Creating Conflict in Fiction: Only Trouble Is Interesting

“Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, necessary because in literature, only trouble is interesting.” —Janet Burroway, WRITING FICTION

In fiction, as in life, trouble comes in many forms. Confrontation. Impossible decisions. Disastrous consequences. Heartbreak. Danger. Anything that interferes with or prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. Without trouble, there’s no story.

One Ring to Rule Them All

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Here are just a few of the many, multi-layered conflicts surrounding the story’s primary quest to destroy the evil One Ring:

  • If not destroyed, the ring could fall back into the hands of the big, bad Dark Lord.
  • The only way to destroy it is to cast it into the fiery chasm from whence it came.
  • Said fiery chasm is far away in Mount Doom, deep within the evil domain of the super scary Dark Lord.
  • The ring tries to corrupt the very beings who swear to protect the ring bearer, putting his life, the quest, and the entire land at risk.
  • The Dark Lord and his evil minions constantly seek the ring, making crossing the lands treacherous for all.
  • If anyone uses the ring, the minions will immediately sense its power and be drawn to it.
  • The ring tempts everyone to use it, weakening them until almost none can resist.
  • There’s a whole ‘nother bunch of evil creatures trying to kick off a war… and so on.

If the wizard Gandalf had the power to destroy the One Ring with just a little hocus pocus, there would’ve been no long and arduous quest to Mount Doom. There would’ve been no fantasy trilogy for film director Peter Jackson to read, fall in love with, and make into a movie, and be warned, friends… that would be a sad, sad day in our shared history.

Without that movie, none of us would’ve seen Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn clad in leather and just the right amount of scruff get all up in the Dead Army King’s face with the best verbal bitch-slap ever: “You will suffer me!”


Ahem… as I was saying. Trouble. Conflict. It’s what makes story possible.

Making Trouble for Our Characters

Jessica Verday’s Let’s Talk Torture post got me thinking about what writers do to amp up conflict in our fiction. Like Jessica, I don’t generally set out to torture my characters, I just try to tell their stories. But if it’s all roses and easy street, the story fizzles out fast, creating no conflict but my inability to pay the bills when I can’t sell my books. Lucky for me, my agent is great at pointing out when a character’s life is going too smooth. “I really like this,” he might say. “But what can we do to raise the stakes here?”

In other words, how can we turn a ho-hum trip to the nurse’s office for a paper cut into a severed appendage during an earthquake where the character has to chose between saving her thumb or saving her secret crush’s prized Stradivarius violin that he inherited from his great-great grandfather—all that’s left of his family’s legacy—moments before the ceiling in the cafeteria caves in?

Got Conflict?

Writers, how do you cause trouble for your characters? Do you let the story roll out first, seeing what kinds of messes the characters get into on their own, or do you throw bombs in their paths from page one? Do you brainstorm a bunch of “what if” scenarios before writing, or test out different conflicts and ideas as you go? Do your agent or critique partners help you see where the stakes can and should be raised?

And readers, what do you think? How “amped up” do you like your fictional conflict? Do you prefer trouble that’s realistic and reflective of your own struggles in life, or do you like to read about characters whose difficulties are more magnified or exaggerated? What kind of trouble makes a good story for you?

Discuss. Argue. Throw down some verbal bitch-slaps. All in the name of a good story, right? 😉

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Days 5 & 6: Life’s Little Surprises

Day 5 didn’t have to work very hard to surpass the bar set by Day 4. I mean, watching back-to-back episodes of Saved by the Bell (back before A.C. Slater was in A Chorus Line) would have been better than Day 4.

But the universe works in mysterious ways, yin and yang and all, and Day 5 turned out to be the Best NYC Retreat Day Ever.

First, I headed over the the West Side for an iced latte and a long meeting with my agent, who is fabulous and well-suited to soothe my neurotic, insecure, self-inflicted writing freak-outs (despite the Jack Nicholson comment, which was well-deserved and directed more at my questionable mental health than my writing). Not once did he look across the patio cafe table and say, “Sarah, it’s great that you’re in New York and can call on me whenever you need to chat. So, do you miss Denver? Do you ever think about moving back? Maybe you should? Do you need any help packing?”

Faith in my chosen career path (and associated life’s dream, driving passion, singular raison d’être, etc.) restored, I headed to Barnes & Noble for a fix. Five fixes, actually, including Christopher Moore’s LAMB and a book for Alex.

Hey, you say “obsession,” I say “research!”

After the book indulgence—er, research investment, I had to get back to the East Side and thought I’d walk through Central Park. You’d think it would be a pretty simple task to walk straight across a big green rectangle, but…

Those of you who know me won’t be shocked when I say that I got totally lost—er, turned around. Off the path. For an hour and a half.

But getting totally lost in Central Park turned out to be a great idea.

Life’s Little Surprises (the good kind)

A turtle! But not just any turtle. This is a New York turtle.

“Are you talkin’ to me? Oh, I’m funny, huh? Like a turtle-clown, huh? I’m here to amuse you?”

I didn’t take the bait. Despite his tough exterior, this CPW turtle is a big softie on the inside.

Go read that last part again.

Ha! (Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week…)


I loved watching this fountain scene from an unnoticeable distance. The photo is kind of scattered, but if you look closely (or click on it for a larger view), you can see how much is happening and just imagine what people are thinking and talking about, paths crossing, all connected for a single moment by the fountain.


First, there’s hula hoop 101—so random. So cool.

Hula hoop 101

And, what’s got these two so engrossed?


Oh, right. She was actually bending over and twirling (not at the same time), but I opted for the wholesome family shot instead.


After watching paths cross at the fountain for a bit, I thought I’d finally found the right path to the East Side. I walked another several minutes, only to end up… right back on the West Side, ten blocks south of my original departure (and planned arrival) street.

That’s when I stumbled onto the best little surprise on my wandering journey through the park.

Listen to what it says. Really listen.

Easy if you try

It’s a good directive for us neurotic writers. And everyone else, too.

And in the end…

This evening, my 6th NYC retreat day, I packed it in a day early and headed back to Queens. I was missin’ on my husband, and ready to come home. I’m not finished with book 2 yet, but that’s okay—I got a lot of writing done and reveled in the relatively uninterrupted solitude as planned.

Despite day 4’s katsaridaphobic1 meltdown, my NYC writers retreat brought me to a place of peace with this book. When it’s ready to be finished, I know it will be… and then it’s on to the next one.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I can’t handle that much pressure!

1. Katsaridaphobia: fear of cockroaches! Ewwwww!

NYC Writers Retreat, Day 2

The view from last year’s Grand Lake retreat:

Grand Lake Docks


The view from this year’s NYC retreat:

Plip Plip Plop


Not the most pleasant retreat weather here in New York today, but the storms are working hard to keep me inside and writing. I love listening to the rain on the street, the shush of the cars, the occasional laughing scream as someone who forgot her umbrella runs for cover. The thunder rattles the windows, and though I have to keep my computer unplugged during the lightning show, I do love hearing the sky fall.

Last night, I had the A/C on in the bedroom and started hearing noises. I know it was probably rain and thunder, but in the moment, I was pretty sure someone was trying to break in (despite the fact that this is a doorman building and someone would basically have to scale the wall and smash a window to enter without my permission). You know how it is when you’re staying in a new place—you have to readjust to all the new creaks, moans, groans, thumps, and rattles that differ in every home and don’t seem to show themselves until the late evening. I was jolted awake in two-minute intervals until about 5:30 this morning, so I’m getting a late start today. But I’m expecting the writing to go well and my sleep to come a bit easier later.

Better than being stuck out there, cold and umbrella-less!

NYC Writers Retreat, Day 1

Around this time last summer, still a resident of Colorado, I spent a week at the Shadowcliff Lodge for the Lighthouse Writers Grand Lake Retreat. Seven days of immersive writing workshops, seven nights of equally important immersive writing tomfoolery. In Grand Lake, I worked on 20 BOY SUMMER revisions for my agent, after which the manuscript went on to achieve great things. It’s also where I met Rachel, Lisa, and lots of other new writing pals. The Shadowcliff Lodge and all of the Lighthouse writers and faculty have a special place in my writing heart.

I wanted to go again this summer, but skyrocketing airfares (Delta is even adding a fuel surcharge for supposedly free award tickets!) and timing issues will keep me in New York City.

