Writing Professionalism: Effective Client Communication

Communicating with clients effectively takes many of the same skills as in other important relationships.

Active Listening

Active listening is more than hearing, it’s fully concentrating on words, body language, and subtext, and internalizing the message without judgment or offering of advice. Active listening is the first step in understand what a client needs or what a problem entails. Fully take in what the client is saying with an open mind rather than planning a response of considering other options while the client is speaking.

After listening actively to the initial conversation, take the time to ask questions about anything you don’t fully understand or on issues you aren’t sure you are seeing in the same way as the client. Reflect back to the client what they said in your own words so you can check your understanding and so the client can clarify anything that isn’t being understood in the way he or she would like it to be understood.

Ask for clarification when needed rather than assume or guess. Lastly, summarize the message or problem for both yourself and the client. This process help ensure there are no misunderstandings or missing information.

Active listening shows respect, improves the chances of full understanding, and limits misunderstandings or missed information. To learn more about active listening, visit Very Well Mind.

Consistent Communication

Communicating with a client in a consistent manner is an important aspect of effective communication.

All attempts at communication with clients should be conducted in a professional manner. Even if you know the person personally prior to them becoming a client, adjust the client/provider interactions to reflect that new aspect of the relationship.

Avoid casual chatting, asking personal questions, or sharing personal information when engaged in business discussions. It is important to stay focused on the project and so you can ensure the client is satisfied. Use professional language, avoiding slang, excessive emojis, or profanity.

It’s also important to use a similar communication style in all interactions, so the client knows what to expect when they engage in a conversation with you. This helps clients become more familiar with your style as a service provider and allow them to anticipate how interactions will occur. Consistency improves chances of open communication and honesty.

Adapting your communication style to the client’s (in a reasonable manner) can help the client feel more accepted and heard. This doesn’t mean mimicking a client’s style of communication. Instead, adapt to what the client needs to feel comfortable during an interaction. This may mean detailed explanations or brief overviews, providing written notes or audio messages, scheduling chat sessions or dropping impromptu updates as you complete tasks.

Ask your client specifically about their communication style in order to know and meet their expectations.

Adapting Language

Another important adaptation to consider is that of adapting your language to the individual client. This includes word choice, determine what does or doesn’t need to be explained, or the level of technicality.

Few clients will be as well-versed in literary or marketing terms as the writer providing the service is. Simplify language when needed to fully explain a concept without over-simplifying it to the point of condescension. Explain issues or problems in plain language to avoid confusion.

Ask yourself how you learned a term or idea and if a lay person would have the same knowledge. Writers who are working with an editor for the first time may need grammatical or style changes explained, or a discussion on why a particular aspect goes against industry standards or retailer terms of service.

Don’t assume your client knows everything you do, but don’t speak to them like a they know nothing at all, either. Assess the client’s level of knowledge and adapt accordingly. Explain a concept as you would to a coworker who has asked for your expertise on a subject, not as a teacher would explain something to a child.

Clarity and Concision

Be clear and concise when speaking with clients in order to avoid unnecessary problems. When asking clients for feedback or to respond to a question, be clear in what information you need and concise in your wording so the client does not have to attempt to interpret your request or guess at what you want.

List specific details you need if you are requesting answers or information. Provide the list in whatever manner your client is most receptive too, such as a bulleted list, audio file, graphic, etc.

When requesting opinions or feedback, ask about specific items, not general concepts. “What do you think about this version?” is much less helpful than “Does this color palette inspire the emotional response you’re looking for?” If a client doesn’t like something, they often have trouble pinpointing exactly what they don’t like. Asking specific questions makes giving feedback easier for the client and avoids lengthy back and forth conversations guessing at the main problem.

Provide timely updates on your progress. Don’t leave the client wondering what you are working on or when they will next hear from you. Clearly communicate any delays and the reasons for the delay, without crossing a line of professional boundaries.

Focusing on your client’s needs and giving full effort to communicating effectively will help avoid confusion, disappointment, and frustration.

Writing Professionalism: Getting Started Working with Clients

Building relationships with clients and having effective interactions is key to success in growing a service-oriented business.

Many authors don’t just write, they also provide services to other authors and to various writing clients. Learning how to interact with clients on a professional level can help you develop strong relationships with clients and grow your writing business.

The Importance of Working with Clients

As an editor, copywriter, ghostwriter, freelancer writer, etc., you will interact with clients on a regular basis during a project. The better those interactions go, the better the overall project will go as well.

It is critical that writers understand the importance of working with clients and the level of professionalism expected by clients. Clients who feel they are not valued or respected are unlikely to come back for another project with you.

An inability to interact with clients professionally will likely result in being awarded fewer projects. The writing community is small and reputations matter a great deal. If clients are unwilling to work with a service provider, other writers will hear about it fairly quickly.

Providing the client with excellent customer service, no matter the situation, is key a successful service-oriented business.

The Importance of Great Communication with Clients

Working with clients is all about building relationships. Like any relationship, effective communication improves the chances of building a strong relationship with your clients. Developing great relationships with clients helps to ensure repeat business. Repeat customers help the overall business and helps individual writers have more consistent work.

Poor communication leads to confusion, hurt feelings, dissatisfaction, and unfulfilled needs. Expectations should be communicated clearly at the beginning of the project to ensure you can meet them and that the client knows what product or service you will be providing and how and when it will be provided. This should include updates and progress reports.

Effective Communication when Getting to Know Clients

Monitoring tone is important in both verbal and written communication. It’s easier to interpret tone when a message is spoken, but if a new client is not familiar with you personally, jokes or sarcasm might not be taken in the right way.

In written communication, tone is even more easily be misconstrued. Be aware of how your words might be taken by someone who is still not yet familiar with you and your style of communication.

Connotation is the non-definition meaning people attach to words or ideas. Everyone has different connotations, making word choice extremely important in written messages where body language or vocal tone is absent. If you tend to use humor or sarcasm, these are especially in danger of being misinterpreted. Be cautious of using too much of this type of language when first getting to know a client.

Choose words that are universal and harder to misinterpret when explaining what services you will provide and the process you will use to complete the project.

It is also important to use concise language to communicate an issue or problem so the client knows exactly what is going on and how you intend to fix it. The more clearly the problem is defined, the more easily the client will be able to offer useful information to address it as well.

Working Through Problems with Clients

Be friendly and polite in all situations, even if a client is being difficult to work with or manage. Any message, including and especially problems, that communicated in a friendly, upbeat, and personable way are more likely to be received favorably. This will make finding solutions and working through the problem much less challenging.

Never use language that places blame or attacks the client. If information or materials are missing from what the client was supposed to provide, politely remind him or her that they are needed and ask when you can expect them. Make suggestions in a manner that offers a solution rather than simply stating a problem.

Ask for feedback on suggestions when problems are encountered. Show genuine interest in the client’s thoughts and reasoning, even if they are difference from your own ideas or plans for addressing an issue. Because clients are most familiar with a projects, they will have unique insights.

If a client disagrees with your plan of action or proposed solutions, acknowledge their input and accept their final decision graciously. You are providing a service, but the ultimate outcome of the project is his or her decision.

Always use basic manner, such as please and thank you, in your communications. Not getting along with a client doesn’t mean it’s okay to be disrespectful or rude.

Telling Clients “No”

Saying no to a client is always challenging, but it will almost always go better if you can find a way to reject an idea in a positive way.

There may be times when a client wants something that go against a retailer’s policies, client or genre expectations, or will be detrimental to a projects success. It is an important skill to be able to explain why an idea won’t work in a positive and respectful way.

Avoid actually saying the word “no” when possible. A better approach is to fully explain the problem. For instance, explicit sex scenes int eh first chapter, rape or incest as a main storyline, and similar taboos will go against many retailer’s terms of service and block a book from being published or prevent it from being found by customers.

