Using Conflict to Plot Your Story
When I first started writing romance, I started with two characters who, in my opinion, went well together – people with similar goals and outlooks on life – and then stuck them in a situation where they had to work together to overcome an obstacle of some sort. I ended up with about forty thousand words of aimless chatter, snippets of scenes that didn’t lead anywhere, and a hero and heroine I liked, but could easily forget.
I knew I needed an overall conflict, but I didn’t know how to sustain that external conflict through the entire book. For example, in Christmas Wishes, the heroine’s conflict has the external conflict of putting on a Christmas pageant at her sister’s church. The hero has a young daughter who is in that pageant, so the two have the chance to meet. That makes for a nice set up, but it would difficult to get a reader to care about them enough to read an entire book.
What finally changed the way I write was an online writing class taught by Liz Lounsbury. I learned the main characters need an internal conflict that affects the way the characters react to the external characters. In a romance, either the internal conflicts or the external conflict needs to stand in the way of their relationship with each other, adding more conflict. So let’s look at the internal conflicts in Christmas Wishes.
My heroine, Sophie, wants to become a screenwriter and make it big in Hollywood. She’s only directing the pageant because her older sister, who was supposed to direct it, is bedridden with a difficult pregnancy. Since Sophie doesn’t have the money to leave rural Michigan, she agrees to help her sister out temporarily. But she is determined to make it big – in her spare time she writes scripts, contacts agents, and reminisces about the man who left her behind. The former boyfriend adds to her desire to make it big – she wants to prove to him and to herself that she is worthwhile.
My hero, Mitch, has left a big-city career behind. He was once a successful news photographer, married to a well-known news anchor. But his wife’s death and conflict with his in-laws have him convinced that he needs to start over in a small town with his young daughter. He’s not willing to trust anyone except himself – and Sophie. His socialite mother-in-law adds to his inner conflict because she openly disapproves of the way he’s raising his daughter.
The fact that Sophie and Mitch have goals that are at odds (she wants to leave the small town for the big city, he wants to leave the big city far behind) create a conflict that could keep them from being together. Will one of them have to give up on what he or she wants, or will they work out a compromise?
This is a very simplified explanation of using conflict to create a story but it gives you an idea of the framework I set up to make a plot that hopefully keeps the reader’s interest. It might not work for you, but if you’re plodding along and the story seems to sag, remember – add conflict!
Here’s a short excerpt:
“You know, that’s the second time you’ve looked at me as if I’ve done something strange. Apparently, opening the car door for you isn’t normal, and neither is pulling out your chair. Is that not done in Michigan? Should I give up those habits?”
Mitch nearly jumped out of his chair at the force of her answer. And then he realized she hadn’t spoken alone. The barista who’d poured their coffee, as well as two other women seated in the cafe tables around them had echoed Sophie’s answer.
An elderly woman seated behind him tapped him on the shoulder. “Young man, you’ve been raised with good manners, and you should never give them up. If Sophie was surprised when you opened doors and pulled her seat out, it’s because she’s grown up with young boys who don’t know how to treat a lady. She deserves the best, so you just keep right on doing what you do.”
“Yeah, and maybe some of the men around here can learn something,” the barista added.
The other ladies in the area nodded in agreement. Mitch nodded too, his ears burning. He hadn’t realized his voice had carried and he murmured an apology to Sophie, who looked anything but embarrassed. She seemed fascinated with her coffee, having it raised to her lips, but her shaking shoulders told him she’d enjoyed his discomfort.
“Okay, I’m going to speak quietly,” he said through his teeth. “I’ve got my notes app open on my phone and whenever you’re done laughing, I’m ready to write down the names of those potential babysitters and their phone numbers, if you have them.”
Sophie set her cup down. Her twinkling eyes were all that remained of her laughing fit. “Right. There’s Brenda Lou Hodges, who lives around the corner from you…”
Mitch typed as quickly as he could. Before he knew it, he had a half dozen names of junior and senior high girls Sophie knew and trusted. The younger ones lived close enough to walk over if necessary.
“And if none of them work, there’s always me. Until Christmas, anyway.”
The phone dropped to the table. “Until Christmas? What happens then?”
“Hopefully I’ll be moving to Los Angeles.”
“Wh— oh, do you have a job lined up there?”
She faltered. “Not yet.”
“You have family there? Friends? A boyfriend?” Hopefully she hadn’t caught the crack in his voice at the last word.
“None of the above,” she answered. “Well, an ex-boyfriend, but that doesn’t count.”
“So, uh, what are your plans?” He gave himself another mental slap. Why did he always sound like his father when he was with her?
“I’m getting my portfolio ready, and I’ll be contacting agents soon. Hopefully I’ll be able to work on a show and write scripts. And eventually I’d like to write screenplays.”
“Oh, that’s — great,” Mitch finished. His stomach churned, and he placed his hand on it. Must be the omelet I ate this morning. Maybe I didn’t cook those eggs long enough. There’s no way I could be so worked up about her leaving. “Well, good luck with that.”
“Thanks. Well, thanks for the coffee. I’ve got to get this stuff home to Joanie.” She got up and started to push her cart toward the checkout lanes then turned back. “I’m serious about watching Angie. She’s a doll, and it would be no burden at all to take care of her. She pointed to his phone. “Take my number down, too.”
He complied, and then watched her hurry away.
It’s a good thing I hadn’t started investing any feelings in her, he thought. She’s leaving.
But deep down, he knew it was probably too late.
In a previous life, Patricia Kiyono taught elementary school students by day and changed diapers at night. Now she teaches college students part time and changes diapers only when she’s taking care of grandkids. She loves to do anything that doesn’t involve exercise. Right now her favorite activities, other than writing, include scrapbooking, sewing, and making music. She and her husband live in southwest Michigan, near their five children and nine grandchildren.