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Get Pushy—Push Character Conflict and Reader Emotion

February 7, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 7, 2015

While novels can be differentiated by a variety of elements—genre, theme, setting, level of humor, and the writer’s style, a few among many—writers can make any story stand out due to entertaining plots, captivating characters, and high-quality writing.

When we study entertaining and well-written fiction, we often talk about character and plot, the “big two” fiction elements. Dialogue and setting are also vital and receive their share of attention, but character and plot needs get a whole lot of the discussion from writers, readers, editors, and critics. And that makes sense since stories revolve around the people of fiction and the causally related events that make up their stories.

But studying character and plot alone is not sufficient for a grounding in the fiction elements. It certainly won’t answer a writer’s every question and meet every story need. Understanding a character’s motivation and accurately portraying that motivation via dialogue, action, thought, and flashbacks is important, but it’s not the whole story. And gaining an understanding of related plot events, weaving plot and character together, still doesn’t present the full picture.

Writers have to consider a wide range of additional factors. In terms of this discussion, they need to remember the reader.

Writers can get so caught up in the mechanics of a story that they forget that real people have to enjoy it. Real people with expectations regarding genre and subject matter, and limited time in which to read.

While a story’s events have to fit the characters and setting, a story isn’t complete without an appeal to readers who can appreciate it. And no matter how well plotted or how complex and compelling the main character(s), a novel needs more. A novel needs to appeal to the reader. And two major ways to ensure that a story appeals to readers is for the writer to pay attention to character conflict and reader emotions.

I’ve addressed both conflict and reader emotion before, and in a variety of ways. Yet reminders are always useful.

These are two important topics that I see ignored or underutilized again and again in manuscripts and sometimes in published books.

So let’s talk a bit about character conflict and reader emotion. The two topics can be related, but there’s not always a direct link between them. Let’s look at them as individually necessary elements for memorable fiction rather than as related elements. They can touch at multiple points, but they can also diverge. Yet they both serve the purpose of keeping readers captivated by a story, so that’s the link I’m going for here. We’ll leave other links for a different article.

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Let’s first look at some of the major tasks of the novelist. There are many others, but I’m going to list a few of the biggies here—

~  make something happen

~  involve fascinating characters in those events

~  make those fascinating characters care about those events

~  capture the reader’s attention

~  touch the reader’s emotions

~  make readers care about the something that happens as well as about the characters involved in those events

Okay, so far this is pretty basic and simple. Every writer should work at these tasks for every piece of fiction. But how about we add a couple more tasks for the writer.

~  Every writer should work at these tasks for every chapter in every piece of long fiction.

~  Every writer should work at these tasks for every scene in every piece of long fiction.

Did the six simple tasks just become exponentially complex?

I would say yes. While we think it should be easy to remember six simple tasks, in reality, we don’t always remember. And the tasks aren’t always so simple.

And in the writer’s real world, there are quite a few more than six tasks to keep up with.

So does that mean a writer can skimp on her attention to these tasks?

No, no, and no.

Fleshing out a novel, completing every last task and polishing every page requires time. Plenty of writers can dash off a plot, a few engaging scenes, some hot dialogue. But not all writers can finish a novel the way it deserves to be finished. Some don’t finish it at all.

If a writer doesn’t rewrite and edit for the reader, the story is not complete.

Fluffing through some of these tasks means that they don’t get the attention they need to get in order to do the work a writer asks of them. Sure, a novel may have some memorable moments, but if the writer—if you—skips some of the steps or shortchanges some of the fiction elements, the story suffers. It may be lopsided. It may have great moments as well as crappy ones. It may be exceptionally disappointing because it came so close to being a satisfying read before sputtering out.

The point is that writers shouldn’t skimp on any writing element, especially those they think they have a handle on, those they think they covered in a handful of chapters, those they think are not worth a second, third, or fourth round of rewrites because the issue was already addressed.

The thing is, some issues need to be addressed in every scene. And some writers simply don’t understand that or don’t believe it or lose sight of that truth when faced with the thousands of other issues involved in writing (or editing) a book.

Are you guilty of not checking every scene for such elements because you simply got tired of doing the same tasks again and again? Did you tell yourself you could let some of these tasks slide because you’d covered them in most of the chapters, so the story should be all right?

