You have a wonderful idea for a novel and you enjoy writing the book. You can’t wait to show it to your writing group and beta readers. Unfortunately, rather than the kudos you expected, you get a lukewarm response. Eventually.
The first big clue that your “wonderful” novel doesn’t hit the mark? It takes forever to get feedback. Finally, you publish. Despite the amazing (expensive) cover, the thousand readers on your mailing list, and the Facebook ads, you make few sales.
The one essential for plotting fiction: conflict
According to the reviews, nothing happened. Your reviewers make remarks like:
- “I kept waiting for something to happen”;
- “Save your money — I had to force myself to finish it”;
- “Where’s the excitement? This is a real snooze-fest”.
You wince. Ouch. Your big question is WHY?
Chances are that you forgot the one big essential of fiction — conflict.
Fiction is all conflict, all the time. You need major conflicts, and minor ones too. Never make things easy for your characters.
Recall that you “enjoyed” writing your novel. I love writing, but a big red flashing warning, warning! sign for me is always when I adore my characters, and have a great time with a novel. Yes, you should love writing, but please check that you’re not making things too easy for your characters.
1. Trouble, and more trouble: kick your characters when they’re down (and kick them some more if they show signs of getting up)
I’m a pantser by nature. I hate long outlines. A detailed outline kills my interest in writing a novel stone dead.
That said, I’ve made it my dedicated habit to focus on the conflict in every single scene. No conflict equals NO SCENE.
Here’s how it’s done: make sure that your characters don’t get along. Your novel needs a big conflict, true, but it needs lots of little conflicts as well.
The main characters in your romance start out hating each other, and that hatred doesn’t suddenly switch to insta-love. The sleuth in your mystery novel alienates not only his fellow detectives, but all the suspects too.
Think about your own relationships for a moment. How many of them are totally conflict-free? None, right? No matter how much you love your nearest, sometimes they’re not your dearest. Your kids can get on your last nerve. On bad days, you’re convinced that your partner is on a mission to drive you insane.
Write on a sticky note: no one gets along. Paste it on your computer monitor.
2. Establish your one big conflict as the spine of your book, then add little conflicts
Conflict is uncomfortable. You hate cruelty and fights. Most people do, in real life. Not so in entertainment.
Plotting fiction is mainly plotting conflicts. Let’s say you have 40 scenes in your 60,000 word novel. That’s 40 conflict peaks you need to hit. The BIG conflicts are the major turning points of your novel. Read about them in Writing Fiction: Show It, Don’t Blow It.
A scene is a unit of action: something must happen in every scene, and that something is… conflict. Here’s what I suggested to help you to plot your conflict in Writing Fiction In Scenes: The Big Secret:
You estimate that your big scenes will be 2,500 words. That’s 15,000 words out of your novel — say 20,000 words, because chances are your big scenes will run longer.
If you list those scenes as A, B, C, etc across a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard, it’s easy enough to decide what you need in the scenes which lead up to a big scene.
3. Ending a conflict? Start another one before you do
Can’t find a way to add more conflict?
Here’s a simple solution. Create a conflict-laden subplot. The only rule for subplots is that a subplot must be related in some way to the novel’s big plot.
Many authors plot their major conflict scenes and subplots on a spreadsheet so that they can keep track of them. Your spreadsheet will help you to ensure that you always start another conflict before you end a current conflict.
Let’s say you’re writing a scene in which your sleuth has finally found his prime suspect. Slot in a scene before that, in which his boss tells him that he’s fired. Or a scene in which he finds evidence against someone who wasn’t a suspect, but is now…
Always, always, start a new conflict before you end an on-going one.
Your ONLY goal when you write fiction is to keep readers reading. When you have lots of conflicts, they’ll keep reading. As a bonus, even if you dislike plotting fiction, you’ll find it easy to create lots of conflicts. Look on it as a way of sneaking up on plotting. 🙂
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