.

Christine H said...

Myra wrote:

So, my question is, when you come to the end of the roller coaster of conflict and approach the platform of the final pages, how do you avoid chucking the reader off the ride without stopping dead in your tracks?

I hate it when writers do that! (stop dead in your tracks.) My approach is to recall that these are people, dammit! They are going to be shocked, tired, hopeful, desperately in love... something. What do you do when something big happens in real life? You sit down and talk about it, cry, throw something, whatever. Let your characters work out their feelings a little, even if it's a short scene. Give the readers that time to decompress and process... like the 5-minute cooldown at the end of an aerobic workout.

Or, consider the real-life consequences of grand adventures. "The Hobbit" is a great example of this... Bilbo finally comes home and finds everyone has assumed he's dead and all his worldly goods are up for auction! So he has to interrupt the sale and get all his stuff back. Then he and Gandalf sit in the kitchen discussing personal destiny. It's fantastic... and very satisfying. IMHO, anyways.

Brian Buckley said...

The oxygen metaphor was perfect. That's a really helpful way to think about it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I know this is off topic, but does anyone know what happens to your manuscript once an agent receives it? How long does it normally take for an agent to read it? Is the agent the only one who needs to read the manuscript before offering representation?

I offered my first choice agent a three-week exclusive and she immediately agreed. She got my manuscript yesterday and now I'm just freaking out. I've blown through two novels and six mimosas and my nails have been chewed to stubs. I think I could relax if I just knew what exactly happens once an agent recieves a manuscript.

Thanks.

PurpleClover said...

Wow I can't even get away from it on a writer's blog. My instructor was asking a classmate at the hospital today if his wife could make her a Duke stethoscope cover...he said it would probably break the sewing machine (carolina fan).

[whispers in eerie voice]
"I see Duke people" ...everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Cal bombed out. I don't want to hear about Duke or any freaking tar heels.

I think it's possible to have conflict without it being a gun battle. F'r instance, I'm just working on a scene where an eight-year-old girl wants to know when they're leaving the house. She can ask nicely and receive a polite response, which is pleasant but dull, or she can demand to know, grab her sister's pen, and cause a squabble about why she did that AND cause the reader to wonder why it's such a big deal that they leave the house sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

But, but, my story if full of conflict:

The characters argue with me and with each other.
The plot is sulking in a corner because everyone is ignoring it.
The themes are getting all morose and depressed because they aren't being taken seriously.
The world is a shimmering mirage contradicting the laws of physics, geography, and consistency--

Er... that's not what you meant?

--Going Crazy Anonymously

Litgirl01 said...

Very helpful post! Thank you! :-)

Thomas Burchfield said...

Interesting examples of too-much-conflict can be found in the old pulp stories. I found Volume 1 of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories to be especially egregious-- paragraph after paragraph of relentless limb and head-chopping occasionally interspersed with equally spluttering fulminations about man's eternal savagery, all delivered at one screaming delirious pitch. Colorful at first, but after awhile painfully monotonous. I found myself wishing for a scene of Conan lying down in a sun-splashed meadow to sniff a flower or two. I never did get around to Volume 2.

Mira said...

Anon 2:29

Congrats on getting an exclusive with an agent. I think I'd at least give her the 3 weeks before you start chewing your nails off.

It can take awhile. She may need to show it to others in her company. Try and relax. And whatever you do, don't ask her about it for awhile. These things take time.

Chris Bates said...

Conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be argumentative or in-your-face. It can be a seemingly innocuous personal opinion... that snowballs.

Hypothetical example: "Hands down, love Stephenie Meyer’s turn of phrase." Stephen King said.

Cut to a future scene in Chapter 8 where the respective bestselling authors gush about their mutual admiration over a glass of champagne. Next scene...? We’ve got close to nuthin’. A potential love story thread, perhaps? But it’s a struggle to create any further scenes with real bite. Oh, wait, there's a knock on the door...

'Hey, come on in, Writer's Block. Wondered where you got to.'

Instead, King actually said: "Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn."

BAMM … Just try holding back the scenes that will follow this pearl…

Meyer isn’t even present in the first salvo of conflict … but it’s still conflict. And the story now has some potential momentum. We want to know Meyer's reaction, we want to know the fall-out that will inevitably follow throughout the reading and publishing world.

No guns. No action. No angst. Just a wayward remark.

sruble said...

Great posts on Tuesday and today. I like how you think about things and the examples you give. Thanks.

p.s. I linked to them on my blog today.

p.p.s. 60 points so far in the NCAA contest. :) I'm espn_sruble, since sruble was already taken.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mira

Anon 2:29

Jen C said...

Rachel said...
Thanks, Nathan. This was a very timely post for me. I recently went to a workshop where Donald Maass talked about the importance of tension/conflict. Since then, I've been having an ongoing discussion with some of my fellow workshop attendees...should we have conflict on every page...should we ever give our characters a break?


I did the Maass workshop a couple of years ago, and loved it. Wish I could go again for my current novel.

I have a feeling that DM doesn't really expect you to have conflict on EVERY page, even though that's what he says. More likely he is just trying to convey the importance of having conflict drive the story.

Saying "conflict on every page" is much more effective than saying "conflict on almost every page" or "conflict on most pages, but not all pages".

But then again, I could be wrong. (Although that rarely ever happens ;) )

Word Veri: gistin. "Do you get my gist?" "Yeah, you were gistin'..." (OK, I'm really reaching now!)

Jen C said...

PS Oh my, I'm really tanking in the Bransford Blog Challenge! I do not like this one bit. *off to bribe players to throw games*

Marilyn Peake said...

One of my favorite novels in which conflict is anything but a gun battle is the Pulitzer Prize Winner, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Written from the point of view of an old man realizing his mortality and seeking to convey important information to his son before dying, it moves along slowly and beautifully, with conflict simply running like a thread throughout the pages. And talk about taking time out to enjoy the small things in life. The book has many statements like this one:
"I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light - pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening the trees a little as a late snow would do."
Wow! And, even in pauses like this, Robinson packed in lots of meaning, as the novel had much to do with light and darkness, good and evil.

Nathan Bransford said...

Ha - Marilyn we think alike. I was actually going to use GILEAD as an example of a book built around quiet conflict spaced out and usually beneath the surface. Still works in the right book.

Cass said...

As always, I wasn't dissappointed when I finally got home and read up on the NBLA Blog.

Great subject.

Thanks Nathan

Ink - blogger challenge - I Clive in Inside Man. That happend to be a favorite saying around work for quite a while.

wordver - foollbos - trying to tie it to fools and basketball but not having any luck

Cass said...

okay - I typed too fast. I meant I loved Clive Owen in inside Man.

wordver - refist - everybody is readying their fists because of my fools and basketball comment?

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

That's cool. I love that book!

Jen C said...

Marilyn Peake said...
One of my favorite novels in which conflict is anything but a gun battle is the Pulitzer Prize Winner, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.


Marilyn, I've had that book sitting on my shelf for quite a while now, with my legions of unread novels. You have inspired me to make a start on it this weekend!

Ink said...

Marilyn and Nathan,

That is too weird and spooky... I was reading Jen C's comments just before Marilyn's and I was thinking "I should really mention Gilead as a perfect example of a book driven beautifully by subtle tensions rather than overt conflicts". And then I read the next post...

Very spooky. Sort of "get out of my head" spooky. Like I have weird doppelganger stories going through my mind now...

I shall have to watch basketball to regain equilibrium. March Madness or LeBron... March Madness or LeBron... I knew I should have invested in picture in picture.

auntiemwrites said...

Just found this site and will be back. Happen to be repped by CB in NY but haven't sold a book yet. Always more to learn.

In our house, Doc is a Dukie and I'm usually for UNC~

Jen said...

Fantastic post, and I totally agree. There needs to be some downtime! If I read something that has intense conflict in every single word, I end the book feeling like I've been clubbed over the head after getting off a high-speed roller coaster full of loops and drops. Eek!
Again, fantastic post!

Melanie Avila said...

Another great post. You're hitting all the things I need to here while editing this week. Thanks!

Eric said...

Go to Hell, Carolina, go to Hell!

Erika Robuck said...

Thank you for this post. I hate books that don't let up the pace. I hate movies that leave cringing the entire time. I need air.

Erika Robuck said...

leave "me" cringing.

oops

like my editing sklz 2nite

Anonymous said...

Nathan, my initial reaction was to ask where simple story telling went. I had in mind Brendan Behan, particularly Borstal Boy. But in fact this post had me re-evaluate not only my own piss poor fiction but my conclusions as to how some of my favorite stories were structured. In other words, every character re-read wanted something and had to tear down a wall to get there. Or at least try. No matter how big or small. Thank you sir.

lotusgirl said...

Dons Duke sweatshirt in defiance. How's that for a little conflict?

annerallen said...

Thanks Nathan! Your blog is like a free writers conference for all of us out here.

Marilyn Peake said...

Jen C -
Enjoy Gilead. The writing is absolutely beautiful.

Ink -
Whoa, that's synchronicity. And Gilead really is a perfect example of a story with lots of underlying conflict told slowly and beautifully.

Jen C said...

OMG. Seriously. What happened to all of my teams? I curse you, March Madness! *shakes fist*

At least my pick for the win is still there, but that's not going to do me much good if all the others lose!!

Susanne said...

Just say no to Duke. But I did pick them into the finals. Best coach out there.

deal or no deal? said...

A little suspense goes a long way.

http://bookdealornodeal.blogspot.com/

Marilyn Peake said...

Just thought of a book that shows conflict in a very unique way: A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong. In this wonderful book, conflict is shown through definitions of words and stories exemplifying each definition. The stories show both conflict and the power of evolving language in a fictitious rural village during the Cultural Revolution in China, including times when words held hidden, subversive meanings. Awesome book!

Richard Lewis said...

Of all the so-called "rules of writing" or "elements of craft" I'd agree that this is the one beginning writers (and established writers) should pay most attention to. Like you say, it's what makes a story a story. A character desperately wanting something with increasingly daunting obstacles in her way. But like a lot of writing, if not all of it, knowing this and putting it into practice are, well, two completely different things. I'm sure that you as an agent see this all the time.*

I'd distinguish between conflict and tension. A scene where a character reflectively ponders a moonlit lake in in a good mood can be a breather, developing character and atmosphere and other vital elements to a good story, but at the same time, without a single word or thought of conflict, it can start to build tension.

The opening to THE SEIGE OF KRISHANPUR is principally a setting of scene, but an ominous mood creeps in.

*By the way, agents have mentioned the increasing quality of queries. With so much of writing craft and workshops on the Net, are you seeing a similar increase in the overall quality of the stories you ask partials/fulls on?

Nathan Bransford said...

richard-

Yeah, with the tightening marketplace I'm passing on things I might not have a few years back. I'm seeing really good stuff in my inbox, but it has to just be a 110% no brainer, "I'd walk through fire to represent this" type of situation before I can take it on.

Theophagous Monkey said...

This was a very good post. Theo approves.
The conflict in a story or chapter can be internal to a character or external or, better yet, both. What's difficult is finding the balance. You can't just torment your characters and you can't just let them skate. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to your readers. When my characters stop to reflect, I try to keep the clock ticking. The monster is always at the door. Knock Knock.

Regards,

Theo

Lady Glamis said...

Great post, Nathan. I have read a lot of posts lately that talk about "lulls" in your story and how they're needed. Your post has answered a lot of questions for me. Thanks!

Stacey said...

Thanks for this post Nathan! I have needed to read this! In my current MS I was starting to think that there wasn't enough conflict, realizing that internal conflict can be just as compelling, if not more so than external, and is just as important in my novel. Thank you!

Tally said...

I can think of two great books without conflict:

Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell.

They are odd books, but a very wonderfully painted description of two upper-middle class people in Kansas City of the 1920s-1940s.

But they are certainly the exception rather than the rule.

Emily Cross said...

Nathan, Speaking of conflict : have you heard about Amazon being sued for Kindle infringement by discovery?

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/80320-amazon-sued-over-kindle-infringement.html

Scott said...

I believe conflict exists on every page. What I mean is there is no reason for a character to be doing anything that doesn't somehow relate to the central conflict of the narrative. It may be subtle, but the overall tension should aways be attendant.

In Nathan's example of quiet reflection, a moment like that represents--most likely--a moment of internal conflict to be resolved, brought on by issues in the story. When characters are blowing off steam, as in the sing along on the boat in Jaws, they're escaping from their conflict, and of course, the author is setting us up for a shock.

Any conversation seeks to work to a point, every action is another rung toward climbing towards what the character wants, even if it means knocking the character down a few of those rungs.

My rule: keep the line taut, and if you want to introduce slack, be sure to snap it back.

David Eric Tomlinson said...

One of the things I struggle with on this topic is writing for agents vs. writing for readers.

When requesting partials, many agents ask only for the first 30 pages or so. In my novel, there is an underlying 'tension' in the first 45 or 50 pages, after which the 'conflict' shows up in spades - every chapter has some major obstacle that our hero must overcome, whether emotional, physical or moral.

I need that first few chapters to set everything in motion so that later everything begins to hum.

Nathan/Nathan's Posse - what are your thoughts on this? Do you ever see writers submitting partials with chapters or sections removed to better hook the agent in the first 30 pages, and then those sections added back in when the full is delivered?

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Some conflict is interesting and gripping and some is, well boring. And as a writer who is too close to my darlings I often need help to know the difference.

Jolie said...

"I think of conflict sort of like a book's oxygen"

So we could say that any portion of a novel without conflict is basically the novel holding its breath. And how long the novel can hold its breath without dying depends on the skill of the writer/the strength of the story. Or on how much oxygen the story was consuming before it ducked underwater. You're not going to be able to hold your breath as long if you've just been sprinting.

I like this metaphor!

Vancouver Dame said...

Nathan, I'd be interested in how you reply to David E. Tomlinson's interesting question.

Is that acceptable - to pull an excerpt rather than the actual first 30 pages? Is there some contradiction in doing this, when you only accept the first actual 5 pages with a query?

How flexible are the guidelines for partial requests or the first 5 pages. I always thought it meant the actual pages as they appear in the story. Please clarify.

Melissa McInerney said...

Great comments. Personally, I hate books that have too much conflict, especially angsy YA where the protagonist mopes and whines to the point of driving the reader mad. Internal conflict is the hardest thing to do right, tension without tedium.

On an unhappy note, my admittedly random method for picking Bball winners is sucking...

Nathan Bransford said...

David and Vancouver Dame-

I personally think it's misguided to try and pull together an excerpt that represents your "best" pages, and yes, people do this occasionally. I want to read the first 30 pages, period. I don't want to read the "best" 30 pages. When I send them a manuscript, an editor is going to start at the beginning and read sequentially. I want that same experience, because I need to see what an editor is going to see.

I know full well when I read a manuscript that the best pages are probably towards the end, in the climax. That doesn't matter to me -- I need to know how it begins.

And really, even in the slowest moving and longest of novels, 30 pages is enough to get SOMETHING going, even if it's not the main plot. If nothing happens in 30 pages, something is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you have to buy into a novel's main characters to perceive any tension/conflict in the plot. I am one of the minority (apparently) of people who could not BEAR Gilead (and I loved the author's book Housekeeping). Yes, many pretty sentences. But the characters bored and aggravated me in every cell of my body, so I did not respond in any way to the "tension." The only tension I felt was in the back of my neck...which I normally identify as hostility or Desire-to-Flee Response. It may be my natural aversion to religious themes or my disgust w/ writers who romanticize small-town bores from Iowa (I'm from Iowa). I would go to Jane Austen for a primer in the uses of conflict in more subtle, literary fiction, or relationship-bound plots.

Cutris said...

Anyone who has been in space knows that there are no "space monkeys" who like Duke.

http://cutris.blogspot.com/2008/11/cutris-lands-on-moon.html

Mira said...

Okay, I did it. I created my new blog: Come In Character.

This is a good thing, because it will let me blow off some of this energy, and stop bugging Nathan so much.

I hope you don't mind, Nathan, but I'd like to announce it on the this week in publishing thread, too.

Anyone who might be interested, click on my profile for the blog.

And if noone comes, I'm sure I can endlessly entertain myself talking to myself. I seem to be good at that. :-)

Mira said...

Oh, I meant I'll announce it, I'm not asking you to do it, Nathan.

That sounded a bit presumtious if I was asking you. I just meant I'd double post.

Joel Hoekstra said...

Cadence wrote: “Next week I'm going to query you for my staggeringly beautiful and hauntingly lyrical novel about the Ninja Space Monkeys who are really Kaiser Soze. (I wish, because that would be genius!)”

Whoa! Slow down! Let’s think this through! It’s a well known fact that Space Monkeys move at the speed of Light, whereas Ninjas are known to move at the speed of Darkness. If you ever crossed a Ninja with a Space Monkey, I don’t think we can rest assured that the speed of Darkness and Light would simply cancel each other out. In fact, it’s much more likely that the very existence of such a creature would rip a hole in the fabric of space time and suck you in to a parallel universe where Kaiser Soze is a huge Duke fan!

I guess what I’m trying to say is: be careful what you wish for! (Or at least feel very, very conflicted about it!)

Speaking of feeling conflicted, I think a comparison between seasons 5 and 6 of the TV show “24” might prove useful in determining the proper balance between "conflict" and “catching-one’s-breath” in the pacing of the story. 24 is definitely the type of show that tries to have “conflict on every page” from episode to episode yet has to take breaks in the action to solidify character motivation from time to time. I thought season 5 was a superb balancing act, while season 6 meandered in the middle and got “stopped-in-its-tracks” a few times. What did you guys think? (or am I the only 24 addict in the room)?

Anonymous said...

this notion of "conflict" informing every page, every book, etc. seems more appropriate for screenplays. novels are also driven by voice. although your blog is, generally, v good, I think you miss on this, steering people towards something smaller and more finite than the incredible possibilities offered by the novel form. I get that you're writing for people who are obsessed with what is commercial, what is marketable (what will catch your eye) but as I noveliest & reader, I find this narrowness of vision more than a little dismaying.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Really? Did you reach that conclusion after reading my comment about GILEAD? I thought I left open lots of room for the "slow burn" type of books that depend on voice and lyricism. Most writing advice errors on the side of more conflict. I'm well aware that there are quieter books that work really well.

abc said...

I hate Duke like I hate Notre Dame. It isn't rational, but it is seething. I should probably explore this in therapy. Damn rich, bratty kids.

Now when is your awesome wife going to bring me some egg nog? I don't care if it is March.

P.S. Great post!

abc said...

Also, Joel, 24 is too fascist for my taste. I gave up after season 4. Mad Men is perfect, by the way. Just thought I'd throw that in there. Love, ABC (who is in a silly mood. I blame pollen).

BronzeWord said...

Wow Thank you. I've been trying to get this message to the two authors I am working with on their book. You said it all and to the point in a choice few words. Maybe that's why you're the agent. ha ha
Jo Ann Hernandez
http://bronzeword.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

re: Gilead, no, I glanced at the post and didn't read the entire comments thread. I was commenting more (or, less) on the larger push to push conflict, conflict, conflict. I like page turners as much as the next person. Recently, I read James Woods' informative (yet often pedantic) "How to Write" - in which he references a specific scene from a John le Carre blockbuster. The excerpt was 'conflict driven,' for sure, but also banal. My comment was, in a sense, as much a reaction to that as seeing conflict as your topic post. In the spirit of congeniality and putting forth a positive, I've loved in the past are the Bangkok 8 series. There's the page turning / conflict driven John le Carre element that's leavened with accessible passages about Budhism, reincarnation, & even digressions about the Bangkok public transportation system. While not particularly germane to the conflict / drama of the narrator's drive to solve the crime/capture the perp/etc., there's a wonderful atmosphere that's put forth. I'd assume you've read (and if not, probably know about) Woods' book and would be interested in a topic that took it on: the survey quality as much as its prescriptive, 'how-to'ness. Thanks for keeping up this blog - I'm well aware of the time it takes to engage people, and the energy and diplomacy required to navigate all these personalities and opinions.

bukarella said...

I am jumping in to say that I am thrilled to discover the wealth of advice on writing you have to offer.

Character development, conflict, plot, hooks - I love it. I am far from the stage of submitting anything to anyone, but I aspire to get there some day.

I hope you don't mind if I post a link to your blog?The three readers (giggle), that I get every other Thursday, are very likely to appreciate your expertise.

-Lyudmyla

Anonymous said...

Yes, everyone does root for Duke. Let's go Duke!

Airball said...

Raymond Chandler said it best: "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

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