Whatever the reason for not addressing these issues in every chapter and scene, you need to overcome it. If you intend to write a strong story, you have to include strong elements. And include them in force. At least enough to cover every scene and to last until the final page is turned.

And you need to strengthen the weaker elements.

If scenes don’t catch the attention of readers, you risk readers skipping those scenes. A reader skips enough scenes, he’ll wonder why he’s bothering to read the book. He may even toss the book aside. After all, if the writer can’t be bothered to make every scene and chapter interesting, spending time to get each element perfect, the reader certainly can’t be expected to spend time with those scenes and chapters.

So the task for the writer is to make every scene appeal in some way.

We already know that conflict and emotions can capture the reader, so there’s no excuse not to include these elements in every scene.

There’s no reason to include boring scenes. No, not every scene will reach the highest height in terms of the conflict level or the lowest depths in terms of emotions, but every scene should have some conflict and some emotional element.

Two Necessary Elements

While you could include the aforementioned six tasks on a list and check that list against your chapters and scenes (and you should), you could also simplify the tasks for at least one edit/rewrite pass. You’d still want to check your list against your scenes, but you can make the list shorter at least once. Simply check every scene—yes, every scene—for two items. Those two items? Character conflict and a goad for reader emotion.

Okay . . . What does that mean?

You probably already know that fiction turns on conflict, that there is no dramatic story without it. Scenes and chapters and stories without conflict are uninvolving for readers. So you can’t include conflict in scenes one through five, skip it in scenes six through ten, and then include it again in the next five scenes. Not if you want readers to read every single scene. (And you do want that, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t include every scene.)

Conflict must be present in every scene. There’s really no way around this truth.

Every single scene in a novel must contain conflict.

And that means you have to put it there. And you have to check your drafts scene by scene to make sure it’s there. And you have to check scenes again after you make changes to the story to ensure that not only is conflict present in every scene, but that the conflict is different from scene to scene.

Repetition in conflict—the same people involved, the same issue involved, the same level of conflict, the same proposed solutions—is every bit the problem as having no conflict. Each scene’s conflict must be examined in relation to the conflict of surrounding scenes. Conflict issues can be revisited throughout a story, of course, but every story needs more than one type and source of conflict.

Is it any wonder that some scenes and chapters don’t contain conflict? Who wants to keep checking for it? Who wants to make sure the conflict in chapter three is different from, deeper than, the conflict in chapter two? Who wants to make sure there are different types of conflict and conflict between multiple characters? Who wants to make sure that every conflict has consequences?

Great writers want to do these things. You should want to do them too. Maybe in the short term such activities are boring. But in the long run, attention to detail guarantees that your readers won’t be bored. And if someone is going to be bored, it would be better for your sales if that person is you.

Conflict

While you’re checking for the presence of conflict, you’ll want to make sure that there is variety in the sources of conflict—character A taking on character B, character C’s interrupted life, character D’s mother-in-law. While some sources of conflict will be consistent over the length of a story, each story also needs conflict to rise from different sources.

Your main character might think he can handle conflict with his nemesis, but how does he do when his girlfriend, boss, father, and best friend all push at him as well? The different sources of conflict help keep the character off balance and make the story unpredictable.

Also, levels of conflict should change throughout a story. Sometimes a mild disagreement is enough of a conflict; at other times, a full-out argument or fight might be needed. Maybe characters need to become enraged and attack one another or blow up something.

Some conflict may be sneaky, other conflict blatant. But there must be conflict.

And conflict must make your characters react in a variety of ways.

Sometimes conflict brings about predictable results, as with the man who punches another man every time his wife is insulted.

But other times the conflict may be so harsh and unexpected that a character reacts in ways that surprise him, surprise other characters and the reader.

The point is, you want variety in all aspects of conflict—the source, the level, the outcome, the parties involved, the length of the conflict, and even the resolution.

Conflict Levels

You may wonder how you can include conflict in every scene without resorting to fights. You know every novel doesn’t have a fight in every chapter, much less every scene, so how can you work conflict into each scene without going overboard? Your characters would never come to blows, so how can you possibly include conflict?

