Being a Better Writer: Gripping Conflict

Hello there readers! Welcome to February!

First of all, I apologize for the lateness of this post. I had family stop by and catch up, and well, it had been a while so we chatted for a time. So this post got a little delayed (though lately there have been some late posts, something I should fix, and am apologizing for now).

Second, a reminder that LTUE is next weekend! That’s right, it’s almost upon us! I wrote a bit more on this on Saturday, but LTUE 2021 is online this year and will be taking place February 11th-13th! You can find more information at LTUE’s website, or by going over my post from Saturday, but as LTUE this year is online that means it’s a lot easier for many of you to “attend” so I hope to see you there!

Lastly, just a general reminder that paperback copies of Axtara – Banking and Finance are now available! You can order your own dead-tree version of Axtara from Amazon.com (or .UK or whichever you use), or even hop down to your local bookstore and ask them to order a copy for you! Sands, you can even request your local library order a copy and read it that way!

Okay, that’s all the news, so let’s get talking on today’s topic: writing gripping conflict.

I’ll admit this is pretty straightforward and simple topic for a Being a Better Writer article, so I’ll say up front that I don’t expect this to take too long. But the topic was inspired by, if I’m remembering things correctly, a discussion chain on a writing chat about keeping conflict gripping that was … Well, let’s just say they were missing the mark a little bit. That’s not to say that they were wrong, but that they were only halfway there.

So let’s dive in, talk about the half that this chat got right … But then talk about the half that they were missing. Let’s talk about what makes a conflict grip the reader and pull them in. Hit the jump.


All right, I lied. We’re going to back up just a tad here, and talk about why this was important in the first place, which I started to touch on before the jump. Why is it so important that our conflict is gripping? Well, it’s fairly self-explanatory, but … So you don’t lose your reader.

Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Simply put if our conflict isn’t something that grips the reader, or keeps their interest, then they’re not going to see much reason to keep reading the book during the segments that aren’t “gripping conflict.” There are books (and movies, and games, etc) out there that are known for “Hey look, this bit isn’t that great, but the payoff is fantastic.” Taken by pieces, that’s actually a lot of books. As much as we may love and be gripped by early elements of a story, if the conflict doesn’t “grip” us, or give us any payoff, it may sour us on the whole experience. After all, if a book’s conflict isn’t delivering, why would many keep reading the title?

Basically, even if the rest of the book is sound, a conflict not “gripping” the reader can still be a weakness that ends it for many readers. Now that we’ve said that, let’s talk about what “gripping conflict” is and how it’s acheived.

First, we’ll start with what I saw in this writing chat, because it wasn’t wrong. Just … one-sided. See, the writers I was observing talked about how good conflict meant (basically) ‘well-written fights.’ And yes, it’s not wrong. If your conflict is a fight (what they were focused on) or if not (something I’ll stress here, not all conflict is face-to-face battle), either way you want it to be written well. You want it to properly convey the events, what’s happening, the proper sequence, and do so in a way that’s appealing to read, or at the very least functional.

Get this right, and you’ll have half of a gripping scene down. Because again, these posters weren’t wrong. Well-written conflict and action is fun to read in its own right. For example, look how many people enjoy just looking up well-done action scenes or fights from movies on Youtube. Whole channels have sprung up around being able to show off the “highlights” of an action scene or movie, and just delivering that for people to watch. Or a dramatic, tense argument between two well-acted characters.

Point being that yes, you can pull people in solely on the events happening right in front of the reader, and yes, they can be very gripping. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a car explode, or a tense, verbal battle between two characters?


So yes, that works. However, that’s the only context by which it grips people. Meaning that once it’s gone … so is what’s keeping people engaged. In addition, that isn’t to say that it can’t be more gripping than it already was, and here’s where we move into the part that this chat I was on missed:

Investment.

See, it’s fun to load up a fight scene or climactic battle from some film that I haven’t seen and watch it for a few minutes. And it’s fun to pick up a short story that’s essentially all action and little plot and be carried through on the strength of seeing things explode or smash into each other. But once that’s said and done, there’s usually not much else there. And at the end of the day, the only reason I’d be attached to the “protagonist” of such pieces is usually by virtue of them being the “home team” the audience is going to root for by default. But win or lose, there’s not really much riding on it to make the conflict gripping. What’s got my attention is the “wow factor.”

But it doesn’t have to be. Not alone. Sure, it’s fun. But what if I, as a reader, care about these characters? What if I know what the consequences are for the protagonist if they lose the race they’re about to embark on, but I also know what the consequences are for their rival losing the same? Who do I want to win, and why, and will they?

Fun, explosive conflict is all well and good, yes, and can keep us going. But what really makes it grip a reader, to the point where they don’t want to put the book down, is when they don’t just care what cool explosion or barbed phrase the next paragraph will bring, but also how it affects characters that they care about.

Let me put it another way: If conflict is a fuel of some kind for readers to burn, character investment is an accelerant poured liberally over the top. What was merely gripping becomes something that cannot be put down because the reader wants to know that the protagonist is going to be okay, or if they aren’t, then what they’re going to do now?

Character investment can take what would have been an ordinarily normal conflict and make it impossible to walk away from. Or, it can make it gripping enough where, when presented with an equal conflict without investment, the reader sticks with what they’ve got because they want to know how it will affect the characters!


Now, while I’m not going to write a lot here about writing characters that we can get invested in (there are other posts for that, use the tags and the search bar), I am going to point out one thing clearly that is implied by the final sentence of the above paragraph: For this to work, your character must be affected in some way by the events of the conflict.

A classic way most teachers put this is “What does the journey cost the hero?” but for our purposes here I’ll cast a wider net. How can this conflict affect the hero? Will they lose friends? Be forced to sacrifice something?

Or will it not be loss at all? Will they learn something that forces them to rethink or ponder on what they already knew? Will their perception of another character change, or perhaps shatter entirely?

Or maybe they’ll prove themselves? Maybe we’ll see them use new talents in unexpected ways, ways that are fresh to us, the readers, but also a discovery for the character?

Basically, yes, invest your character, but then don’t let them be static with regards to conflict. Conflict should result in something. Our characters should react to it, engage with it, and come away with something new at the end, be that as simple as “don’t do what just kicked that off” or as complex as a new understanding of who they are.

In other words, gripping conflict won’t just involve invested characters, it will change them. Maybe in small ways, maybe in large, but it will leave a mark. A mark that will further bring development and growth for that character.

And that? That will keep people reading.


So there you have it. If you want your stories to have conflict that grips a reader and keeps them coming back for more, while writing technically competent conflict is all well and good, the real draw for a reader is when it affects a character that they are invested in. Do both, and you’ll see yourself produce stories that readers have a hard time putting down.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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