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Two Signs of Faux Conflicts November 27, 2013

We all know that conflict is the basis of story. Right? Right. Without conflict, a plot is just a flat series of events. With conflict, a plot is a meaningful series of events constituting rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. A story without conflict is boring. Many would say it isn't a story at all.

Yet so many stories are published every day that have no conflict whatsoever.

The problem isn't necessarily that authors don't care about conflict. Most of the time they write stories they believe have plenty of conflict, but they're mistaken. The story has no emotional impact. It treads water without going anywhere. Readers become bored, annoyed, and disappointed. And the writers are astounded. Their story is exciting! Their story is profound! It's jam-packed with action and emotional highs and lows. How could anyone say it's lame?

What these authors have written is a story with a faux conflict. It is not a real conflict that pulls readers in and makes them bond with the characters. Here are two ways to recognize a faux story conflict before you publish a story to an angry avalanche of one-star reviews.

Your conflict is as stable as a sand castle at high tide.

A real story conflict will remain a conflict until your protagonists take action to resolve it. It is a faux conflict if it dissolves when they decide it isn't a conflict anymore.

I had an e-book sitting in my files from a few years ago that I felt guilty for never reading. Two weeks ago I cracked it open. The story was a romance between a hot doctor and his hot ex-wife, who suddenly landed in his emergency room after ten years. They valiantly fight their mutual attraction. They say, "No, we can't, we're exes! Our marriage was miserable and we'll end up miserable again!"

They have sex a few times anyway. And then the hot doctor says, "Eh, is it really all that bad to date an ex?" And the hot ex-wife says, "No, I guess it isn't." And they live happily ever after.

I recently borrowed another e-book from my new local library. The story was about an alcoholic slacker who suddenly becomes a single father when his ex-girlfriend passes away. He cleans himself up, joins AA, and enrolls in college classes to give his daughter a better future. The main antagonist is an uptight social worker who's determined to take his child away. She hounds him relentlessly, snooping through his home and interrogating his friends and family, hell-bent on finding some justification to declare him unfit.

They have a Jean Valjean/Inspector Javert thing going on most of the way through. Then the social worker realizes she's being stubborn, forgets about him, and moves on to other things. He gets his degree and lives with his little girl happily ever after.

This is akin to an action movie ending when Goldfinger calls up James Bond to say, "I've been doing some personal reflection, and I think this whole arch-villain thing isn't for me. Mary and I have decided to retire to Wisconsin and run a B&B. Take care!"

If your conflict depends on antagonists, they'd better antagonize to the end. If you keep your lovers apart through various contrivances, you must continue to contrive until they overcome the barriers and run into each other's arms. If there is no resolution necessary beyond, "Never mind, we're being silly," it is a faux conflict.

Your characters fail the Reasonable Person test.

In many areas of American law, you'll find the standard of the Reasonable Person applied to determine whether a person's actions were understandable in a given situation. Say Writer A self-publishes a book featuring minor characters from a series she had sold to Publisher B. Publisher B sues, saying clause C of her contract grants them first rights to all books in the series. Writer A says she didn't violate the contract, because she understood clause C to apply only to books in the series, and not to spin-offs. In this case, arbitrators will consider whether a Reasonable Person would have interpreted clause C the same way Writer A did, or if a Reasonable Person would have known that she was violating the contract by self-publishing the spin-off.

The Reasonable Person is not the typical person of average intelligence. The Reasonable Person is an ideal. It's a fictional standard for how adult members of society "should" act in similar circumstances. The question is not, "Would the average woman with an IQ of 110 and two kids bother to read and untangle clause C?" The question is whether a fully competent adult with a basic understanding of the American language and legal system, who had read clause C backwards and forwards before signing the dotted line, would still have interpreted it to mean spin-offs are fair game.

Disclaimer: I have had no legal training whatsoever. Don't take my interpretation at face value.

Readers apply a diluted Reasonable Person test to fictional characters all the time, whether they know it or not. They don't sympathize with realistic characters who behave stupidly, spinelessly, and unpredictably, but with "reasonable" people who behave logically given their background and current circumstances. Some readers go beyond the "reasonable" requirement and expect your protagonist to be omniscient...but that's a topic for another time.

With regards to plotting, a story conflict is not a conflict if a reasonable person in your hero/heroine's place would not consider it a conflict.

For example, your heroine is a sexy modern woman. Your hero is an upstanding modern man. At the climax of their star-crossed romance, your heroine walks in on the hero hugging his sobbing ex. So she throws a tantrum and sulks for weeks, refusing to answer his calls.

Would a person behave this way in real life? Definitely. We've all seen the Facebook dramas.

Would you, the reader, behave this way? Maybe, though you wouldn't like to admit it.

But would a reasonable person behave this way? No.

It doesn't matter if this heroine's behavior is realistic. It doesn't matter if you've long established that she's a drama queen, so her behavior is perfectly consistent with her character. Readers will find this woman annoying. A reasonable woman over the age of 18 would not assume that her upstanding boyfriend is cheating because of a single hug. Especially a wet, phlegmy hug. This is a faux conflict.

If your conflict depends on a character behaving unreasonably, she must have perfectly reasonable grounds to be unreasonable. Say your heroine and hero have a history. They dated in college, but the hero, while drunk, stupidly gave in to the amorous advances of her sultry roommate, Myrtle. Your heroine was traumatized when she walked in on them. So her trust in him, when they meet years later, is tenuous. He proves that he's matured into an upstanding, faithful modern man. She relents. And then BAM, she arrives at his apartment unannounced and sees him embracing Myrtle. Again. Even the most open-minded woman would get the wrong idea. Cutting him out of her life is still extreme, but it's more understandable. Now readers are more likely to sympathize.


It can be difficult to come up with a genuine story conflict in this day and age, especially if you want all of your characters to be relateable. Historical novels are still popular because the unforgiving societies of the 18th through 20th centuries offer oodles of opportunities for conflict: families object to differences in social class, tyrannical governments oppress people right and left, girls are ruined by scandalous whispers, and men have sexist prejudices and buckets of repressed emotions for your sweet, lively heroine to shake up. If your heroine is poor, unattractive, connection-less, or even partially non-white, you can pick from a smorgasbord of abuses for her to suffer on every page.

But today, alas, people have it pretty good. Women can be self-sufficient, so few parents care how much their daughter's mate makes or who his relatives are. And even if they do, so what? You might sympathize with a heroine in 1813 who meekly accepts her family's rejection of her lover, but in 2013? She won't die alone in the streets because Daddy cut her out of his will.

Still, there are many solid sources of internal and external conflict available, if you look for them.


Andrea Blythe (December 3, 2013 11:12 am)

Great post!

You've definitely have me thinking about the conflict in my current novel. I think there are points where it might fail both tests, so I'm going to have to keep this in mind for the rewrite. It's a relationship/emotional conflict kind of story (mostly), so it's hard to tell where the true conflict lies sometimes. I think the Reasonable Person test might especially help.

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