Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.
“A writer’s job is to give his readers pleasure … through stress, strain and tension.” Sol Stein, one of the greatest editors of the 20th Century.
This is the fifth of my five articles on what I consider to be the essentials of successful storytelling – for popular fiction, at least. The essentials are external conflict, inner conflict, compelling characters and sustained suspense. The other articles are:
- The One-Page Guide to Storytelling
- 55 Ways to Make your Characters Compelling and Unforgettable
- 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict in Fiction
- 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense
You may also find this article useful: How to solve common story problems.
My key sources and references are listed at the end.
Why do we Love Stories?
Stories dominate our daily lives, in books, movies, TV, games, jokes. Newspaper articles are called stories; even songs tell stories; even advertisements. But why do all humans crave stories? For many reasons, including escapism and to learn about life, but most of all to relate to the characters (Cleaver, Immediate Fiction).
Relating to the characters is what makes a story real, but how does this work? Relating means making an emotional connection, and the emotions we’re feeling when we read a story are the emotions of the characters (enhanced by our own lives and experiences). What they feel, we feel. The better the story, the more we lose ourselves in the lives of the characters and the more we become them, through identification.
Identification is why the reader reads and the writer writes. It’s our deepest social need and at the heart of all human interaction. We cannot identify with someone in a story unless their character is revealed to us, and revealing character should be the author’s main purpose. But how do we do it?
The Basics of Story Craft
In its purest form, a story consists of just three elements: conflict, action and resolution (Cleaver). Someone is faced with a problem (conflict) that he must struggle to overcome (action), and he either wins or loses (resolution).
CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
Conflict brings stories to life, though it isn’t important for what it is, but for what it does. What does it do? The answer to this question lies at the very heart of storytelling. Conflict forces characters to act in ways that reveal who they are – and nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their troubles.
When conflict exposes who a character really is, the reader is drawn in through identification. The more difficult the character’s choice, the more his true nature will be revealed. In great stories – Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Scarlett O’Hara; Frodo; Harry Potter – the heroes are forced to go all the way. The more pressure you put on your character, the more you make him reveal his true, inner self and the more powerfully your readers will identify with him.
So, stories are about adversity. Happiness can be the ending of the story, but it can’t be the story itself. Why not? Because happy characters don’t want to change. Happiness doesn’t force the characters to act and thus reveal themselves and, if the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.
To be forced to change, to act and reveal their innermost selves, characters need to be frustrated, desperate and at the end of their rope. The worse you make it for your characters the better it is for the reader. When the characters give all they’ve got, readers experience it deeply and powerfully.
To create true conflict, two things are needed: a want and an obstacle. Your protagonist must want something, and there must be an obstacle (the antagonist) that’s trying to stop her from getting what she wants (Ahab wants to kill the whale, the whale wants to kill Ahab).
Both the want and the obstacle must be strong and determined. If either is weak, it will be impossible to create a good story, no matter how much effort is put into writing it. A great story is driven by the energy and determination of both the protagonist and the antagonist. To put it another way (Cleaver):
WANT + OBSTACLE (CONFLICT) + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY
Conflict is often misunderstood in fiction. A great story can’t be made from everyday conflict (bickering, abuse, arguments, fights etc). A great story requires dramatic conflict, that is, conflict related to the hero’s story goal – either furthering it or blocking it. A dramatic want and a dramatic obstacle are needed to create dramatic conflict.
A dramatic want arises when the character is desperate to make things change. She can’t stand this aspect of her life any longer, and has to act. If she can live with things the way they are, if she can turn away from what she wants and be no worse off, it’s a false want and will only create a false conflict.
A dramatic obstacle is one that is as determined to block or deny the want as the want is driven to deny the obstacle (Frodo is determined to take the ring to Mount Doom, Sauron is determined to stop him). If the character can ignore the obstacle and suffer no harm, it’s a false obstacle and there is no conflict, no drama and no story.
Sometimes the obstacle appears first, and only then does the character realise his want, eg the husband discovers his wife is cheating, the killer stalks the hero, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, the kid is abducted by aliens.
General Ways to Create Conflict (adapted and expanded from Lukeman, The Plot Thickens).
- Create inherently conflicting characters. Your characters should be sufficiently different so that, even if they’re friends or lovers, they will constantly strike sparks off each other (for instance, a deeply religious person and a gleefully atheistic sinner, a communist and a capitalist, a refined lady and a boorish slob). When you put such characters together it creates reader anticipation about the coming conflict, and its consequences. But make sure the conflict is dramatic conflict.
You can create conflicting characters in an infinite number of ways, via:
- Opposing character traits – eg, aggressive, argumentative, a meditator, a conflict avoider;
- Race or nationality (for instance, characters from countries or regions which traditionally hate one another);
- Political or religious or moral or ethical views;
- Money, social status, upbringing, education, etc.
Work out the conflict potential for each of your characters (you could rate it on a scale 1-10), then tailor it to create the maximum potential for conflict with the other key characters.
Where two characters have a generally harmonious relationship, find ways to wedge them apart – for instance by giving them different goals, agendas or attitudes. You can heighten conflict in any scene by giving the people in the scene opposing goals. Raise the stakes, make the need for the goal more desperate, and the scene will come alive.
2. Create inherently conflicting groups. For instance, hunters and animal rights activists are bound to clash. As well as conflict between the groups, there is also likely to be conflict between:
- An individual’s membership of the group and his own beliefs, values and relationships with people outside the group (Lukeman):
– If the group means everything to him, he may cut off external relationships to maintain his place in the group;
– If the group is less important than his external life, he may leave;
– If both the group and his external life are equally important he may suffer a severe inner conflict about maintaining his membership versus leaving.
– Other members of the group, for instance between a half-hearted member and a member who believes the group’s objectives to be vital, or a member whose identity is bound up with being part of the group. Such conflicts can become dangerous, or even deadly if the group is corrupt or a criminal gang.
3. Give characters conflicting goals. The basis of any story is the hero’s struggle to achieve a goal that he wants desperately, against an opponent who is determined to deny it to him.
- Some goals: to survive, escape, win the contest or battle, become the leader, achieve their destiny, master the art, free the slaves or change the world;
- The moment your hero forms a goal, readers will hope she achieves it – and worry about what will happen if she doesn’t;
- As noted earlier, sometimes the goal (eg to survive or escape) will only appear after the character is confronted with the problem (being stalked by a killer, trapped in a bushfire).
Make clear, early on:
- What your hero wants;
- Why he wants it so desperately. Make his motivation primal, i.e., about things that matter to every human being – survival, protection of loved ones, hunger, love, sex, revenge, etc (Snyder);
- What’s stopping him from getting it, and;
- What the (bad) consequences will be if he fails.
4. Force opposing characters together. You can both heighten and prolong conflict by tying two opposing characters together so they can’t get away from one another: as cell mates, companions on a long trip, trapped in a submarine or spaceship (eg, the characters in Red Dwarf or Alien) or in any other place from which they cannot escape. The two characters’ differences may well be irreconcilable, yet in order to survive, or achieve their goals, they have to find ways to cooperate.
5. Raise the stakes. Readers won’t be involved with the story until they know what the stakes are for your hero. Initially, the stakes were established when your hero formed her story goal. To heighten suspense, progressively raise the stakes through the story.
You can heighten any conflict and make it compelling by raising the stakes. Make your hero want the goal desperately (he needs the prize money for an operation to save his sick daughter), and the price of failure higher (if he doesn’t win, his daughter will die and his wife will leave him).
To raise the stakes further, put him in competition with another character who wants the same goal for equally good reasons.
6. Create a power struggle. As Lukeman notes, power is a unique goal because it raises the stakes for both the winner (he can dictate the lives of others) and the loser (his life is dictated to). However power is no use in the abstract – it’s only of value when there are people to exert power over.
Power struggles can involve several people competing to gain power, a character desperately clinging to power, or people struggling to escape oppression.
- The winner is always under threat of losing power, of having his own life dictated to, and being oppressed the way he has oppressed others. The conflicts involved in defending power may be greater than in gaining it in the first place.
- Power struggles are commonplace in everyone’s lives: between parents and children, husband and wife, work colleagues, boss and worker, government and citizens, corporations (eg banks) and customers, eg people with loans or mortgages. A power struggle doesn’t have to be global to be compelling – it becomes compelling when the struggle really matters to the individual.
- To heighten the conflict and prolong the struggle, make the master more dominant, and his subjects more oppressed, until they explode in a conflict that must be resolved.
- Note that the conflict doesn’t arise from what the one in power does to the people under him, but from their struggle to free themselves. If they’re too cowed to fight there can be no conflict.
7. Use competition to heighten conflict. The desire to win, to prove oneself the best, can drive a character more powerfully than the simple desire to achieve a goal, no matter what the goal is. And for both the winner and loser, competition is very revealing of character.
Where two characters want the same prize, position, lover, or anything at all that two people can compete over, how do they compete?
- Vigorously and openly?
- Or does one cheat or fight dirty, or try to undermine his opponent by underhand or even illegal means?
- Or does one refuse to fight, or concede resentfully?
- If the conflict is over a woman, say, does she thrive on it, undermine one character to the other, manipulate both, choose one or, to avoid conflict, choose neither (Lukeman)?
- Is the winner modest, or does he boast or gloat? Does the loser accept the loss gracefully, blame others, or smile but hold a grudge?
8. Create time conflicts. Have two important or vital events occur in different places at the same time, so there is no way the character can be at both and has to make a difficult choice between them. Afterwards, depending on the consequences, he may be even more conflicted – he may have let people down who were depending on him. Or the choice he made for the best of reasons may have had disastrous consequences.
9. Family bonds. Relationships between friends, neighbours and colleagues may be short-lived, however family bonds are enduring and also offer unique sources of conflict. Common family conflicts include:
- Differing expectations of the partners over any life issue – where to live, how to live, money, sex, religion, the children’s upbringing or education etc.
- Conflict with in-laws over any life issue;
- Sibling rivalry or competition for success, achievement or parental love;
- A father’s power struggle with his son (and to a lesser extent, a mother’s with her daughter);
- Parental conflict, neglect, mistreatment or abuse and its effects on the children;
- Divorce and custody of the children;
- Transmission of parental problems (violence, drink, gambling, sex etc) to the children.
10. Love and romance. Conflict is inherent in any romantic relationship, but it’s likely to be magnified if the couple come from very different backgrounds, such as rich versus poor, religious versus non-religious, strict versus easy-going. Heighten conflict by:
- Creating barriers to the relationship – love between enemies, between a human and an alien, a lover with a dark past or terrible secret;
- Or by using obstacles to keep the lovers apart.
