In my article last fall, we discussed character and what yours needs to sustain a reader's interest and incite their passion. Whether that is hate or love. Both will keep a reader reading.
Let's take on conflict, as that's the next biggie when building a story or book.
Conflict is what drives your plot and should be set up immediately. Ideally in the first paragraph (using "show," not "tell") when you're also setting up your character(s) and setting. Your inciting incident (what changes the status quo of the story and starts the plot rolling forward) may also appear right away. This is called starting in medias res, Latin for "in the middle of things." Your inciting incident may also start a few pages later but, for a novel, it should begin in the first five to twelve pages (your average chapter length). The sooner the better!
Agents and editors read the first two pages max (sometimes just the first paragraph) to decide if it's worth their time to keep reading. Make it pop from the beginning.
For a short story, conflict would have to show up much sooner. This is where in medias res comes in handy. It's just plain efficient and more interesting. Without it, you're in danger of beginning with too much exposition and killing the reader's interest.
Some ideas for the inciting incident that demonstrates conflict: an uncharacteristic action, an accident, disruption of a character's routine (which could be large or small), chance encounter, mysterious stranger, statement from one character to another that changes everything between them, thwarted expectations, going on the road (journey). The latter is beyond overdone, so please choose something else! Watch out for clichés. Defy expectations.
(By the way, you should also have a few "subconflicts" that either resolve as the story unfolds or increase and intensify the main conflict and its urgency. Adds texture.)
Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice has a great troubleshooting device for introducing conflict, at the start of a story, especially. He says a story requires three things: exposition, development, and drama. Keep these in balance throughout your piece and you'll be fine. To strengthen the start of your story and introduce conflict, use his three-step method: one sentence fulfilling each of the three things.
Exposition: Mary Smith was a single mother of young twins living in New York City.
Development:? After a long absence, her ex-husband showed up with his new wife, wanting to discuss changing the custody arrangement so he and the new wife could see the children.
Drama: "Over my dead body," Mary said.
Of course, you will finesse these sentences so they are not so basic and boring. Perhaps:
On a rainy, March morning, Mary Smith bundled the twins into coats and backpacks, handed them their Dora the Explorer umbrellas, opened the door of their New York City apartment and shrieked in surprise.
Standing there was her ex-husband and a tall blonde in a fur coat. "H-hi. I know you didn't expect this-me. I-I'm sorry, I can explain why I've been away so long," he stuttered and stumbled, "But I've gotten things together now, with Tanya's help," he and the blond gave each other a gooey look, "and I've come to talk to you about seeing the children. About being part of their lives again."
"Over my dead body," Mary said, pushing herself and her daughters past Tanya. One of the prongs of her umbrella caught the fur coat and she gave it a good yank, hearing a satisfying tear. "Come on girls, we'll be late for school!"
Choose your details carefully for maximum impact and information. Always!
If you can't write the development sentence, you're missing plot.
If you can't find some drama, you're missing conflict and motivation.
From the Author Salon website (a great new site where you create a profile for you and your manuscript so agents and editors can check you out), "Consider conflict divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax. Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve."
Internal: conflicts within a character created by warring beliefs and values.
Social (also "relational"): conflicts between characters and how they relate to each other. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends, sisters, etc. The incompatibility needs to be organic, stemming from the personalities of the characters, not imposed by outside forces or circumstances.
External: conflict comes from obstacles outside the protagonist's control. Nature, society, etc. Think A Perfect Storm or 2012.
Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, literary critic, author, and the originator of the phrase, kill your darlings (it was "kill" first. Faulkner supposedly changed it to "murder") was first to classify plots as seven basic conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, Man against God, Man against Society, Man caught in the Middle, Man and Woman.
This has been expanded to include:
Character v. Character, Character v. Nature, Character v. Machine (computer or robot, not literally a machine, although there is the Stephen King short story "Trucks" where semis and bulldozers come to life and attack people in a roadside diner and gas station…), Character v. Self, Character v. Supernatural, Character v. Society, Character v. Destiny (path chosen for him/her, perhaps by parents).
The important thing to remember is that conflict is fed by beliefs/action/events, which create tension, which feeds more action. Repeat.
Note I said act on this tension. There's nothing worse than a passive character who only reacts to events imposed on him or her or actions taken by others. Big no-no! The character must take continued action. And that action can add to the conflict. Whether he or she succeeds a tiny bit or not at all is what keeps us reading.
You have to keep upping the ante, building the tension by adding twists to the conflict(s), new information that adds to intensity: Henry is cheating on his wife. Then we find out Henry is cheating on his wife with her sister. Then we find out Henry is cheating on his wife with her sister, AND the two women have planned the infidelity so the wife can sue Henry for divorce and get a large settlement that she plans on splitting with her sister. Eventually we reach the climactic moment when everything changes and can never be the same again.
Warning: Your climax can't appear out of nowhere. Too many stories plod along with not much happening for 200 pages, and then bring on the big climax that wasn't earned with adequate conflict. Don't let this happen to you!
This is one time when you're allowed to make a great big mess. Have fun with it!
Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops, and editor of the first anthology from the program, Freshly Squeezed, published by Apprentice House Press at Loyola College. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter.