This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
Become an Instigator

Tayari Jones on adding conflict to wake up a sleepy story.

When I was in high school, a harsh reprimand was, “Stop instigating!” (Odd diction for kids, but it’s what we used to say.) In a more formal parlance, it meant, stop provoking conflict. While this is a good rule for life, it’s not such a good rule in fiction. In an earlier post about personal problems morphing into writerly problems, one of the commenters shared that her real-life aversion to conflict, spilled out onto the page. Many of us have this same issue, so this post is going to be all about learning to be a proud instigator.

How do you know if you’re avoiding conflict in your story?

There are plot tics that may indicate a problem.

  • Is your story populated by strong silent types?
    For example, when the husband reveals that he’s having an affair, does the wife sit there in stony silence?
  • Are the people in your story the type that “don’t talk about things”?
    So when the son in a traditional 1800s farm family gets caught in bed with the field hand, everybody agrees to ignore it.
  • Do your characters tend to leave the room when things get hot?
    What does your character do when she finds out that she’s been passed over (again) for a big promotion? She walks out the room. When she catches her fiancé in bed with her sister? Same thing. So why do you avoid conflict? Like Dolen, the commenter that inspired this post, your real-life personality may leak into your art. But there may be another reason. Perhaps you are too in love with your main character to let her get smacked around by life. This especially happens with autobiographical characters. Let’s say she finally gets up her nerve to confess that she has been lying all along and she’s not really the Princess Anastasia. If you are hiding from conflict, the other characters will forgive her right away because the not-Princess is a good person at heart and everyone can see it. Or maybe you are just ending the scene too soon. You think that the chapter is over when the character discovers something. For example, he discovers that his boss is manufacturing meth in the men’s room.

Try making the plot point—the discovery—the next-to-the-last thing to happen and end with the fall-out of the discovery.

Here are a couple of exercises that may help you.

  • Don’t let your characters leave the room.
    Go to those scenes and just write out another page or so with all the people forced to react to each other. For my own work, I actually employ a more dramatic device. A friend and I act out the missing conflict. It’s amazing how much potential conflict another person can come up with off the top of her head.
  • Write a character sketch of your main character from the point of view of someone who doesn’t like her very much.
    This is more challenging that it sounds. You don’t want it to end up sounding like those job interview questions when you have tell your own weaknesses, so you make them sort of like compliments. (“My weakness is that I never give up!) You want to really go there and try and see what kind of feathers your character may ruffle- advertently or inadvertently. That’s where the conflict will come from. Then, return to the scene and let the characters duke it out.
  • Take all scenes where there is even a hint of conflict, and turn it all the way up.
    I think of this like running a bath. You turn the heat all the way up, and then turn it back down until it’s just as hot as you can stand. Don’t worry about being a drama queen. Amp that conflict, just to see what will happen. And what may happen is that you may wake up your sleepy story and give it enough energy to sprint to the finish.

As always, I hand the disucssion off to you. Are YOU good at conflict in writing or in life? What are the techniques that help you face conflict?

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  • Surviving the Draft

    @Kimberly I actually had waayy to much drama in a pivotal scene in my latest novel. I acted it out with my friend and decided that there was no way two people could create that much drama. I then toned it down and got it where it's hot, but not blistering.

  • Kimberly Wesley

    DRAMA QUEEN here stepping itoo the room. I have noooo probelem whatsoever with drama. In fact, I go way over the top with it (I may then go back and tone it down). Conflict=drama. In my novel, the three main characters are very strong women, though one is on the shy/quiet end. But as part of her growth process, she becomes less and less afraid to speak her mind. Then it's all out with her. It is funny, she did have a scene were she just walked out from confrontation, but it worked for where she was with herself at the time.

  • Valerie Bonham Moon

    I have to laugh at this blog post as it seems to be a case (for me) of: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." I was just grumbling at myself that the character interactions are always too lukewarm and how I needed to give the characters more backbone. Glad to read here that my characters following Miss Manners's advice and always using their "indoor voices" is not just me.

  • Dominique Millette

    Thank you for this. Gives food for thought. Reminds me of my improv classes (raising the stakes, they called it).

  • Surviving the Draft

    @Ariana, you might want to try writing with this prompt. "what she COULDN'T say was......."

  • fran schumer

    I love this blog, Tayari. And it rings so true for me (in life and on the page). I love the acting it out advice.....what fun. Fake fighting. Or maybe real.....

  • Surviving the Draft

    @Honoree, this is not about conflict, but ask yourself, what's in it for him? Why does he stay with this difficult woman. Short-cut answers like "convenience" don't count. Really ask yourself, when she's giving him something he can feel-- what is it?

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Oh my gosh - I love this post, Tayari.

  • This was fabulous advice that I needed. I am writing a story and it's all about the woman, but she's married to this long-suffering man. I need him to do SOMETHING, but I just like him too much and she's rather annoying and I'm afraid if they get into talking it could get bad.:-) I'll try this!

  • Kevin Camp

    To me, it entirely depends upon the way I'm feeling at the time. When I'm annoyed or angry, then my characters will reflect it. We may all do this to some extent. I think for me personally, I try to balance conflict with more harmonious settings.

  • Surviving the Draft

    @Sasha, try writing all the dialogue you want. Just go for it. Then, pare it back, saving only the most significant lines. That way, you condense the scene but without dousing the conflict.

  • Surviving the Draft

    I sometimes ask myself, "What would break my character's heart?" I think I write a scene where it actually happens.

  • Alice Elliott Dark

    Great advice. Acting out is a super exercise--and fun.

  • Carleen

    I still call troublemakers instigators. And this is the advice I just got back from my agent so I'm working on turning up the conflict right now. I think some of us are also so scared of being overly dramatic that we forget to be dramatic. That we forget the differences between fiction that seems real and reality.

  • Hallie Sawyer

    Great tips! Of course, in real life people do what is easy; avoid conflict. But in stories, conflict is King (or Queen:) Thanks for sharing this great post!

  • Kim Haas

    Great suggestions and perfect timing for me. I recently posted on Literary Fiction Writers about being stuck in a story after realizing that nothing much had happened for five pages. Amping up the conflict is exactly what is needed. Thanks, Tayari!

  • Jessica Ferguson

    Good article. I'm pretty weak with conflict--always have to beef it up. Good observations and suggestions in this piece. Thanks!