Conflict in Literary Fiction

by William H. Coles

Conflict is the essence of drama, and all literary fiction requires drama to please the reader and to succeed as a story. At the story core, conflict is the momentum of happening and change and is crucial on all levels for delivering information and building characterization.  Conflict is the source of change that engages a reader, and in a story, conflict and action does what description and telling of feelings and situations do not.

The best storytellers seem to have a knack for engaging the reader, bringing them inside the skin of the story. Readers are carried through a story with a succession of related action scenes.  However, many contemporary authors don’t seem to have the ability or desire to do this for their readers. There is the increasing habit of storytelling about me—my thoughts, my life, my accomplishments–often under the guise of fiction. But for lasting success–a story that will carry into the future of great literature as an art form–authors should strive for most of their story ideas to be expressed in creative fiction with drama and conflict, and not as authorial catharsis.  It is the way to write great stories.

In life everything seems to move toward inertia. Throw a rock into the air, it falls to the ground and lies motionless.  Pour water into a glass, it flows and settles and becomes motionless.  We are born, we are active, but we are always moving toward the solitude and inaction of motionless death. In fiction, writers succumb to this natural tendency to write stories that seek a state of inertia, a state where nothing happens. This is especially prominent when a story relies on narrative description of past events–description and exposition in place of dramatic action scenes. Inertia is avoided by in-scene and in-the-moment action, by learning  to instill conflict in narrative that must press on to resolution or no resolution, and by assuring an overall conflict embedded in all aspects of the prose.

Here are ways conflict can be embedded in prose.

  1. Write lively dialogue.

Conflict in dialogue is essential. Even snippets of dialogue should have elements that interest a reader.

Almost never is this type of interchange useful:

“Do you plan to join the church?”
“Yes, I think I will.”

This is flat, uninteresting dialogue. This type of dialogue is so disruptive to flow, it must be revised or omitted.  The information, if necessary, can be provided in a few words of narrative: I decided to join the church.

In order to keep the story moving, lively dialogue with conflict is needed.  In the examples below (overwritten for emphasis), note how the use of conflict helps establish the emotion of the dramatic present and enhance characterization. It also allows, when appropriate to situation and character, subtle back story information to be layered into the story writing. Here are some alternatives.

“Do you plan to join the church?”
“It’s none of your damn business”

OR

“Do you plan to join the church?”
“The church never did anything for me, why should I join?”

OR

“Do you plan to join the church?”
“Your piety irritates me.”

OR

“Do you plan to join the church?”
“Will you join too?”

  1. Be dramatic in the storytelling.

Drama is storytelling and in fiction, dramatic elements are necessary to move the reader sentence by sentence, idea by idea.  And drama provides the tension. Conflict is established and readers, especially if they sympathize (not necessarily like)  the character, become  tense about what will happen. In literary fiction, withholding information to evoke tension is not often useful. When the author and the narrator know who killed the parson, tension is in the discovery, and the process of discovery, of the murderer. It’s mechanical and may often seem contrived. In literary fiction, contrivance is not effective. Characters and their decisions and foibles drive the plot. All plot information essential to the story is usually delivered when needed (not withheld for tension). Now readers become involved in what will happen to a character they care about. And they will discover tension in a series of logically structured and logically interrelated scenes filled with conflict in the language, in the syntax, among the characters, and in plotting.

  1. Use language with conflict and energy.

The beauty of language is enhanced when motion and conflict can be incorporated in the prose to maintain a reader’s interest word by word. In writing, the reader’s mind is active in creating and forming images. Basically, authors don’t create still-life images, they paint portraits that intrigue and engage the reader with scenes that live on the page. There was a bird on a limb. Static. The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action. The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of energy.

  1. Word choice

Some objects as nouns have life and motion, some don’t.

Sparrow.  Nail.  Butterfly. Comet.  Ocean.  Atom.  Building.  Pebble.  Tadpole.  Vacuum.  Hurricane. Skeleton.  Flame.  Puddle.

Find those that are animate or inanimate, moving or motionless.  Imagine writing prose while being aware of the quality of the word in regard to movement. Life is movement and change—and the conflict it implies. It should be obvious how word choice can improve the reader interest in well-crafted prose.

