The key that keeps readers interested in your story is conflict. If nothing is at stake, then there is not much to see. So, here are a few general tips to cause some ripples in the ponds of your characters’ lives.
“Prioritizing”: Your character has two main motives that they have been working towards, but they end up in a situation where they have to sacrifice one to save the other. Depending on how easy or hard the choice is, this range from “disappointing” to “devastating” in the sacrifice.
Character Flaws: As I talked about in my cornerstonespost, every character should have a flaw. Flaws are flaws and not strengths for a reason- they get in the way. Have your character have a moment of weakness, where they lose their values and give in to temptation or get carried away.
In addition: Even without their key flaws, characters can sometimes just… be wrong. Maybe they miscalculated. Maybe they misunderstood. Maybe they made the wrong guess. They did what everyone does: They Done Messed Up, and now they have to deal with the result.
Liar, Liar: Someone is lying, or even keeping secrets, and now, it’s causing problems. They can’t go forward without the truth, or worse, they are making mistakes due to a warped perception of the situation.
Draw backs: Let the good things come at a cost. One key rule for worlds with magic or superpowers is that all power should come at cost- equal to or greater than the power itself.
“Because I Said So”: Don’t forget, there are other characters in your story, and even if they are on the protagonist’s own side, they are not always going to just merrily go along with whatever the protagonist said. Maybe they disagree. Maybe they are powerful enough to get in the protagonist’s way, and maybe it’s that important to them that they try. If fighting an enemy is hard, fighting a friend is harder.
Take It Back: Your character makes a decision that seems right at the time. Maybe it was the obvious choice, or maybe it was taking a risk. But uh-oh…now there are unforeseen consequences.
Or, the opposite…
Decisions, Decisions: Maybe your character has to make a decision where there is not an immediately obvious choice. Make sure that both/all the options have both positive and negative possible or certain outcomes. There is no obvious right or wrong choice. Bonus, it’s funny to watch the fandom debate it later.
Strip Them Down: Remove your character’s greatest strength. For whatever reason, your character’s most valuable asset is not available, and now, they have to live without it. Bonus mode- it would be really, really helpful if they had it right now!
Or, do the opposite…
Boss Fight: Maybe, instead of your protagonist getting weaker, it’s your antagonist that gets stronger. Strengthen the opposition and see if your characters can adapt to survive, or if they lack what it takes.
Change of Plan: The rules of the game have changed. This can mean different things depending on your story. They could be literal rules, or more general. Think Hunger Games- did I say two tributes? I meant one, after all. Fight to the death now, please.
Amplify the Emotions: … And the results that come with. People do crazy things in the heat of the moment. You can’t think straight when all you can do is feel. Blinded by anger, sadness, or even joy, your character makes a bad choice.
*Pile It On: You know what a full plate needs? Even more stuff. Your character is already juggling, trying to balance a variety of responsibilities. So add one more ball. Do they crash and burn immediately? Does it take a while? Do they succeed? Any which way, the stress is high.
*Note: this one can be difficult on the author, too. Make sure that with all these plot lines, you’re not losing track, yourself.
“Murphy’s Law”: Simply stated, this is a plot tool that says, “whatever can go wrong, will.” I’m just going to say right away… be careful with this one. It’s really frustrating for your audience to watch the characters fail or lose or face misfortune over and over and over again. It makes it feel like nothing will ever come out of rooting for them, so you may as well give up now. Murphy’s Law can be great in the proper proportions, please, let your characters have some victories, or there’s no point to it.
And hey, don’t forget about your inner conflicts.You never know when those are going to have the opportunity to cause trouble.
Give ‘em hell, kids!*
***disclaimer: you do not have to be a kid to give them hell.
“Do you have
any advice on writing fight scenes? The type of scene I’m writing is mostly
hand to hand combat between two experts. I’m definitely not an expert so when I
try to write it, the scene ends up sounding repetitive and dull.”
Fore note: This post is coauthored by myself and one of my amazing critique partners, Barik S. Smith, who both writes fantastic fight scenes and teaches mixed martial arts, various artistic martial arts, and weapons classes.
I (Bryn) will tell you a secret: I trained MMA for
seven years, and when I write authentic hand to hand fight scenes, they sound
The problem with fight scenes in books is that
trying to describe each punch and kick and movement (especially if it’s the
only thing you’re describing) creates a fight that feels like it’s in slow
center of gravity, she held her right hand tight to her face and threw a jab
towards his chin. He shifted his weight, ducking under her punch. His hair
brushed against her fist, and he stepped forward, launching a shovel hook into
her exposed side.
But your brain can only read so fast. In real
life that series of events would take an instant, but I needed a full eight
seconds to read and comprehend it, which gave it an inherent lethargic feel.
So, we have two primary problems:
How do we describe this fight in a way the reader can understand
and keep track of?
How do we maintain a fast paced, interesting fight once we’ve
broken down the fight far enough for readers to understand it?
(We will get back to these, I promise.) But
for now, let’s look at…
Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.
Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.
The need to be right, to diminish another person in order to gain a greater sense of self, is a subtle kind of violence. If we gain our sense of identity from this process, we will perpetually be looking for conflict and enemies, subconsciously surrounding ourselves with negativity, compulsively bringing pain to ourselves and those around us. We’ll always be looking for the next problem, the next argument. To define ourselves through conflict in this way is to forever deny ourselves peace.
Deepening Social and Political Conflict in your Fiction
In many speculative fiction works, war or civil unrest is common, sometimes it’s a given. And yet so often, these grand, world-shattering wars are shallow when looked at straight-on. If you think about the history of the conflict or the spark that sent the nations to war, you can come up kind of dry. A lot of readers are tired of “WAR” being the default backdrop of a story, especially when it’s used as a prop rather than handled with the care it should be.
So how do you make sure that your social and political conflicts don’t just provide a canvas to your story, but help deepen and strengthen the world and the characters therein? Simple! Just do a little thinking!
What are they fighting over/why are they fighting?
Misconceptions or misunderstanding
Political or social ideologies
Who is the root of the conflict between?
Nation & Nation
Government & People
Two factions of people
Parts of the same government
Government & Church/Religious group
Church & People
Government & Private institution
Or does it span numerous groups?
How has it spread?
How long has this conflict been going on?
What was the origin point of this disagreement?
How quickly have things escalated?
How has magic or technology figured into the conflict as it is and as it’s developed?
What has motivated the continuation of this fighting?
What level of devastation have the people dealt with?
What is the military structure of the two sides?
How much do your characters know and understand about the history or reasons surrounding the war? How does that influence their feelings toward it?
Are there outside influences that are escalating the situation by getting involved? Perhaps manipulating or aiding one side?
What event triggered the initial conflict? The war (if they’re two separate things)?
Do the people remember what started the war, or has too much time passed?
How has the constant presence of war altered the society and culture?
How much fear is present in the day-to-day life of the citizens?
How do parents handle the knowledge that their children will undoubtedly go off to war at X age?
How has the family structure changed with the constant absence of soldiers?
Does lineage play any part in how likely a child is to be recruited or what level they start at?
How hardened have people come to war and death?
When does soldier training start for children? Is there a gender divide on who fights and who doesn’t? How is “fitness” determined for combat?
Has there been any tries at peace between the warring factions? How were they handled? Why did they fail?
Have art, literature, music etc. survived the enduring war? How has the umbrella of unrest affected the arts?
What do the people believe this war is trying to accomplish? Or do they accept it as a part of life that will likely never go away?
How do people cope with the upheaval of their lives?
How are soldiers selected and trained?
How informed are the general citizens?
How in-danger are the non-combatant people?
Are emotions running rampant, or are they in check? Or is ignorance bliss for most people?
How quickly did the inciting incident lead to the full-on war?
How well- or ill-tempered are the leaders of the sides and how does that contribute to the way the delegations, exchanges, and treaties are handled?
Are the people of the general public on board with going to war, or are they angry about their leaders’ involvement?
How well-documented and reported are the goings-on at the front lines/in governmental offices?
Why are the people unhappy or unsettled?
What groups are trying to resolve the issues or help the needy during the fragile times?
What are the opposing sides/ideas trying to accomplish and how are they balanced over discontentment rather than heading straight to war?
How much pressure is there to start an uprising?
Has the disagreement between some groups brought unity to others?
Is the unrest more mental and political, or are there mobs rioting in the streets?
Are there rumors (true or not) circulating that are adding to the tension?
Is there a press involved? How are their reportings affecting the people? How are they viewed by the ones in power?
How long has this unrest been present? Do people think that it will eventually lead to a revolution or war…or are they just resigned to the way things are?
The longer the story, the more failures there should be and
the greater the change that should occur.
This is the case for anything you write, but the more
episodic the series is, the more this holds true. TV series, ongoing web series,
and web comics are the most obvious examples of this.
Basically what this means is that your characters can’t succeed
at everything they try to do. One thing about shows like Supernatural (the
early seasons) is that you as the viewer know that, for the most part, by the
end of every episode, the Monster of the Week will have been defeated and
everyone you care about will still be alive and healthy. There are overarching
plots, but they are tangential to most episodes and don’t affect much.
In Stargate SG-1, on the other hand, they spend eight season
facing one major enemy (the Goa’uld), and they spend many of the episodes
fighting the Goa’uld in some form or another. And sometimes they fail and the
Goa’uld win, and sometimes they win and that later helps the Goa’uld win, and
sometimes they don’t fight the Goa’uld at all, and those missions may be either
successful or not to a lesser degree. Beyond that, there are lower level
failures: they try to make a spaceship and it almost kills some of them, they
try to make a new spaceship, it doesn’t work as hoped at a pivotal moment and
they almost lose the entire planet, they build a giant spaceship and it gets
stolen (briefly), they build more giant spaceships and one gets shot down over
a planet and then later they need to get that spaceship home and it
(temporarily) gets stuck in a giant sentient gas cloud. All of this means that
sometimes they don’t have a spaceship that can do what they need even though
they’ve been trying to build one for most of the show, but at the end of the
show, they end up with spaceships whose capabilities and weaknesses play a
pivotal role in the show.*
My point in recounting all of that (other than to get you
all to watch Stargate) is to show that, especially when you have a long series
where you want to show a great deal of growth (and I’ll explain why you need
that in a second), you can’t just have them win every time they try to grow or
every time they try to defeat an enemy. You have to have them fail, too, or
there will be no stakes and it will be hard to suspend disbelief.
So…why do you need
Basically, if you end up in the same place that you started,
what was the point of your story?
Well, you cry, they defeated the major enemy. Isn’t that
And to that I ask (because I like holding imaginary teaching
sessions): If they could defeat the major enemy (or if they could get the
girl/boy/non-binary person, or if they could get into the school they wanted,
or if they could do whatever else they want to do) with the capabilities they
had in the beginning, why didn’t they? There is no need for a story if your
characters have everything they need to succeed when the story starts.
And as for why you
need failure? Here are three reasons.
One, failure is realistic.
Things rarely work well on the first try, especially more than once, which
means that the more things a character (or group, organization, etc.) is
trying, the more they should fail. If you think about someone trying to learn a
language, they basically never (without an eidetic memory) remember all words
the first time they see/hear them, or use grammar perfectly on the first try,
or pronounce every word correctly. They will get some, but they will rarely get
all. The same should go for someone who is trying to learn how to fight, for
example. Even if you get everything right the first time you are shown it
(which may or may not happen), you’re not going to get it right every time. You
might fail more at some things than at others, or fail at the same thing over
and over. Sometimes it’s because you don’t understand how to do it, sometimes
it’s because your brain and your body aren’t communicating well, and sometimes
it’s because your muscles just aren’t strong enough or your body isn’t flexible
enough for it to work. Those are all failures that can and do happen in real
Two, failure raises
the stakes. If you know the main characters are going to succeed at
everything they try, or that their failures aren’t going to have any
consequences beyond that episode (or chapter, etc.), there are no stakes. There
is no concern for whether the character will do well or whether they will be
ready in time, because they always are. There is no risk, because there is no
Three, failure is interesting.
As we see in Stargate, entire episodes can be built around failures.
Failures make for interesting storylines, and sometimes successes that turn
into failures can turn into even more interesting storylines. You defeat the
Big Bad only to have a Bigger Bad rise up because of it? That’s a great
storyline, and shows what was ultimately a failure by the characters. You stop
someone for personal reasons at the expense of stopping someone for strategic
reasons? Great storyline, because it not only prolongs and changes the
conflict, it also adds an opportunity for personal growth and/or conflict into
With that, failures can also cause really interesting
interpersonal interactions. Let’s so all of the characters are counting on Bob
to pull off one part of the plan, and despite trying his best, Bob fails. Now
everyone blames Bob (or maybe some subset of them blame Bob, depending on their
personalities) and it causes tension in the group. Maybe this tension
ultimately leads to Bob leaving because he can’t take the blame anymore. Now
you have a splintered group all from Bob’s one failure.
What types of growth
and failure can you have?
(I’m glad you asked, me.)
Here are some examples (primarily for militaristic/adventure
type stories, but there’s a mix)**:
Building an army (or a group of people)
Not be able to convince people to
Have traitors in the midst
Have large numbers die/be killed
Have people defect
differences with allies
Building a new form a transportation
Not have it ready in time
Have it not go far enough
Have it not go fast enough
Have it fail mid-journey
Have it explode mid-journey
Building a weapon
Not have it ready in time
Have it not work
Have it explode in testing
Have it fail during use
Learning to fight
Not be ready in time
Hurt self while training
Not have the strength
Not have the endurance
Not have the magical capacity
Not understand the theory
Not perform key rituals
Perform key rituals wrong
Not have key materials
Learning a language
Not understand grammar
Be unable to pronounce words
Be unable to understand spoken
Know the wrong dialect
Have the wrong key
Looking for something
Follow misleading clues
Have someone else find it first
Not have sufficient forces
Not have sufficient ability to
Lose too many forces
Be unable to hold territory
Getting a romantic partner
Make bad decisions while
Forget significant dates/events
Say inappropriate or mean things
Misunderstand what is being said
Getting a degree
Not having enough money
Not studying enough
Not getting good enough grades
Not having the time
Having other life issues that
distract from it
Forming a government
Have ideological splits
Have political splits
Have factions form
Have coup attempts
Be unable to govern
Be unable to create a working
Be unable to create adequate civil
service (police, roads, etc.)
*Of course, Stargate has some of its own issues with this,
like the fact that Daniel has been brought back to life more than once, so the viewers stop believing that Daniel is ever
**When I use the term failure, I don’t mean that it is the fault of the character or organization (necessarily, though in some cases it might be). I just mean that it is not-success.
SYRIA, Douma : A wounded Syrian boy cries at a makeshift hospital
following a reported air strike by government forces in the rebel-held
area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on November 18, 2015. AFP
PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY