Every story needs conflict.
Without conflict, there is no story. A story is about change, but change never comes without conflict. That much is clear when you consider the stories all around you. The real stories, the ones worth reading, are the stories with conflict.
And every story needs emotion.
If your story doesn’t make me feel anything, I’m not going to care about your story. People read to escape. They read to see new things through new eyes, from a fresh perspective. We read to experience things we haven’t seen, things that might not be possible in this world. Through that, through the conflict, we want to feel. We want to be so immersed in the story that we cry when your characters cry, laugh when they laugh, fear what they fear.
They’re very similar, and one usually accompanies the other. Emotion creates conflict and conflict creates emotion.
But sometimes… they don’t.
There are times when emotion doesn’t create conflict, and conflict is emotionless. What then? How to we make our scenes of conflict full of emotion, and the moments of emotion tense with conflict?
The Conflict of Emotion
One of the simplest ways to create emotion in your reader is showing it in your characters.
When your character feels something, your reader will probably feel it, too.
I say probably because not all character emotions fit your reader. If your character is angry, your reader won’t necessarily be angry. Instead, they may be sad that your character has to be angry at their child or whatever.
The idea is thus: creating empathy creates emotion.
If you show (the key word is show) your characters having emotion, your reader will have emotions, too. Your reader will begin to care about the story, and that is the most important emotion for them to feel.
Emotions are usually offshoots of conflict. Someone stabs someone else with a knife, the stabbed person feels pain. The victim’s girlfriend feels desperation and panic. The guy with the knife feels triumph.
And it all comes from a conflict; one guy has a knife, and he wants to stab the other guy. The other guy doesn’t want to get stabbed.
There it is: conflict.
Sometimes, however, emotion can suddenly happen and there is no real conflict. These emotions are usually grouped together into the idea of “angst” or “teenagers”. Emotions that happen for no particular reason are stupid.
This is not to say that a grieving person can’t suddenly feel really sad, even though they’d been happy all day. That sudden sadness isn’t without conflict. Grief can hit a person at random times, especially when they think they’re getting over it. It’s the ripples of an older conflict.
So what do you do when your characters are feeling emotion without a conflict to accompany it?
Simple: add conflict.
If a scene is without conflict, it needs conflict. If it doesn’t have conflict, it doesn’t deserve a spot in your novel or short story or financial report.
It might happen that adding conflict means that the emotions have to change. That’s fine. Emotions that aren’t there for any particular reason usually aren’t that strong anyway.
The Emotion of Conflict
All real stories have conflict.
Yeah, I’ve already said that, but it’s worth repeating.
Conflict is to story as cacao is to chocolate. You can make chocolate without cacao, and you can make story without conflict, but they’re both disgusting that way.
It’s easy to make conflict, really. You take a person and their goal, and you stick something in the way. That something can be anything from the weather, to traveling a long distance, to themselves, to their best friend to their enemy, to an army of orcs.
And there it is.
Easy enough, right?
Well, it’s easy until you realize that there’s no emotion. Everything feels stale, even though there’s conflict. Your villain is stronger than your hero and is threatening to kill them, but you’ve got nothing.
The hero feels flat, the villain is stale, the scene is stagnant.
Nothing feels right.
The lack of emotion is a common mistake in writing. If your characters don’t feel emotion, then your reader won’t feel emotion. Even if you’re writing a cool-headed character who bottles up all their feelings, your reader still needs to see those feelings. Without them it’s hard to read your story.
Another way emotion can go missing is in your prose. If you write a tense scene the same way you write a casual scene, the tense scene won’t feel tense.
Tense scenes need the snapping, concise imagery of near-panic. They need to feel vivid and real, like they’re happening around us at the very moment we read them. Even if they’re written in past tense.
Your prose can make a scene emotional, even if the characters aren’t all that emotional. Sometimes a character without emotions fits, but the rest of the narrative has to make up for it in stark detail.
So how do you add emotion to conflict?
Show us the thoughts and feelings of your characters. Characters who feel things and show them through thoughts and actions are characters your readers will relate to. How your characters react to a situation will determine the emotion of your reader and will heighten the conflict.
Match your prose to the scene. A gunfight should have more tension than a tea party, in most cases. But then, there can be some pretty intense tea parties. Just a fair warning.
Heighten the stakes. No, I didn’t talk about this one earlier, but I thought I’d mention it. If a conflict feels stale, that could indicate that it’s a weak conflict. There’s not enough that could go wrong, should the hero lose this conflict. Make us care more, make us want the hero to win more than anything else in the world.
The Variance of Conflict and Emotion
The thing about emotions, they get old when presented over and over and over.
Same goes with conflict.
If your story has the same series of conflicts and emotions over and over and over, then we’re going to get bored quickly.
Example: character fights, loses, and feels bad. Then they try again, lose, and feel bad. Rinse and repeat four times.
By the third time, your reader will be bored.
We want diversity in emotion and conflict.
If you’ve already had the character lose two puppies and cry over them, don’t introduce a third sickly puppy unless you intend for this third puppy to survive. Your reader won’t feel bad about the next puppy because we’ve stopped caring about your story.
Never let us stop carrying about your story.
A story should be a whirlwind of emotion, a rollercoaster of conflict and loss and achievement and burden and success and strife and emotion and overwhelming odds and ultimate sacrifice and ultimate victory.
That is a good story.
That is emotion and conflict weaved together to make your story strong.
The Rough Draft (Vera Aisling)