Description of animate things, rather than inanimate, is always better for story in fiction. In general, description (and exposition) should always be buried in action for maximum effect.

  1. Modifiers

When an inanimate object is on the page, writers often need to prevent the burned-out effect inanimate objects create. Some inanimate objects, with modification, can imply motion (and impending conflict). Here are examples:

hand/trembling hand;
knife/serrated knife;
car/race car;
gun/Gattling gun, etc.

Action can be implied with similar effects by changing general to specific.

Soil›››muck;
Meteor›››shooting star;
Spice›››cilantro;
Horse›››thoroughbred;
Painting›››hunt scene.

And in the language, it is always wise to strive for motion when the story motion and pacing allow (i.e., don’t drivel, write only what counts for the story). Compare:

He sat in the chair.

This might be improved, if space permits. This has action, imagery, and information.

He put his hands back for support, bent his knees, and painfully lowered himself into the wheelchair.

  1. Syntax and conflict.

Note the way syntax, and how ideas are delivered, can change the energy of a sentence, often by clarifying the conflict.

A basic message: Grandpa killed Granny

At the funeral and for years after, grandfather never mentioned the day he hammered granny to her grave.
Comment, The construction—past, distance, telling–gives a fait accompli tone that might not serve well.

Grandfather killed our granny.
Comment, A telling.  No action.

No one was witness and we had to imagine Grandfather standing over the bed and smashing Granny’s skull with a hammer before she woke.
Comment, Action filtered through character’s imagination but action and conflict present because of in-the-moment construction.

Grandpa stared at the hammer as Granny’s blood began to congeal with hair and fragments of skull bone.
Comment, There is in-scene action with tension present (What happened? Is she dead?)

After he killed Granny with a hammer, Grandfather washed imagined blood off his hands every hour of the day until the skin was raw.
Comment, In-scene action.  Implied emotion of guilt.  Movement. Internal conflict revealed.

We thought Grandfather was an intelligent man, well educated, famous in his own right, but we discovered his major flaw the night we discovered Granny murdered in her bed and Grandfather laughing hysterically a few feet away.
Comment, Telling. Lots of information. The only action is description of the past with Grandfather laughing.  Basically unsuccessful sentence. Energy potential dissipated by complicated construction.

In-scene, in-the-moment action, rather than telling, invigorates the language. Note also how changing position and content of phrases changes emphasis. In general, the basic noun/verb structure that comes last in sentence or phrase construction is often strongest in effect. Note too, the more general, rather than specific, the sentence, the less effective it is. Complex constructions, when compared to simple terse constructions, lose energy and impact.

  1. Build Emotional conflict

Drama and emotions.

In a good story, emotions of characters never match exactly. Even in a love story, the love interests need to be unequal–at least one never sure if this is love, or one loaded with guilt from a previous affair, etc. These out of sync emotions is what will add dramatic energy to the scene writing. It is, after all, conflict, and conflict is drama. Keep emotions changing and flowing in nature and intensity, and always relate the emotion to the core need or desire of the character.

Internal conflict examples

Love/hate
Sympathy/blame
Fear/sentimentality
Pliant/resistant
Understanding/unyielding

  1. Use humor as source of change and conflict.

All humor requires a change, disparity, surprise, that cause a change in perception that activates a humor response. Humor can express conflict. Ridicule, a type of humor, is an example. Woman sports commentator to on-air, older-man colleague: “What was it like, Cliffy, when you played tennis . . . you know . . . in the age of the dinosaurs, when the technology couldn’t give us the speed of the ball on serve.” Here the attempt of humor by ridiculing the age difference implies competitive conflict in the relationship, and says that the woman commentator may be unreasonable and insecure (character development). An example of embedded conflict in the language illuminated in a humor attempt.

Summary

Conflict in storytelling and in the prose used for storytelling in literary fiction is essential. There are unlimited ways to discover the use of conflict and action. Writers improve by developing a style based on conflict and action to please readers through character development and reader engagement in the story. Persistent practice in writing dramatic prose is necessary throughout a writer’s career.

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Goodreads Change for Authors

Have you seen the NEW Goodreads pricing for GiveAways? That’s right, authors, giveaways aren’t free promotion anymore!!!

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Book Promotion Checklist

Book promotion by the author is the best way to guarantee sales. Do not expect the publisher to promote your book. You, the author, is expected to do the majority of book promotion. Here are some helpful items to help you promote your book:

 

1. A short book description

There are a handful of reasons you’ll need a short, compelling book description (one or two sentences at most): as a soundbite in interviews, as a teaser on your website, as the hook in your press materials and communications with folks in the publishing industry, and maybe even as the tagline in your email signature!

2. A longer book description

Once you’ve hooked ‘em with the sound-bite, they’ll want to read more. Give them another paragraph or two to really sell the book. But don’t get long-winded or you risk losing their interest.

3. Your author bio

So, what’s your story? It’s time to tell the world — in the 3rd person. 2 – 4 paragraphs should be plenty if you tell your story well. If not… well, 2-4 paragraphs might be painful.

4. Web content

Start putting together all the web content you’ll need well in advance of your release.

This includes some of the things mentioned above (bio and book descriptions), but also blog posts announcing the book launch, behind-the-scenes content that gives your readers a glimpse into your writing process for the book, any study-guides or accompanying material that you’ve envisioned for readers, your book trailer, links to retail sites where your book and eBook can be purchased, etc.

5. A good author photo  

In fact, try to get a few good shots. A headshot, a casual shot, one with lots of space or landscape that you can use as a wide header image for Facebook and/or your website.

6. Hi-resolution .jpg of your book cover 

Ask your designer or publisher for a hi-resolution .jpg file of your book cover. You’ll need to both display it and make it available to download on your website (for any bloggers, media folks, or book critics who write about your book).

7. Banners/ads

While you’re talking to your designer, and while your book design is fresh in their mind, ask them to put together any banners, headers, or print ads you think you’ll need in the first 3 months after your book is released. You’re going to be very busy at that point, and you don’t want to have to wait for your designer’s schedule to clear up when you’re in the thick of things.

8. Business cards

They’re old-fashioned. But if you attend writers conferences, they’ll come in handy. We’re talking about writers, after all.

9. Signage 

If you plan on doing signings, readings, or getting a booth at a book fair, you’ll want to invest in some eye-catching, portable signage. It could be a pull-up banner (for big shows) or as simple as an 8×11 laminated sign, but make sure you’ve ordered it long before the event.

10. Press materials

Your press materials (press kit, press release, etc.) will be comprised of some of the things already mentioned: bio, description of the book, plus some of the story behind the book and author, contact info, any standout praise you may’ve already garnered from the press, etc.

When you’re gathering all these elements together into a press kit or press release, keep asking yourself these questions: “Why should anyone care about my story and book, and have I clearly communicated that here?”

11. Book trailer

Book trailers are important. In a world where YouTube is becoming one of the most-used search engines, it sure helps to have some video content available. Plus, book trailers are great content for your own website, for other bloggers, and to mention in your press release. Besides, it gives the impression that you’re really in tune with the times.

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Revision Tips for Writers

 

We can all agree writing is a joy. It’s fun and many of us make our living doing it. But, there are parts of the publishing aspect that can be frustrating and difficult. Most of us find revision to be the most difficult hurdle. “I like it the way it is. Everything there is important and I don’t see anything that needs changing.” How many of us have approached the revision process with that mindset? I think we all have, at times. In other words, you are not alone.