Other conflicts can arise from:
- Significant age differences between the partners.
- Racial or ethnic differences.
- Differing attitudes and beliefs.
- They can create an infinite number of conflicts, such as:
- What to do about unwanted pregnancies;
- How many children to have;
- How to raise and educate them;
- The blending of two families.
– Competition between the partners, especially if one has a successful career while the other is going nowhere, or failing.
– Jealousy, abuse, sex, an extra-marital affair, a divorce, drinking, drugs, gambling and so on.
11. Work offers many avenues for conflict, some of which don’t appear anywhere else:
- Conflict and competition between workers in relation to:
- Promotion or the boss’s favour;
- Taking the credit for successes or shifting the blame for failures;
- Love or respect or leadership or sex;
- Bullying and sexual harassment.
- Between worker and boss, including bullying, unjust treatment, unreasonable demands (eg to work long unpaid hours), conflicting deadlines, and sexual harassment.
- Between the worker and the company over its policies, work practices, safety issues, ethics, etc.
- Between the worker and his family where the company is family-unfriendly (eg, excessive demands on the worker’s time, unreasonable travel requirements).
- Conflict between rival companies, or a worker and his excessively demanding client.
12. Perspective. As Lukeman notes, a person’s attitude or perspective can create conflict where it did not exist. An embittered man who feels that nothing ever goes his way and everyone is against him will see conflict wherever he goes, and in every relationship he has. Conflict can also arise out of misunderstandings (one of the most common causes of conflict in sitcoms and romantic fiction).
13. Inner conflict. One of the best ways to create memorable and compelling characters, and an unputdownable story, is by giving them powerful inner conflicts. Whenever a reader experiences profound empathy for a character, it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict (Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel). Inner conflict bonds the reader to the hero because the torment arising from his conflict confirms that he has a lot to lose (Bell, Conflict and Suspense). For example, the hero knows a secret that could win the war for his country, but if he reveals it, enemy agents will kill his family. What does he do?
Inner conflicts can arise out of:
- The hero’s prior wound (see below), a troubling secret, a moral dilemma, an inner need that clashes with an outer goal, or an impossible choice that has to be made.
- Or the hero’s greatest fear, which provides strong motivation for her actions – initially to avoid what she fears, ultimately to try and overcome it.
- A link between the protagonist’s darkest secret and her greatest desire.
- Religious, cultural or racial differences, class, ethnicity, temptations, sexual desires or fantasies, duty, patriotism, loyalty, laziness etc. Note that the opposing forces don’t have to be great – just great in the mind of the character.
You have impaled your character on the horns of a dilemma when she must have or must do something, and yet can’t have or do it for equally powerful and compelling reasons (Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel).
For the details, see my article, 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict.
14. Use micro-tension – the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in doubt about what will happen in the next minute. (Maass, The Fire in Fiction). Micro-tension comes from the ‘emotional friction’ between characters as they try to defeat each other. The characters aren’t necessarily enemies, though. There should be tension between any two characters, whether they are opponents, servants, friends, allies or lovers. To see this done brilliantly, watch any episode of Seinfeld. There should also be tension within the character due to inner conflicts.
- In dialogue, show: the hero’s doubt or disbelief about what the other character is saying; the disagreement about goals or plans; the disdain, dislike, contempt or concealed hatred; the power struggles, and ego and personality clashes. Bring out inner conflicts in what each character says and does;
- Often action can be lacking in tension because we’ve seen it a thousand times before – there are only so many ways two people can have a sword fight. To make action suspenseful, get inside the head of the hero to show his conflicting feelings and emotions during the struggle. Then, break the action cliché by giving subtle visual details that enable your readers to picture, clearly and vividly, this unique and dramatic scene;
- Use similar techniques when writing sex or violence. Show the key moments with a handful of striking visual images. Bring out the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions at each moment, focusing on subtle emotions rather than the obvious ones such as (in sex scenes) passion, lust or tenderness;
- When the character is thinking or emoting, create suspense by (a) cutting restated thoughts, feelings and emotions and (b) making thoughts and emotions realistic. For instance, the hero may be outwardly happy, but is concealing or fighting some niggling worry. Or struggling with an inner conflict (justice versus vengeance, duty to an bad leader vs personal honour);
- In descriptive passages and quiet moments, show little details that make the setting vividly real and establish the mood of the place. Describe the hero’s conflicting feelings and emotions, focusing on subtle emotions rather than obvious ones.
15. Use the three categories of conflict: global, local, and inner (Vorhaus).
- Global conflict is essentially impersonal – it’s the character’s war against the world (eg natural forces, government, the law, police, society, corporations etc).
- Local conflict takes place between people close enough to care: friends, enemies, family, lovers, children, work colleagues etc.
- Inner conflict is the character’s war within (above).
16. Heighten and prolong conflict. Any conflict can be prolonged, and the major conflicts should be prolonged to rack up the tension – if you resolve a conflict too quickly, suspense disappears. However if a conflict is maintained too long without any hope of resolution, readers or viewers will tune out or give up (the X-Files and Lost TV series are good examples of conflicts maintained to the point of boredom).
17. Anticipation and expectation. The more your hero dwells on or worries about some forthcoming event (good or bad) the more conflicted she will feel when the event is about to occur, especially if the expectation is defeated in an unusual way.
- A shy girl fretting about her wedding night; a young recruit marching to battle, sick with fear;
- Have the hero make a complicated plan and be rashly confident that it will succeed. This will worry your readers because they know it’s going to go wrong;
- Build up the hero’s anticipation (of winning the contest, gaining the prize, getting her man) into expectation. Then, when she fails, the blow will be bitter. She hasn’t been beaten by the failure, but by her defeated expectation.
- Build conflict through other characters’ expectations of the hero. If they expect more from him than he can possibly provide, the stress will rise for them, for him and for your readers.
18. Structure your story to heighten conflict.
- Structure the beginning to initiate a strong conflict:
- Create a hero who is sympathetic and interesting (see my article, 55 Ways to Create Compelling Characters);
- Set out the story problem (i.e. the hero’s goal) clearly, and why he must pursue this goal;
- Reveal the obstacle (an antagonist who’s determined to prevent the hero from achieving his goal);
- Twist both these characters and the goal to break stereotypes, freshen the story and surprise the reader.
- Design your scenes to maximise conflict and variety. Use various categories of conflict (Weiland), but make sure they’re all dramatic conflict, as defined above:
- Direct opposition (eg from another character, nature, weather, etc) which blocks the hero from reaching his goal;
- Inner opposition (hero learns something that changes his mind about his goal – or begins to doubt it);
- Circumstantial difficulties (lost his sword, broke his leg, forgot the spell);
- Active conflict (fight, argument);
- Passive conflict (ignored, misled, avoided, tricked, etc).
- Tailor the hero’s actions in each scene to heighten conflict: In each scene, the hero faces some problem related to her goal. The actions she takes to solve the problem should either:
- Partially succeed, though worryingly (she finds a clue to the murder, but following it will lead her into greater danger);
- Succeed but lead to a bigger problem (he kills the giant spider but now another hundred are hunting him); or
- Fail and make the problem worse (she breaks into the enemy’s fortress to steal the documents, but they’re not there and now she’s trapped), or
- Let your hero think he’s won – then tear victory from his grasp and turn it into absolute, crushing defeat.
- Sequence the antagonist’s reactions to progressively heighten the hero’s troubles until the climax, where they are resolved one way or another.
- Look at each scene from the antagonist’s point of view and ask how he can make things worse for the hero. What action will cause the hero the most trouble, and what’s the worst time it can occur?
- To heighten suspense, make these troubles progressively worse towards the climax, until it seems impossible that the hero can win.
- The climax, where the greatest obstacle is overcome and the hero’s story problem is finally resolved one way or another, is the biggest of all the critical scenes and must have the greatest conflict and tension. If it doesn’t, the ending of the story will be anticlimactic and the reader will feel let down.
- Run the peak of the scene in slow motion to prolong the hero’s agony. From her viewpoint, show every step of the killer’s approach as he breaks in and forces his way down to the cellar where she’s hiding. Show it through all her senses. You can slow it down further by using long, complex sentences, camera close-ups, quietness, stillness and darkness;
- Alternatively, or additionally, get inside your hero’s head as she waits to show her heightened emotions in this desperate moment: make her hyper-aware; show how she experiences the scene in detail – the sweat running down her face, the ticking clock, the shake in her hand, the chills – and expose her terror as she anticipates what the killer is going to do to her;
- See my article, How to Show Inner Conflict and Intense Emotion on the Page.
- Progressively raise the stakes, scene by scene.
Through cause and effect, each scene must raise the stakes and bring the hero closer to her goals (both the story goal and her personal need), otherwise there’s no point to the scene. A scene consists of a stimulus followed a response, repeated over and over. In detail it goes like this: stimulus leads to emotion leads to thought leads to decision leads to action. The hero’s action soon leads to a reaction from her opponent, which is the stimulus that begins the next sequence.
In other words, in every scene the hero analyses her predicament and makes a decision she believes will help her – and this decision is always tested by the opponent’s reaction in the next scene. At the beginning of each scene, ask yourself:
- What’s her goal now;
- What’s at stake now; and
- What will it cost her to get what she wants?
After drafting the scene, ask yourself:
- How has she changed, or how have her feelings changed, perhaps to the opposite?
- Having assessed her problem and made a decision that she hopes will fix it, does she see things differently now?
- Do we know why she made that particular decision (especially if her reasoning was flawed)?
This matters because if the reader doesn’t know how an event effects the protagonist, or what she makes of it, it has no emotional impact (Cron). In other words, the scene is a failure.
Keep raising the stakes until everything the hero has – his reputation, his life, his family, his country – is at risk, and his burden is unbearable.
19. Use conflict to heighten suspense. According to Lukeman (The Plot Thickens), if a writer can maintain suspense throughout the story, many readers will keep reading even if the characters are undeveloped and the plot is weak. The reader’s hope that the hero will succeed, and fear that he will fail, creates rising suspense until the climax, where the hero’s goal or problem is resolved.
Suspense comes from your readers’ anticipation of what’s going to happen next. Therefore, never tell them anything in advance when, by withholding it, you can increase suspense. “Your job is to arouse the reader’s curiosity and not satisfy it. That’s how suspense is created.” (Sol Stein). See my article, 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense.
Specific Ways to Create Conflict
20. Make your antagonist strong, well-crafted and believable.
As noted earlier, you can’t build a strong story when your hero’s opponent is weak. He should be at least as strong as the hero, and preferably stronger. The opponent doesn’t have to be a villain – he may be good and noble, yet still be utterly determined to stop the hero from reaching her goal.
- Evil villains are a cliché, and pure evil is both boring and predictable, so make your antagonist human. Reveal his admirable side, make his motivations clear, show why the bad things he does make perfect sense to him, and you’ll create a far more worrying antagonist (Maass);
- If the antagonist is largely in the background, strengthen him by revealing how much and why the allies fear him. Show his power growing via his victories, one after another;
- Show things from the opponent’s viewpoint, so your readers can see trouble coming while your hero is still unawares;
- Give him advantages the hero lacks, fanatical supporters, and the power to lure away the hero’s allies.
21. Give your hero something to fear. The most important question you can ask about a character is What are they afraid of?
All heroes should have at least one big fear, one that readers share, such as fear of failure or public humiliation, fear of snakes (like Indiana Jones), fear of heights or drowning or intimacy. The moment this fear is revealed, the story becomes more compelling because your readers feel sure the hero will have to face her fear. Readers then anticipate how this might occur, and how it will turn out.
The antagonist must force the hero to face her fear, over and again. If your hero is afraid of heights, force him to climb a cliff and you will create intense reader interest.
To make the story more compelling, you can also give the hero a secret fear, one that isn’t revealed until later. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling’s initial fear is that she’s not up to the job of being an FBI agent, while her secret fear is that her poverty stricken background will be revealed. Her secret fear influences her behaviour because she’s constantly trying to protect this secret – and Lecter uses it against her.
22. Give your hero a significant flaw.
A flaw is a weakness in the character that is his fault, and stands in the way of him achieving his goal. Readers identify with characters who have flaws; they make them seem more human and relatable. It can be derived from the character’s prior wound (below), in which case the flaw must be overcome before the wound can be healed and his inner need fulfilled.
If the protagonist is strong, powerful, or a hero type, it’s even more important to give him a flaw that brings him down to the level of ordinary people (an inner conflict, prior wound, blind spot, bad habit, etc). Demonstrate this flaw soon after the character is introduced. But soften the flaw with self-awareness, or self-deprecating humour (Maass, The Fire in Fiction). We like Dr House because he’s such a brilliant doctor and he’s well aware of his flaws, such as his sarcastic nature and unpleasant behaviour.
We also like to read about flawed characters in the hope that they will overcome their flaws during the journey and become better people. The hero’s flaw should constantly get him in trouble; indeed, his flaw plays a large part in driving the story. For Walter White in Breaking Bad, his flaw is pride and it’s behind many of the choices he makes in the story, including the choice to become a criminal.
In some cases, you may tailor your antagonist to be the opposite of the hero, so as to throw his character into sharp relief (see Truby, The Anatomy of Story).
Knowing your protagonist’s flaw (whether physical, mental, creative, social or moral) also shows you how best to test him to his limits.
- What temptations will he find hardest to resist?
- What weaknesses can be used to try and break him?
- What weaknesses must he overcome in order to succeed?
Some flaws are beyond the pale, but others are relative. A character can be dishonest, a liar, a criminal or even a killer if the bad behaviour is necessary for his own survival, to protect someone else, to gain justice in an unjust world, or for some other generally good or noble reason.
23. Put your hero at a disadvantage from the start.
- At the beginning, she may not know how to solve her problem; or may not understand what the real problem is (eg, she’s mistaken about her real enemy);
- She lacks the skills to solve her problem (eg needs magic but doesn’t have any; has a gift for magic but doesn’t know how to use it);
- She has critical personality flaws, eg her obsession with gaining justice for her murdered mother blinds her to vital friendships; his violent past leaves him paralysed with guilt; his racism leads him to refuse the aid of the one person who can help him;
- She’s handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally or socially.
24. Increase the pressure in unpredictable ways (for details, see the references, especially Lyon):
- Test the hero’s abilities to breaking point. Take away her friends and supporters, undermine her assets and any options she’s relying on, block her escape routes, cut the deadline in half, devalue her strongest beliefs or the things she most cares about. Anything that can go wrong, should go wrong – not just for her, but for everyone;
- Give her more simultaneous problems than anyone can handle, so she makes damaging mistakes. Distract her with an unexpected sexual attraction. Have disagreements escalate out of control. Give her an impossible dilemma that will trouble her for ages;
- Thwart her at every turn. If she’s relying on aid, information or some object or talisman, have it fail to appear, or be stolen, lost or destroyed when it’s almost within her grasp. If she has a vital talent or skill, rob her of the ability to use it when she needs it most;
- Arouse suspicion about some of her friends or allies, or use dramatic irony (below) to make readers suspect them even if the hero does not. Have a trusted ally betray her, desert her or go over to the enemy;
- Have the hero do something dumb that brings readers to the edge of their seats, because they know it’s going to turn out badly;
- Have the antagonist do something terrible that is really going to hurt the hero;
- Make something seem out of place in its surroundings – worryingly so;
- Have an important character act in a way that is disturbingly out of character;
- Withhold information from your hero, so he doesn’t see that he’s being lured into the trap. But your readers know it’s there;
- Have other characters withhold vital information from the hero, or refuse to divulge what he needs to know. Why? Whose side are they on, and what are their hidden motives?
