Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (Suspense and conflict), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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We've seen that story is about how someone solves a problem and how they change as a result. But here's the fine print, change only results from unavoidable conflict, because no one-- you, me, or the guy next-door-- changes unless we're forced to. The story's job is to shove the protagonist into the fray where he or she finds out what they are really made of. It's like that great JFK story. When asked what made him a war hero, he replied, "I didn't have a choice.
They sank my boat." The problem is we don't like conflict in real life that is. Ever since kindergarten, our goal is been to work well with others, so it's no surprise that conflict can make us uncomfortable. As a result, we writers are often way too nice to our protagonist. Instead of plugging them into a really thorny situation, we tip-toe up to it and then deftly rescue them in the nick of time before anything really bad happens. Resist this urge.
It's conflict that readers come for, so they can vicariously experience the risks they tend to avoid in real life. They're dying to know what it would it cost emotionally to take those risks, and ultimately, what they might gain by it. But does that mean the characters must constantly be fighting, arguing, and bashing each other over the head? Of course not. Such moments of bare-knuckled conflict are few and far between. The goal is to let us in on where impending conflict is lurking just beneath the surface, so you can build a sense of ongoing suspense as we get closer and closer to it.
This is what keeps the reader hooked. They're dying to know what will happen when that conflict erupts and forces the protagonist to take action, preferably action she'd really rather not take. Such conflict tends to spring from two opposing forces. I like to think of these battling forces as this versus that. Keeping in mind that every story has more than one source of conflict, here are the most common, the protagonist versus the antagonist, AKA the force of opposition, Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader.
What the protagonist believes is true versus what is actually true. Jane believes her mean demanding boss hates her. In reality, he's hard on her because he's grooming her for success, what the protagonist wants versus what the protagonist actually has. Ted wants to be quarterback, instead he is a water boy. What the protagonist wants versus what's expected of her. Jennifer wants to be a writer; her parents expect her to go to medical school.
The protagonist versus him or herself. Jim wants to make a million dollars, but to do it he has to sell out his core beliefs. The protagonist's fear versus the protagonist's goal. Joe is terrified of admitting to his humble beginnings, but if he lies about his past and is discovered, he will lose the girl of his dreams. Remember, in literature as in life, change only results from unavoidable conflict. By identifying where the conflict in your story will come from, you can then build toward it creating suspense and suspense is what hooks the readers.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots