In my previous post, I talked about how to lay the foundation of introducing deep conflict in a narrative. I’ve got a few additional tips to ensure that the tension remains genuine and compelling.
Evolve the Conflict: Conflicts shouldn’t remain still or the same. As your story progresses, let the conflict evolve, intensify, or even transform into something entirely different. This dynamic quality can make your narrative more unpredictable and engaging. For example, in Double Take (releases January 2024), my heroine’s initial conflict was with her ex-fiancé. He was abusive and controlling. He winds up dead at the beginning of the story, and one would think my heroine’s life would return to normal. As normal as one could expect after a traumatic event like that—and it does for a time. But then someone tries to kill her eighteen months later. Why? Well, the conflict with her ex evolved into something else, something that she and the readers don’t figure out until much later.
Diversify Sources of Conflict: Relying solely on one source of tension can be monotonous. Mix it up. Combine personal vendettas with environmental challenges or internal dilemmas with external pressures. For example, your heroine’s dream has always been to open a B&B; but she can never seem to save enough money because she has to help support her ailing father. But when he passes away, he leaves her an old family home located in a small town she’s never even heard of. And while she’s torn about leaving the only home she’s ever known, she’s a little excited at the new adventure looming ahead. Once everything is taken care of with her father’s tiny estate and she has the deed to the new place in her possession, she heads off to no-name town and drives up to view her inheritance. Of course, it looks like the Bates Hotel, right? Probably complete with Mother. The place is falling apart and needs tons of work. Mentally, she’s calculating the dwindling dollars while she wonders what in the world she’s gotten herself into.
Okay, let’s stop there. What are the different sources of conflict here? (1) lack of funds; (2) the internal conflict that comes with change—i.e., new town, new people, etc.; (3) falling-down new home that’s going to take money to repair, putting off the much-needed income she’d planned on; and so on. You may want to throw in an obnoxious neighbor, a woman her father had been in love with before marrying her mother, etc. The sources are unlimited; and the more you throw in, the more exciting the story will be.
Show, Don’t Tell: It’s a basic rule of writing, but worth reiterating. Instead of merely telling the reader about the emotional turmoil a character feels, show it through their actions, decisions, dialogue, and surroundings. Let’s use the example above. We’ll call the heroine Sherry.
Example 1: The funeral was finally over, and it was time for Sherry to leave. She climbed in her packed SUV and headed for No Name, North Carolina. She really wished her friend Allison, a middle-school math teacher, could come with her, but Allison would never do something so spontaneous. Her friend called and chatted while Sherry followed the GPS. Two hours later, she pulled up, only to stare in shock at the sight before her. The crumbling home was like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It towered three stories high, and she felt quite sure she might find a dead body inside.
Example 2: Sherry climbed into her SUV, grateful to those who’d given her father a well-deserved, honor-filled send off. The funeral had been lovely. Sad, but befitting the man she’d loved all her life. She took a deep breath and punched the address to her new home into the GPS. “All righty, then,” she whispered, “this is it. A new start.” It was time to watch her dreams come true.
Her phone rang, and she tapped the screen. “Hey.”
“Just wanted to say I’m going to miss you,” Allison said. Allison Caldwell, Sherry’s best friend since grade school.
“You can always come with me.” Sherry wasn’t even kidding.
“Don’t tempt me. You know I hate my job.”
“You don’t hate it, but a change might not hurt.”
“I’m a burned-out, middle-school math teacher with no prospects for marriage or a career change—discounting your current offer to run away—but I love the kids, so I’ll stay.”
For the next two hours, Allison kept her entertained and laughing with stories of her students and Sherry sent up a silent prayer of thanks to God for putting the woman in her life.
Then she pulled into the drive of the address and simply stared at the three-story home in front of her. She checked the address once more and could make out the tilted numbers on the peeling porch column: 212. God help her, she had the right place.
“Sherry? Sherry, are you there? Helloooo?”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I’m going to be living in the Bates Motel,” Sherry finally managed to croak. “Complete with Mother, I’m afraid.”
Do you see the difference between the two? I’ve shown you part of the conflict in example two instead of telling you all about it like in example one.
Use Subtext: Not all conflicts need to be “in your face.” Sometimes, the most profound tensions are those that are subtle or unspoken. The silent tension between characters or the internal battles they fight can often be more powerful than explicit confrontations. Literaryterms.net defines subtext as “the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation. The subtext comes to be known by the reader or audience over time, as it is not immediately or purposefully revealed by the story itself.” Let’s look at an example.
This is the setup: You have a family man who’s gotten himself deep into debt with his gambling. He’s not a bad person per se, but he has issues. He really does love his family and had convinced himself that he was only trying to win enough money to provide for them. But when it comes time to pay his debt, he can’t. Goons come to his house, and his wife answers the door before he can stop her. When they tell her they’re work friends of his, she lets them in.
“Oh, sure, any friend of Ben’s is welcome. Come on in.” Carol stepped back and Ben’s breath caught in his lungs.
He shifted to block the door. “I’m sure they’re too busy to socialize, Honey. They’re just here to chat about some stuff for work. I’ll take care of them.” He locked eyes with the man he knew only as Bruno. “Right?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bruno said, “we might have more time on our hands than you would think. We enjoy visiting with our co-worker’s families.” His flat gaze drifted to Carol, and his lips twisted upward.
Not exactly a smile. Ben shuddered. “Like I said, Carol, they don’t have time to visit.” He forced his way out through the door and shut it behind him. “What are you guys doing here? You know I’m going to pay you back.” His leg jiggled, and he stilled it with a conscious effort even while his heart hammered in his throat.
“Oh, we know you’ll pay us back. We’re not worried about that. You’ve got a beautiful family you want to protect.”
Another shiver rippled up Ben’s spine.
Right. The words were benign. The meaning behind them was not.
Okay, that’s enough for now; but don’t worry, I’ve got more to cover next time. After reading through these ideas for adding in more conflict and the examples I’ve given, which ones resonate with you?
Have a blast throwing your characters into turmoil!