- Put a great distance between the hero and her goal. How will she ever get there?
- Have the characters explain their plans – in a way that readers know it’s all going to go pear-shaped;
- When things are going well, create a subtle sense of foreboding or dread – bad things have happened and even worse things are possible (Pattison);
- And anticipation – something bad could happen unless …
- Foreshadow her fate or peril, to the audience and other characters even if not to herself. Use mysterious documents or eerie settings or symbols to create uneasiness, or show that things are not as they seem;
- Have the hero lose contact with her mentor; injure the hero; use forces of nature (weather, fire, flood, difficult terrain) to block her;
- Plant red herrings. Have the hero jump to false conclusions that lead her in the wrong direction, to make disastrous mistakes or fall into a trap. Have failures caused by misunderstandings or poor communication;
- Set the action within some greater conflict (cultural renaissance, political drama, social upheaval, war, religious persecution) or tailor social institutions to make everything more difficult (paranoid government, martial law, police state, secret society);
- Create an emotional time bomb (something vitally important to the hero) then, at some critical time, have it destroyed or lost;
- Lull the hero (and readers) into a false sense of security by having things go too well for a scene or two, then create a disaster;
- Show the hero thinking over past events and seeing something she missed that’s worrying or ominous. Or, when it’s too late, coming to a dreadful realisation.
25. Create conflict with everyone and everything, including the hero himself.
- With the antagonist – see (20) above;
- With family (9, above), friends and allies;
- With people the hero meets on the way – they may be hostile, unreliable, treacherous, incompetent or give false or incorrect information;
- With the setting (see 30, below), including landscape, weather, culture, politics, bureaucracy, religion;
- Inner conflict – See my article, 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict.
26. Make the odds impossible. Whether your hero overcomes them or fails, his true character will be revealed.
- Increase the likelihood that the character will lose, then show what the specific personal consequences will be;
- Threats to the hero’s friends and family will arouse far more reader anxiety than problems facing people he doesn’t know, or people in another province or country.
27. Put your hero to impossible choices. Give him agonising choices that test his courage, skill and moral fibre. A powerful dilemma or Sophie’s Choice moment – a choice that has monumental consequences – will profoundly engage your readers because they too will suffer the agony of the hero’s choice, eg:
- Force a good man to make invidious choices, eg between informing on his corrupt mother or betraying his country;
- A girl sees two friends in danger and can only save one. How does she decide whom to save and whom to let die?
- Make the hero choose between strongly held ideals (duty/honour, family/justice). Force a pacifist to fight. Require a reformed drunk to drink.
28. Use dramatic irony (where your readers know something vital that the characters aren’t aware of, such as Hitchcock’s famous bomb under the table – when will it go off):
- The heroine is enjoying a glass of wine by the fire, unaware that the killer is looking in through the window. She’s not anxious, but readers are on the edge of their seats;
- The hero doesn’t realise that he’s got things disastrously wrong, but it’s obvious to the reader (and perhaps to other characters, too);
- Write some scenes from the villain’s viewpoint so readers can worry about the trap closing on the unsuspecting hero;
- A character bears vital or troubling news but events conspire to delay (or prevent) its delivery to those who need to know.
29. Use the unknown to create anxiety and conflict.
- Set a scene where some terrible disaster or tragedy once occurred. The place need not necessarily be dangerous, but fear of the unknown or the past will make it seem so;
- Arouse fear of some danger the character has to face – this could be a real-life danger (fighting a monster, swimming a flooded river) or an uncanny one (spending the night in a ghost-ridden graveyard);
- Or an everyday ordeal (a daunting interview; meeting the girlfriend’s parents; sitting a difficult exam).
30. Put your hero in a perilous place. Analyse your scene settings and work out how you can change them to heighten conflict and tension:
- Move the scene to a dangerous or unpredictable place. Instead of a park, use a derelict factory, a minefield, a sinking ship, a volcanic wasteland or an icy mountaintop;
- Make an everyday place seem dangerous, eg the hero must race across a rugged landscape in a fog;
- Change the scene from day to night, good weather to bad, peace to riot or war, or put the hero in the middle of a plague epidemic, a hurricane or a forest fire.
31. Show and heighten conflict via subtext (see Lyon for details). Subtext is ‘everything hidden from the awareness or observation of non-viewpoint characters’. Some kinds of subtext:
- The hero’s physical state, feelings and emotions: eg, tears forming, sexual attraction or lust, concealed hatred, a need to throw up;
- Hidden agendas, i.e. the character’s private thoughts, intentions and plans;
- In the natural environment: a red glow over the forest, the ground shaking, the call of a wild beast;
- In the built environment: a patch of oil on the stair, a pram on the edge of the railway platform;
- Other characters’ behaviour or body language: man sharpening a dagger, child playing near a cliff edge.
- In dialogue: what is meant, as opposed to what is said.
32. Give your hero a terrible secret.
This could be a history of (or disposition to) some kind of criminal activity, a drink or drugs or gambling addiction, an affair, sexual excess, or some other shameful incident in the protagonist’s past. Such a secret could greatly damage your hero in the eyes of others, or even send him to prison or the gallows. It must be protected at all costs and this is a continual source of conflict – as are the lies and deceptions required to maintain the secret.
Other secrets may be kept because of their value, or danger – in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo keeps the ring secret because it’s so powerful and perilous. A character might also keep secret that they have a weakness or vulnerability, for fear that it will be exploited against them.
Secrets reveal character because the protagonist’s fear that the secret will be revealed, and the lengths he goes to protect it, changes the way he behaves and relates to others. Character is also revealed if the hero eventually finds the courage to reveal it and accept the consequences.
33. Use your hero’s strengths against her.
Strengths can be physical, mental, creative, social or moral. Strengths determine:
- How your protagonist will handle conflict;
- What kind of conflict will test her to her limits;
- How these strengths can be used against her.
34. Use your hero’s prior wound against her.
Memorable characters are often dealing with something from their past which has created a psychological or emotional scar (the prior wound – see Lyon for details). For Harry Potter, it’s the murder of his parents when he was a baby. He has to find out exactly what happened to them, and defeat Voldemort, before he can move on.
The hero’s wound may come from:
- A traumatic event, eg a serious injury, an attack, abuse, bullying or neglect, a tragic loss or deep shame);
- Or her life and upbringing (eg a poverty-stricken existence, a rigidly religious or intolerant community).
This wound may be the reason why she’s so driven to achieve her goal. The emotional wound drives the character’s arc as she struggles to overcome its legacy. Until she can deal with her past it must always control her, and this provides a powerful motivation for the hero’s actions. Find ways to torment her with it, or turn it against her.
35. Use your hero’s need or yearning against her.
The prior wound creates a hole in the soul (see Lyon), which the hero is constantly trying to heal by fulfilling her need or yearning (for love, justice, revenge, respect, trust, faith, identity, etc). Her quest to fill this hole creates the internal, psychological story, which often drives the hero’s actions in the external story. Thus the story has two sets of stakes: the outer stakes of her plot goal, and the inner stakes of her personal need. The protagonist is often unaware of this inner need at the beginning, and it will often be in conflict with her story goal.
The hero can’t meet this need because her wound has given her a blind spot – she can’t let the past go. The wound keeps fulfilment of her need just out of reach, and she suffers for it. Her yearning consumes her, yet at the same time she is driven by her powerful outer goal. This creates strong conflict, which heightens the drama and makes the hero a more compelling character – and it’s what the reader wants to experience.
Sometimes this need or yearning will actively impede her drive to achieve her outer goals (see Lyon and Cron for details; also, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). In Die Hard, McClane’s goal, while he’s fighting the terrorists and Hans Gruber, is to win back his estranged wife, Holly. Everything that happens in the movie forces him to confront the reasons she left him, and to overcome them.
Identify the hero’s need and show it, strongly or subtly, in every scene, on every page, in both action and reflection. Some common wounds, with associated needs or yearnings:
- A recent death – grief and a need for healing.
- A death long ago – a need for understanding.
- Murder of a loved one – a need for justice … or revenge.
- A terrible mistake – guilt and a need for redemption or self-forgiveness.
36. Give all your characters an attitude – then put them in conflict.
Two critical features for creating memorable characters are their attitudes and their passions, because these go to the heart of their individuality. A protagonist who has both, sharply defined, will be memorable (see Lyon for details).
Attitude often has a negative slant, as being against something. Out of attitudes will come moral codes and behaviour, political and religious beliefs, personal and lifestyle habits and choices, job choices, opinions, values, biases, judgements, prejudices, superstitions and pet peeves.
Attitudes are formed by beliefs, upbringing and past life experiences. Having a point of view expressed through an attitude makes characters unique because they see the world, and life, through a particular lens. This colours how they react to everything: events, situations, crises and relationships.
A character can have attitudes about a myriad of things: eg, life, love, religion, politics, race, the opposite sex, death or dying, weather, sex, feeling inferior or superior to others, resentful of others’ successes, or believing the world is out to get them.
37. Block success at every turn.
Whenever your hero is about to reach a goal, block him, thwart him, injure him, betray him, or otherwise prevent him from getting what he wants or needs. But his life can’t be a litany of failure, or readers will expect it and this will dilute the tension, so give your hero some small successes.
38. Turn his successes into poisoned chalices.
Make sure that the hero’s small victories turn out to be tainted in some way, or lead him to greater disasters.
39. Give your hero pre-existing difficult relationships with many other characters.
Your hero doesn’t start from scratch at the beginning of the story. He already has relationships with many relatives, friends, work mates, acquaintances, and perhaps enemies. Some of these relationships are freighted with hostility, disagreement, pain, misunderstanding and other emotions. By showing such relationships you deepen your character, make him more human and relatable, and help to make his motivations clearer.
By increasing the relatedness of the characters to each other, you also increase the potential for conflict between them.
40. Give your characters blind spots about themselves.
What do other people know about the character that he doesn’t realise about himself? An inveterate womaniser might think of himself as charming and attractive, whereas others know him to be a creepy sleazebag.
41. Make your hero hopeless at something.
Even the most exceptional people are bad at some things – besides, a protagonist who is good at everything would be insufferable. By making your protagonist a complete duffer at something, you make him seem more human and real. You can also make his goal more difficult to achieve by using this weakness against him.
42. Make your hero obsessed about something.
Obsessed characters are driven. This creates conflict and urgency, and reveals character. The obsession can also be used against your hero.
43. What outcomes are your hero most afraid of?
Pick several other things he desperately does not want to happen – he doesn’t want to lose the ring; he can’t bear to have his reputation trashed. Make sure that these things are constantly under threat (see Wendig).
44. Take away the things your hero most cares about.
List the things that matter most to your hero, then rob him of them one by one. Some things may merely be lost or stolen, in which case your hero may decide to try and recover them. Other things may be destroyed, forcing your hero to deal with her loss.
45. Hurt your hero, again and again.
Striving to overcome adversity reveals character. Make your hero suffer in every possible way.
46. Betray your hero.
Physical pain isn’t nearly as hard to endure as abandonment by a friend when the hero needs him most.
Or betrayal by a loved one, or someone the hero has trusted unequivocally.
47. Smash his life to pieces.
List the aspects that make your hero who he is: father, brother, friend, raconteur, amateur flute player, disastrously bad cook (Wendig). Then, through the various disasters of the story, undermine every aspect of himself until your hero is forced to question who he is. How does he recreate himself, and how different is he afterwards?
48. Undermine everything he believes in.
Undermine your hero’s entire life. Everything she believed about her origins, her family, her upbringing or whatever, is revealed to have been a lie. What does she do? She has do something – she can’t go on living the lie.
49. Sew confusion, doubt and self-doubt.
- Make the situation confusing or chaotic so that the characters can’t communicate effectively, don’t know what’s going on, and can’t make any effective plans (Powell);
- Make your characters doubt the evidence of their own eyes, the nature of the threat, their plans and even their own sanity.
50. Use lies and deception.
Force your character to lie and see the conflict escalate. Will her lies be believed, and if so, how much more deception will it spawn before her duplicity is revealed? And how much will she sweat, knowing that she must eventually be exposed? If she’s disbelieved, or exposed as a liar, what will the result be?
Let your hero be lied to. What vital decisions will she make based on false information – and how disastrous will the consequences be?
51. Create misunderstandings.
Have your hero make bad decisions based on a misunderstanding. Decide whether your readers know it’s a misunderstanding, and thus stay a step ahead, worrying about what’s going to happen when the hero finally realises, or whether to reveal use the misunderstanding in a surprise.
52. Give your hero conflicting goals.
Have your hero form two important goals which turn out to be in conflict – if he goes after the first he must abandon the second. For instance, he promised his wife faithfully that he would take her to hospital to have the baby, but if he doesn’t go after the deal right now, he’ll lose everything they have.
53. Disastrous decisions.
Using dramatic irony, make your readers squirm by showing your hero making what they know to be a disastrous decision. Or have your hero refuse to listen to reason. Then show the terrible consequences, and the impact on your hero when he realises his folly.
Allow your characters to be as flawed as you and me. Show their reasoning before a big decision is made, using all their experience and weighing all the evidence in front of them, then making a decision that they believe is the right one, but turns out to be a disaster. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry insists on going to the Ministry of Magic to save his godfather, Sirius, despite many arguments to the contrary. But he was never in danger and Harry’s reckless intervention leads to Sirius’s death.
54. Make it personal, and visceral.
Put your hero’s loved ones in desperate danger and every reader will identify with their plight. Heighten the conflict by making it almost impossible to save them. Heighten it further with a Sophie’s Choice conflict, where to save them he has to sacrifice something that matters desperately to him.
And even if they can be saved, raised the fear of it happening again.
55. Exploit your hero’s minor weaknesses.
Make sure you hero has plenty of quirks, foibles, blind spots and failings – anger or violence issues, addictions, prejudices and so on – then use them against him. All of them.
56. Let all her chickens come home to roost.
Every character has a past. Whether she’s hiding from her past, or whether she doesn’t think it matters any more, use it against her — a rejected lover out for revenge, an enemy who’s been biding his time.
57. Establish a deadline – then cut it in half.
Heroes are more sympathetic if their backs are against the wall and they’re forced to fight before they’re ready. Give them a deadline, then shorten it. Foreshadow the confrontation to come.
58. Give your characters handicaps.
Handicaps are weaknesses in the character that aren’t his fault, that prevent him from reaching his goal. Weaknesses can include physical, mental or psychological handicaps, fears and phobias.
59. Give your hero a destiny.
Characters who have a destiny (eg to become king, president of the company, leader of the revolution, or sporting legend) are interesting because readers want to know if the character will achieve his destiny, or fail – and either way, what the consequences will be for him and others. A destiny can be positive, or an unbearable burden, or a terrible threat.
60. Make it worse – and even worse. There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, and you should take every opportunity to do so. But why would you want to?
Because character is revealed not in good times but in adversity. The worse you can make it for the hero, the greater the conflict, more his true character will be revealed by what he does and the more the reader will engage with his plight and his quest.
Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.
Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.
Bickham, Jack (1992). The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. Writer’s Digest.
John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article). http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/ An excellent series of articles.
Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.
Cron, Lisa (2012). Wired for Story.
Iglesias, Karl (2005). Writing for Emotional Impact. A fantastically useful book on the emotional impact of stories on the reader, by far the best I’ve ever read, though directed at screenwriters rather than novelists.
Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.
Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.
Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.
Maass, Donald (2004). Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Writer’s Digest. Great exercises.
Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.
Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.
Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.
Powell, How to Create Tension in the plot.