Once you fully explain the problem, back up your reasoning with facts and data when possible. Amazon categorizes books with explicit sex in the first 25% of the book as erotica and will bury it, and most retailers will remove books containing incest or rape as a main storyline. Explaining this policies can help a client understand why a project element will harm its overall success.

Offer a solution to the problem after presenting it. The client may need to add more character development in early chapter to push explicit sex further back, and alter a storyline to remove unacceptable or banned taboo topics.

If a client is unwilling to change or alter a project element that you know will hurt the project’s success, it may be necessary to end the relationship. Do so politely and with explicit reasons of why you have reached an impasse. Not every partnership is a good fit, and it is better to end what isn’t working than let it devolve into unprofessionalism.

Remember that your reputation in the writing community will greatly affect your overall success in growing a service-oriented writing business.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Fixing Conflict that Doesn’t Work

Conflict may fall flat for a variety of reasons. If a source of conflict is not providing the needed progression or reader interest, consider why it isn’t working.

One-Source Conflict

Conflict, particularly the main story conflict, cannot come from a single source and be realistic and effective. A mix of internal and external conflict is needed to support a full story arc.

Consider which type of conflict the story is most heavily leaning on and work to balance it out. If internal conflict is dominating, create more instances of external conflict that relates back to the main internal conflict and pushes the character to develop new skills or grow in some way. These often appear in subplots and focus on individual skills or traits the character needs to develop.

Simple Conflict

Conflict that is not complex enough is boring and too easily resolved to hold the reader’s attention or provide meaningful opportunities for character growth and development.

This is another great use for subplots that can raise the stakes of the main conflict, make the character’s faults and weakness have a bigger impact on the main storyline, and make the character fail more often.

Provide ample opportunities for the character to learn and grow or the change needed at the end will feel too abrupt and unsupported to be believable.

Superficial Conflict

If the conflict a character faces is not impactful enough or too easily resolved, delve deeper. Figure out what the source of the conflict is rather than focusing on how it manifests. Dig until the character is bare, then use that knowledge to create more meaningful obstacles.

Predictable Conflict

If the reader can see what is coming a mile away, he or she will get bored and move on. Do not set a character on the first path that comes to mind without exploring all the options.

Develop unusual paths for growth, obstacles that arise from unexpected sources, and resolutions that may end the way the reader expected (such as a happily ever after ending) but do not come about in the expected way.

Examine each trope or tactic used and come up with an alternative way to integrate it, such as a character losing the job she spent the whole book working toward but being offered an alternative that will use her skills in an unexpected way.

Conflict in a Bubble

A story and its sources of conflict should extend beyond the page. Conflict that exists in a bubble often occurs due to lack of backstory development and consideration of the character’s future.

That final scene kiss in a romance won’t be as delicious if the reader is left feeling like the characters are underdeveloped and incapable of sustaining the relationship long-term.

The characters of a story did not come into existence on page one. Their lives prior to the story beginning brought them to the moment that takes place on page one. The characters’ current situation will have important impacts on the choices and actions made and taken throughout the story. Consider how a character got to page one and how past experiences will complicate or hinder his or her future.

Conflict only drives a story when it is carefully developed and well thought out. Taking the time to delve into the sources and impacts of conflict in a story will make it more meaningful, realistic, and powerful.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Resolving Conflict

The resolution to conflict, both main and subplot conflict, must be believable. That means it must makes sense for the characters and overall story, and have been reached through a logical progression of events, actions, and decisions.

If conflict resolution does not meet these criteria, the reader will be left unsatisfied and may even lose interest in the writer.

Resolution of the main conflict should be a progression of smaller resolutions, each one wrapping up a subplot conflict that served a purpose in helping the character grow and develop enough to resolve the main conflict. Resolving minor conflicts is key because those conflicts are often the reasons (taken all together) for the main conflict.