If your mind protests against the inclusion of conflict, remind it that conflict does not only mean physical fights and raging arguments. Levels of conflict can be seen as falling along a continuum. Yes, there are extremes, but there are low and intermediate levels as well. And many don’t involve bloody knuckles.

For hints about ways to approach conflict, consider the following issues as triggers for conflict or as triggers to exacerbate conflict. Triggers will not all lead to the same level of conflict or to conflict of similar duration.

disagreement

bump in the road

unexpected change

catastrophic change

crisis

series of crises

difference of opinion

different temperaments

different goals

different outlooks

different belief systems

different problem-solving techniques

different coping mechanisms

different habits and hobbies

different natural preferences (likes and dislikes)

differing knowledge levels/lack of information—Oh, I didn’t know that

differences between male and female approaches to problems

difference problem-solving approaches for people of different ages

Any one of these could lead to conflict and also to different levels of conflict. Not every disagreement has to turn into a fight. Sometimes a disagreement or difference of opinion may produce an action as simple as a dig at another character.

An example? How about messing up the obsessively neat towels hanging from the towel bar. Can you see it? One woman can’t get what she wants, so she pulls down two of the four towels, messing up the perfect alignment. The always perfect alignment. And her sister glares at her, watching as she saunters out the door, a grin on her face for having one-upped her neat-freak sister.

That’s conflict, and no fists were thrown. No harsh words either, although throwing fists and harsh words are two legitimate options for conveying conflict. But it’s enough conflict to send the characters off into reactions and other actions. It’s enough conflict to make readers uncomfortable.

And looking at the issue in a different way, there are even more potential sources of conflict. Consider traits integral to characters, responses not necessarily based on the situation or a given moment in time, but on the character’s basic personality. These include—

abrasive personality

competitive nature/need to win

family competition

psychological problems/personality disorders

selfishness

greed

feelings of hopelessness

fear of failure

From the few items on these lists, you can no doubt imagine that different sources of conflict would produce different types of reactions—arguments, physical fights, the silent treatment, reckless behavior, telling tales and revealing secrets, and so on. And you can imagine how characters who repeatedly butt heads will eventually exchange more than heated words or the middle finger. A buildup of anger or fear or even impatience demands a release.

The point is, every scene needs conflict. Which means you have to put it there. And you have to make sure that conflict is sufficient for the events of the scene and for the reactions you need to create in the characters. That means that the conflict you include must lead to something—repercussions, new problems, and so on.

Don’t waste the conflict you introduce—put it to work in that scene, in the next scene, and again five chapters later. Let even “resolved” conflict influence your characters throughout a story. Your readers will remember the conflict and will expect fallout from it. Make sure your characters remember as well.

Conflict can’t simply lie flat on the page—it must produce reactions. That is, there must be purpose behind conflict. And that purpose is to drive characters to react and readers to feel.

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Conflict drives character reactions, but conflict also influences the reader, which is another reason to include it. Yes, you use conflict to drive your characters to act and react, but you also use conflict to make your readers feel.

Reader Emotion

Conflict is not the only element that induces emotion in readers, but it is a great one to use to unsettle them. If you want to raise the tension level in your readers, up the conflict between characters. Make readers fear what might happen. Get them off balance. Frighten them. Shock them. Surprise them. Touch them.

Move them.

There’s little more encouraging for a writer than to hear that a reader cried or shivered or laughed through his story. We want to connect with readers, with their minds and emotions. We want to provoke a reaction. But as with conflict, the writer has to actively provide circumstances that will do the provoking.

Think about poking a stick at your reader. Think actively about ways of challenging readers to feel. Don’t feel bad about making them cry or laugh or jump out of their chairs; you certainly don’t want to leave them feeling nothing.

Touching the reader emotionally is a good thing, not a bad one. And it should be one of a writer’s major goals. It shouldn’t be forgotten or left to chance.

I’m not going to give you a list of ways to push at your readers’ emotions—I’ve covered that subject before and you can link to the articles. But I am putting this reminder out in front of you so you at least remember to check scenes for their emotional elements. If you can’t tell where readers are moved or if they’re moved, ask your beta readers and critique partner. If they’re not touched emotionally in scenes where you expect them to be moved, make some changes. Purposely push the emotional elements to get a rise out of the reader.

And while you won’t necessarily inspire a great a variety of emotions in a single book, you can induce more than one across the length of a novel. So some scenes might lead to smiles, other scenes to sniffling, and another scene to full-out tears.

You don’t need to include the gamut of human emotions in one story, but do look for ways to include complementary emotions, emotions that won’t have readers battered by being flung from one extreme to another. The point here is not to restrict the emotional element to a single emotion while at the same time not throwing every emotion from one psychological theory or another at your readers.

Still, exploring options regarding the emotional component is probably a good idea for most writers. We tend to include ways to induce sorrow or fear, emotions common and familiar to all of us, but there are other emotions writers can provoke in the reader. Include emotional triggers that make readers—

cry

laugh

shiver

feel frightened

feel apprehensive

anticipate

worry

have hope

feel angry or enraged

feel surprised

feel unsatisfied

wonder

judge

feel disappointment

When readers feel, you can be sure they are engaged. To keep readers engaged, tap into their emotions again. Raise and lower the emotional level of a story (in the reader’s eyes) by purposely addressing elements (actions, dialogue, and thoughts) that push emotional buttons, and do so on a scene-by-scene basis.

Pull back in some scenes so that when you need to create an emotional impact in a subsequent scene, you can do so. Yes, I’m suggesting that you lull the reader into feeling good so that you can later overwhelm him with an emotional blow.

But don’t lull the reader into boredom. We’re talking about surprising the reader at a moment he doesn’t expect it, not putting him to sleep before that moment arrives.

Putting It All Together

The thrust of this message is that both conflict and emotion-inducing moments need to be included in novels. They need to be purposely added to every scene in a way that directs the ebb and flow of the interaction between characters and influences the emotions of the reader.

Conflict and the setup for inducing emotions in readers cannot be left to chance—writers have to include the right mix of elements on purpose and may even have to devote one rewrite to working through these critical issues.

Once you have the conflict and emotional triggers, make sure you’ve pushed hard enough in your use of them. Don’t hesitate to truly take advantage of the power of conflict and the emotions. When it’s time to raise the stakes in terms of conflict, push the stakes through the roof. When it’s time to make the readers bawl, give them more than a single moment of sorrow or disappointment. Don’t quit before you’ve tested the limits.

The Shortlist for Editors—

~  Check for conflict and emotional triggers in the manuscripts you edit. Push for intensity at key scenes, but make sure that both elements are included in every scene.

~  Remind writers to include reactions to and consequences of conflict in order to compel the story forward.

~  For emotion-producing moments, encourage writers to push when the scene or story warrants a deeper impact.

~  Help writers plumb the depths of some emotion at least once—don’t allow readers to escape the tough emotions too easily and don’t allow writers to hold back out of fear. Pile on the emotions at least once per story—you can always cut back if the resulting emotion is overkill, or becomes excessively maudlin or unbelievable, or exceeds the boundaries of the fiction.

~  Help writers strike the balance between not enough and too much.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Craft & Style

11 Responses to “Get Pushy—Push Character Conflict and Reader Emotion”

  1. What a great post. I even took notes. Thanks so much!

  2. Phil H says:

    Repetition in conflict—the same people involved, the same issue involved, the same level of conflict, the same proposed solutions—is every bit the problem as having no conflict.

    Thank you. Now…what if the recurring conflict is a character’s behavior and (we’re) all to the point of just slapping them? Enough, wake up. Ramp up the tension, take the whole level of consequence up? Force some emotional showdowns?

    Character one is getting forged by the consequences of an inability to let go of what hurt to the point of ridiculousness. About all that’s left is narrow escape standing in line at McDonald’s next to Ted Bundy and finding out she has a flat tire. (We) have all lost patience. There’s too much still on the table to clean up. I wrote myself into this mess. Any ideas? Besides they all get run over by a bus or a massive earthquake?

    • Kaizen Kitty says:

      Phil, you can always go back and rewrite the parts of your novel that don’t fit. If you have written yourself into a corner, it’s time to backtrack, figure out where it went wrong and change things.

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