Using Conflict to Keep the Flow

How do you add in description, humorous banter, back-story, asides, character reactions, all without interrupting the flow of words off the page?

Well, first of all, if something is unrelated to the story, it probably shouldn’t go in there in the first place. I’m constantly reading passages in blogs and published novels that make me ask, “Why the heck to I care about this?!” and then skip to the next one. Really, you need to give the reader some reason to care about what you want to tell them. You have to make them care before you actually tell them.

This is all part of immersion and of suspension of disbelief. Fortunately, you’re already half-way there. When I read a story, I’ll give you several paragraphs for free. You have that long to make me want to read on. Actually, they’re not free, but I will give them to you on spec. You have me for the first few paragraphs of your story or the first few minutes of your film. Use that time to make an impression. If you make even a little effort, you’ll probably have me, because I’m such a sucker for a good story.

Most of us are probably like that. Audiences want to like your story. We have a “willing suspension of disbelief”, a term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And we will maintain it, as long as you don’t break the suspension of disbelief. It’s kind of like photo-realistic art: Photo-realism is the absence of any clues that it’s not real. But most of us will overlook even blatant gaffs if it keeps the story going.

The single biggest thing you can do to keep the flow in your story is to make something go wrong.

A story is like a giant boulder. You have to give it a push to get it going. But once it’s moving, you only have to give it a nudge at the right moments in order to keep it going. But first you do have to get the story going. For that, use conflict, the great story engine. Think of the time in your life when you were most embarrassed. Or a time when you made a huge mistake. Think of a time when you faced imminent danger. Or a time when you were afraid. When did you want something you could not have, wanted it so bad you could taste it? When did you love so passionately you felt like crying? These are the inspiration for great stories, because they are the essence of intense conflict.

As readers, we want our characters to face great challenges, and overcome them. We want to root for them. We want to tremble when they are afraid. We want to cry when they weep. We want to enter the inner cave with them, slay the fire-breathing dragon, and bring the elixir back with us into our real-world lives.

That’s why the single biggest thing you can do to keep the flow in your story is to make something go wrong. Pose an unanswerable question that demands to be answered. Give a character a noble goal, and then deny him its fulfillment. Take your favorite character’s passion, his heart, and stomp it into the dirt. Why your favorite character? Because he’s our favorite, too. And we will want to see everything made right. We are now part of the story. And you have achieved immersion; you have achieved suspension of disbelief.

This past week, the season-six finale of Gilmore Girls aired. The last couple of episodes rapidly thickened the plot, culminating in a season cliffhanger that left fans very upset. I myself recorded a short comment for the Stars Hollow Podcast (which hopefully will be in podcast episode #37). The podcast’s hosts, Jon and Cara, described the Gilmore Girls episode with words like “boring” and “don’t care.” This, after they went on about how terrible things are turning out for their favorite characters. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. And this ain’t indifference. This is passion. Fans have forgotten that the story’s characters are not real people. And they complain now, but do you think they’re coming back for season 7? Do you think that they’re going to be buying the DVD sets a year or two down the road? Yup.

This is what we want in out stories.



All very good advice, much of which I utterly ignore on a regular basis, but of course you knew that 🙂

Really, Jim? I’ve thought your posts have been generally good in terms of both conflict and flow. By “conflict” I’m including things like questions that grab you, promises made to the reader, and so forth. Even an unfinished explanation can have the same effect, I’ve found.


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