Fiction Writers: You’ve Got a Problem…I Hope

4 min read

While substantively editing small or first-time authors of fiction, I sometimes find my mind wandering.

Turning the page becomes a task, instead of something I look forward to.

Basically, I’m doing the reading equivalent of 🐑 1 … 🐑 2 … 🐑 3 …

In these cases, it’s taken a little while to notice that something’s wrong. But what?

On the surface, everything seems fine. Sentences are tight, the wording and dialogue is on point. I can even be really impressed with the writing at the sentence-level, but still, there’s something…off.

Then I realize: Where’s the problem?

The issue with these snoozers is that the story has no central problem. There’s nothing hinting at an overarching conflict or journey that keeps the reader grounded and hooked, which equals a boring story.

I have edited more than one 300+ page novel that didn’t have a central problem, or whose central problem was so weak or veiled that there might as well not have been one.

Authors, ask yourself this: Can you name—right now—what the central problem is in your story? If not, you’ve got a problem (and not the kind you need.)

The origins of the problem-less story

Let’s back it up a bit. How is a problem-less story written in the first place?

There are so many aspects to story writing that sometimes we writers get caught up in one or two areas, instead of looking at the story holistically. Maybe we’re running on pure motivation (maybe after getting a helpful kick in the pants, like this one 😉).

Or, we might be obsessed with world-building, loving the cities, kingdoms, or forests we’ve written that are filled with distinct characters or enchanted creatures. We barrel, head-first, into creating the most believable, rich places we can… and then get stuck there.

Or maybe we’re into character, delving deeply into our new favourite imaginary friend’s psyche and delight in exploring their inner world.

Whatever we’ve focused on, it has magnified in significance at the expense of creating conflict. This is a problem that needs to be solved because creating conflict is the main hook that’s going to keep your readers interested.

Conflict reigns

The Queen of Hearts teaches us about creating conflict

If the Queen of Hearts had invited Alice inside for a spot of tea, we would have been all “Off with my head!”

Why creating conflict matters for you

A problem, or series of problems, is the main momentum of your story.

Think of it from your reader’s perspective: Why bother turning the page when things are all rosey, or when events aren’t connected by obstacles your character or characters need to overcome?

Have you ever noticed how much of your reading is driven by a sense of mystery? As readers we are always wondering what will happen next. This gap between what we already know, and what is about to be revealed is the mystery that keeps us reading on.

“And then what happened?” is the question we continually want answered, but only when there is conflict in the way.

A story isn’t just a sequence of events. It’s a sequence of events glued together by conflict

We wouldn’t want to read a story about a guy named Simon who goes to the grocery store to buy ingredients for soup. Then talks to the cashier. Then bumps into a friend. Then goes home to make soup. Then goes to the movies. Then has a great time at a baseball game. (You get the picture.)

We want a story about a guy named Simon who goes to the grocery store and starts his shopping, like any other day, when suddenly he catches someone in the corner of his eye—himself. There Simon is, staring at himself, re-stocking the oranges…

Conflict, injected.

Buffy teaches us how creating conflict reigns

Did Buffy high-five demons all day? Nope. She lived on a hellmouth and fought like it.

Realize that the human brain is a prediction machine

Pet theory alert: I think that all stories are essentially mystery stories because we are all trying to solve a puzzle as we read.

Our brains want to find and solve problems. There is something innate in our minds that likes a good story because stories show us problem scenarios and then reveal to us at least one solution.

It might not be the best solution our character could have arrived at. It might not even be a pleasant solution. But to our brain, it’s gold.

As we read, we learn how to connect the dots because these connections, these maps, help us understand motivation, struggle, emotions, and the stakes of life’s unsteady terrain. Only a story operating through conflict can show us this.

Give your readers what their brain craves by keeping them hooked with ongoing conflict

We need tension, and we need a lot of it to keep us interested and engaged.

But there are rules. The conflict should:

  • have stakes.
  • not be too easily overcome.
  • not be unsurmountable.
  • have lasting effects on your character (or characters).

Remember one of the golden rules of writing: the main character should be a different person at the end of your story than at the beginning.

This can only happen by creating conflict.

But how do we create conflict that keeps readers hooked?

Check back soon. I’ll be writing about that later this week 🙂

What do you think? Have you ever written a story and realized things were running too smoothly for your character? How did you inject conflict into your story? Comment below—I’d love to know. Please share if you’ve found this useful!

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