Those little snags won’t, however, keep me from enjoying my own writer’s retreat here in Manhattan. My friends are on vacation in the Tetons, and I’ve taken over their home for an entire blissful, solo, writing-filled, not-sure-I’m-gonna-give-it-back-when-they-return week. Unlike the Lighthouse retreat, the Manhattan retreat requires me to cook my own food and doesn’t have:

“…a wonderful chance for you to forge a supportive and stimulating community, a collective spirit to help reinvigorate your writing voice. And a chance to work with excellent writers and teachers…” —Lighthouse Writers Workshop

But here, I get to people watch when I need character ideas, and my retreat is, well, free. And I have many unrestricted hours in which to write, write, write, and more write. If I stay focused (so, ya, don’t call me or anything), I might actually be able to finish book 2… this week!

I guess I’d better get to it.

Career Day: Full Time Writer

What’s it like being a full time writer? In a word?


If you’re considering a career as an author, this sneak peak recap of today’s work schedule is for you!

A Day in the Life of a Full Time Writer, by Sarah Ockler

1:30 PM: Open eye. Or 2. I know it’s difficult, having gone to bed at 6:00 AM when most people in CO are already out walking their dogs and people in NY are getting their coffee from the coffee cart guy outside their office. But come on, it’s a beautiful day! Wake up and start the morning–erm, afternoon–with a smile, sleepy-poo!

1:40 PM: What day is it? Hmmm. Tuesday? No, Wednesday. Maybe I should take a shower. Seems it’s taking me much longer to run out of things like soap and shampoo than it did when I had to like, go outside. And interact. With people.

2:05 PM: Power up computer. Just a quick check of my 3 separate email accounts, MySpace, Facebook, MyFamily, Google Reader, local news, and weather (in case I go outside later. No pressure.), then it’s time to get to work!

3:37 PM: Damn you, Facebook Scrabulous! The only thing I’ve learned from you is that “za” and “quirt” are words! You’ve taken 92 minutes of my life that I will never, ever get back! Well you, and Gawker and Gothamist and Feministing. But still!

3:38 PM: Headache… must make… coffee!

3:42 PM: Ahhhhh. Headache problem solved. Make breakfast. Scrambled eggs with sauteed mushrooms, green and yellow squash, spinach, and tomatillos, topped with salsa and a dollop of fresh sour cream. I am a domestic goddess. I’m surprised at how much I like the word ‘dollop.’ Dollop. Say it again, with a funny froggy kind of voice. Dollop! Briefly consider cooking school instead of clown college or writing camp.

4:09 PM: Return to computer to “power through” revisions on book 2 synopsis. Just one more quick check on…

4:41 PM: Blasted Scrabulous! You are my arch enemy, defeater of productivity and physical movement! You have turned my couch into an office! You… you are my heroin!

4:42 PM: Okay, time to get serious. Fo’ rizzle. Wait, did I just say fo’ rizzle? Focus. Focus. Hello, synopsis. Darling synopsis. How I’ve missed you…

4:51 PM: Synopsis, you are worse than Scrabulous, you evil succubus! You hate me! You are all conspiring against me! I will never be a successful author! I can’t even edit my own synopsis which I’ve already written for a book I’ve already sold! I am a one-book wonder and three-letter-word Scrabulous player! I might as well go to the appliance store and pick out the cardboard dishwasher box in which I’ll be living next month!

4:52 PM: Snap out of it! Write three new lines. Delete a few old ones. Make some notes. Refer to stack of synopsis how-to books while logging into instant messenger application. There, there. I’ll tell my online friends all about it. Wait, no! Don’t tell them! Look at these damn books! They are here to help, unlike those so-called “friends” who only want to distract me!

4:59 PM: I’m serious! Get back to work, lousy slacker!

5:17 PM: Break time. I deserve it after 18 minutes of solid work, in which I mostly stared at my synopsis on the sreen and cried a little bit on the inside, but that still counts as work. Maybe I’ll read a little bit of that new book I treated myself to yesterday because that counts as work, too.

5:41 PM: Blasted bloody British book with your lovable yet detached protagonist, compelling plot, and unbroken cadence!

5:42 PM: *Sigh* I will never write as good as this. Not only am I editorially impaired with my book 2 synopsis, but my first book is going to flop, too. I am not British. I don’t do cadence. I do… Scrabulous.

5:43 PM: Speaking of Scrabulous…

6:29 PM: Are you serious? It’s 6:30? I’ve only been up for 5 hours and the sun is already down! Probably I should just go out to dinner with my husband. He’s easily swayed.

10:01 PM: Who knew chocolate mousse and Kahlua worked so well together?

10:02 PM: Seriously, I need to get to work. Okay? The time for effing around is over. Just one more quick check on Facebook, Google Reader, and my blog update, and then…