One Way to Assess the Conflict Within Your Work in Progress

Cheryl St. John, the author of Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict(Writers Digest Books, 2013), writes, “You can’t write a book and then go back later and try to add conflict.”

Weak conflict is one way to have a manuscript rejected, St. John explains. Her advice makes sense. That’s why I often use St. John’s book to plot and brainstorm conflict.

But, what if I’m 50,000 words into my first draft, and it’s not entirely void of conflict? Yet it needs improvement. I didn’t want my eventual manuscript rejected.

What nagged at me was that I never sought any objective, professional feedback about my story idea.

Seeking advice seemed important now that doubt had me asking, “What am I doing?” I sat at my desk, staring out my window, waiting for the answers to appear before my eyes. “How did I stray? Why isn’t my fantasy work in progress, turning out as I want it to?”

Nothing felt right as I pounded away at the keyboard, producing a daily word count. Which is good for training my writing muscle but not useful for my problem-solving process.

What helped me the most was discussing the structure of my book idea with my writing class, “Write Right Now,” led by author Catherine Jordan. From Jordan, I learned what I was missing.

You probably guessed it by now. Conflict. More conflict.

After talking with Jordan, I was able to find direction, understand my book structure, and where I’d wandered off. Her objective review allowed me to take a step back and see my story had many more possibilities.

Also, I listened to my classmate’s book structure and premise. Giving me more perspective on what my first draft was lacking.

Jordan’s words were polite and encouraging. The tip she gave me was to “increase my pressure,” and the importance of that pressure throughout my story.

I learned that pressure is a component of your story structure—one part of seven more elements needed when writing a premise, giving your story direction. Jordan points out: If you can’t explain one of your story structure aspects, or if it’s too weak, more brainstorming and re-working are needed.

The next day after Jordan’s advice, I drove to work, after I’d just finished my usual early morning writing. I was in the car with my coffee, thinking about my fantasy project, when Jordan’s words truly hit me and sunk in.

I had pressure, but in a more generalized way for all the citizens of my world. My current pressure wasn’t unique enough for my main character’s goals. I needed to figure out how to take Jordan’s advice and apply it.

Pressure defines how to keep my character from getting what they want. Which boils down to a discussion we had during one of our Tuesday evening classes when Jordan asked us: “What is conflict?”

Our answers went up on the whiteboard. The definition that came from those answers was stopping your main character from achieving their goal.

Next, Jordan asked us, “How can I stop my character from getting what they want?”

When we know our character’s goals, we can stop them. Making it incredibly hard for them to get what they want by setting up their conflict. Conflict can be split into internal and external conflict.

I’d learned internal conflict was the emotional aspect of my character. It can come from my character’s backstory. How she grew up, different experiences in her life, phobias, likes, dislikes, and wants. It shapes how she will react to certain situations when the pressure is on.

External conflict is the part of the book world I create for my story people. The main characters are marooned on a deserted island or live on a new planet that’s going to explode in 30 days. This conflict holds your characters together in a bubble. They need to react to their story world’s limitations and benefits.

Reviewing conflict with Jordan in her class helped me re-assess my pressure and conflict. My overwhelm with my first draft and getting it done had me losing my way down the “rabbit hole.” This, Jordon explained to us, is a way to avoid writing mistakes.

With advice from Jordan, I took an honest look at my conflict. First, I wrote down what my main character wants (goals.) Next, I wrote down ways to stop my main character from getting what she wants.

Along with writing down her response to these pressures based on her internal and external conflict. I also went over conflict and pressure between my characters and their individual responses. Then I started my outline.

I reviewed the scenes in my story to determine what I could keep, tweak, or delete while brainstorming new scenes. And of course, I’m writing again.

Luckily, I hadn’t finished my story. I wasn’t querying or getting rejection letters. I was in a dark, veiled place of writing my first draft. My eyesight and sense of direction were obscured.

Receiving feedback from Jordan opened up fresh conflict for my story that I’d overlooked. I had to work at re-assessing and improving my story’s conflict. All of that evaluating and problem-solving was worth seeing a new story shape that I’m more excited to write about.

I’m learning, and I’m thankful for those lessons, even if it happened 50,000 words into my process. Because now, it feels more like the sun is breaking through the fog of dark clouds around my work in progress. My eyes focus, revealing a more precise picture to follow.

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