Although I am an editor as well as a writer, I don’t find revising my work to be easy. However, I’ve collected tidbits of advice from several writers and editors. I’ve found them helpful, so I’m sharing them here:

  1. Revise big stuff first, make small edits later. This doesn’t mean you should not correct obvious typos and grammar errors as you notice them. However, you shouldn’t be actively tinkering with word choice until after you’ve nailed down the structure of your piece.
  2. Put the manuscript down and walk away. Writers need at least a little distance from their manuscripts before jumping into revision.
  3. Scan the whole manuscript without reading. Scanning can make big problems more obvious than a writer might not notice when reading closely.
  4. Read carefully. Take your time and read every word. Then, read it out loud. This will help you catch obvious errors and check for smoothness or the “flow.”
  5.  Look for ways to be more concise with your language. Can you turn a 15-word sentence into an 8-word sentence? Can you turn an 8-sentence paragraph into a 5-sentence paragraph? Less almost always means more for the reader.
  6. Use active voice over passive voice. There may be occasions for using passive voice, but for the most part be active.
  7. Vary sentence structure. Don’t fall into the trap of always writing: Noun + Verb + Noun = Sentence. Even if it’s grammatically correct, using the same pattern over and over again will make your manuscript boring. Don’t feel like you have to be creative with every sentence; just check that you’re not falling into a monotonous pattern.
  8. Save each round of revisions as its own file. Start with the first draft. Then, the second draft. Then, the third draft and so on. Saving these files provides a record of your changes and shows your development of the story.
  9. Have someone read the manuscript. The more eyes the better, because they’ll be more objective when reading, and they’re less likely to make “leaps of logic” than you, the writer, might. It is always best to ask someone other than a relative, who naturally will be biased.
  10. Print the manuscript for a final edit. There are things you’ll catch on paper that you won’t on the screen.

Take your time with revision. Set it aside for a few days, a week if you have the time. Then return to the work with a fresh attitude. Save your revised version in a separate file. Be sure you have addressed all of the editor’s comments. Do not ignore them. If there are some changes that you don’t agree with, write the editor a note explaining why the revision called for will change the meaning of your work. It’s best not to take exception to more than one or two editorial changes. If you and the editor are far apart on the way the piece is written, you may wish to withdraw the work and resubmit to another publisher. That, of course, is beyond the topic at hand.

Revision is necessary to polish the work for the reader, and the reader should be foremost in your mind. If you use these revision tips, you’ll be ahead with your revision process and find the editor is not the ogre you imagined.

 

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The Writing Process

The writing process for a book can take several years. During that time, you will write and rewrite many times. It helps to join a writing group, which can help you stay motivated and focused, encourage you and critique your work. If you can’t take criticism, you are at a distinct disadvantage from the beginning. Practice taking criticism from your critique group. DO NOT take criticism personally; they are trying to help you to get published.

Step One

Create a team of those you trust who can help shepherd you through the writing  process, whether you intend to self-publish or you dream big of getting your book picked up by one of the omnipresent Big Six publishing houses.

Step Two

Get a driving force who can throw out realistic and pertinent deadlines. Someone who is an interested third party who keeps you in line for you to attain actual progress. This is crucial so you actually can see the idea into fruition.

Step Three

Write, write, write, take a break, go for a walk or swim, or have coffee with a friend then write some more.

Step Four

Take breaks from time to time. It helps prevent writer’s block. Hint: always take a break just when you’ve decided on a distinct direction for your story. Be sure there’s enough of it down so you won’t lose track and can pick it up readily when you return. Leaving the story at the end of a chapter can cause your mind to go blank. Begin the next chapter don’t leave a blank page for your return.—Best Advice

Step Five

Breathe. Take time to walk away from your masterpiece and breath. Get a fresh perspective from a trusted adviser. Take time to vent about your long writing journey. And take time to walk away for entire days, maybe a week or two. Time when you have left your thoughts on writing to the birds. Free your mind, meditate on life and it’s beauty, but whatever you do, remember that stepping away and thinking of other things can help you re-evaluate what you are putting on each digital or physical page.

Step Six

This one is just a thought: Think about writing a chapter or two at a time, maybe not in the order they’ll appear in the final product. This is a distinct advantage of the word processor over the typewriter.

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Book Promotion Checklist

1. A short book description

There are a handful of reasons you’ll need a short, compelling book description (one or two sentences at most): as a soundbite in interviews, as a teaser on your website, as the hook in your press materials and communications with folks in the publishing industry, and maybe even as the tagline in your email signature!

2. A longer book description

Once you’ve hooked ‘em with the sound-bite, they’ll want to read more. Give them another paragraph or two to really sell the book. But don’t get long-winded or you risk losing their interest.

3. Your author bio

So, what’s your story? It’s time to tell the world — in the 3rd person. 2 – 4 paragraphs should be plenty if you tell your story well. If not… well, 2-4 paragraphs might be painful.

4. Web content

Start putting together all the web content you’ll need well in advance of your release.

This includes some of the things mentioned above (bio and book descriptions), but also blog posts announcing the book launch, behind-the-scenes content that gives your readers a glimpse into your writing process for the book, any study-guides or accompanying material that you’ve envisioned for readers, your book trailer, links to retail sites where your book and eBook can be purchased, etc.

5. A good author photo  

In fact, try to get a few good shots. A headshot, a casual shot, one with lots of space or landscape that you can use as a wide header image for Facebook and/or your website.

6. Hi-resolution .jpg of your book cover 

Ask your designer for a hi-resolution .jpg file of your book cover. You’ll need to both display it and make it available to download on your website (for any bloggers, media folks, or book critics who write about your book).

7. Banners/ads

While you’re talking to your designer, and while your book design is fresh in their mind, ask them to put together any banners, headers, or print ads you think you’ll need in the first 3 months after your book is released. You’re going to be very busy at that point, and you don’t want to have to wait for your designer’s schedule to clear up when you’re in the thick of things.

8. Business cards

They’re old-fashioned. But if you attend writers conferences, they’ll come in handy. We’re talking about writers, after all.

9. Signage 

If you plan on doing signings, readings, or getting a booth at a book fair, you’ll want to invest in some eye-catching, portable signage. It could be a pull-up banner (for big shows) or as simple as an 8×11 laminated sign, but make sure you’ve ordered it long before the event.

10. Press materials

Your press materials (press kit, press release, etc.) will be comprised of some of the things already mentioned: bio, description of the book, plus some of the story behind the book and author, contact info, any standout praise you may’ve already garnered from the press, etc.

When you’re gathering all these elements together into a press kit or press release, keep asking yourself these questions: “Why should anyone care about my story and book, and have I clearly communicated that here?”

11. Book trailer

Book trailers are important. In a world where YouTube is becoming one of the most-used search engines, it sure helps to have some video content available. Plus, book trailers are great content for your own website, for other bloggers, and to mention in your press release. Besides, it gives the impression that you’re really in tune with the times.

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On Using #Hashtags

Do you even know where to start? Or what words or phrases you should be using the hashtag to increase #traffic?

  1. The number one rule to follow when using hashtags, do not overuse them ever. The rule of thumb is to use only two in relevant twitter tweets, and no more than three in blogs. We all know that Google does not like spam and if you use to many hash symbols you can be penalized for spamming both on twitter and on Google.
  2. Hashtags are used to categorize relevant words in tweets and posts. All you have to do is put the hash symbol # before the word with no spaces.
  3. When users click on hashtagged words, he or she may find the rest of the tweet or post.
  4. When users search for a hashtagged word he or she will come across tweets and posts that he or she may not have come across with just a regular search.
  5. Now this is very important. Hashtagged words usually do end in the trending section of twitter. So if you want your post to go viral then you need to use the hash symbol before those words that are most likely to be searched for in the search box.
  6. It is important that the hash be used only with relevant information.
  7. If you want to gain more followers and improve your reputation then you had better get used to using the hash symbol on each and every relevant post or tweet.
  8. All relevant phrases should be short. It is best to just hashtag one word as opposed to a whole phrase. Users searching are more likely to be searching for the hashtagged word.
  9. Always try to use relevant hashtagged words. You can do a quick search for words that have been tagged with search.twitter.com. If you notice that there are relevant words and conversations that come up, you may want to use a word to tag similar to the one used.
  10. Be careful of how you use hashtags. Make sure you are not offending anyone and not making erroneous mistakes online. Twitter will not tolerate any hashtag abuse. Here are the rules about using hashtags from twitter. You can find this at http://www.hashtags.org/platforms/twitter/why-use-hashtags-guide-to-the-micro-blogging-universe/

 

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