Internal change shapes the character’s underlying goals and helps him or her focus more fully on achieving the main goal. Once the underlying goals are better aligned, it is easier for the character to more clearly see how to resolve the main conflict.

It is imperative that the the minor and major conflicts resolve in ways that satisfies the reader and doesn’t leave him or her with unanswered questions. This does not mean that the resolution has to be the expected option or that the reader will like the resolution. It does mean that resolution satisfies the initial questions posed and promises made to the reader at the beginning of the story.

Evaluating Resolution

Reread the first chapter and ask yourself how you want the story to end. Then ask yourself what you are willing to see each character give up in order to achieve that ending.

Do your answers to these questions line up with how the story ended? If not, why? If so, did you fully explore all options for resolution or are you taking the easy, expected way out of the story? Avoid cliched, stereotypical, and unrealistic endings.

If a female main character gives up all of her goals to fulfill the male main character’s goals instead, you are bound to get more than a few eye rolls from readers unless you provide very convincing reasons for that choice. After spending so much time and energy developing strong conflict, don’t short change the resolution by failing to consider all options and making needed revisions that will improve the resolution.

Ask yourself what steps make sense for each character to get from page one to the final resolution. Is anything out of character or difficult to justify? If so, take the time to rework or flesh out unsatisfying points of a character’s development. If you can fully develop the character’s journey and individual points of conflict, the resolution will flow from that journey to a satisfying ending more easily.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Adding Depth

Even if you have developed strong conflict for the main plot, you may still end up with slow sections or lackluster moments of character growth. Layering conflict in small ways adds depth and can make a big different in the overall appeal of a story.

Progress and Failure

The main conflict should be complex enough to last the entire length of the story. Ending it too early creates endings that drag on for too long. Conflicts related to subplots or specific instances of learning or growth can be resolved within a few chapters.

It is important to remember, though, that conflict progression should not be a straight line. It should reflect a roller coaster motion, making improvement or completing steps toward a goal, then failing or hitting a new stumbling block. This back and forth motion prolongs and heightens the story’s conflict, adding depth and realism.

Anticipation and Expectation

Once readers know what a character’s main goal is, most will be able to intuit the necessary steps the character will need to take to achieve that goal. If you as the writer follow those steps in a straight forward manner, the reader will become bored.

Determine what steps need to be taken, then create situations or outcomes that will derail or delay those steps being completed, causing the character to have to take unexpected routes to continue on their journey.

Make sure the character is fully invested in the expected outcome and make it clear to the reader through internal dialogue and conversation how much he or she anticipates reaching that goal. This raises the personal stakes of failure for the character and helps forge a bond with the reader. When failure and setbacks happen, as they should, the reader will share the character’s pain and frustration.

Other character’s expectations can be a powerful way to add depth to conflict as well. If a character’s friend or partner either doesn’t believe she can reach a goal, or puts an excessive amount of pressure on her to meet a goal, this also raises the stakes of failure and heightens the reader’s anticipation of character development. The character not only needs to reach his goal, he must also battle with consequences of the outcome on others.

Building Suspense

Conflict and suspense are not the same thing, but they are often closely related. Suspense surrounding whether or not the character will push through conflict to reach a goal keeps the reader wondering whether the character will be successful. If the reader is too sure of success, the reader may lose interest.

Adding stumbling blocks, internal uncertainty or fear, and situational problems into a story keeps the reader from developing too much certainty about how the story will end. The suspense of not knowing keeps the interest level higher and can help develop a connection with the reader.

Fears and Faults

The reasons that a character struggles to achieve a goal aren’t always external. In fact, they shouldn’t be only external because that risks progress toward a goal becoming repetitive and predictable.

If a character can always talk herself out of a problem and never faces any repercussions, the reader will not be concerned about failure. If, however, a character self-sabotages even the most promising situation out of fear of an employer developing too high of expectations, the reader will constantly worry about how the character might bomb a situation.

Internal obstacles provide a deeper source of conflict because internal conflict is often much more difficult to overcome than external conflict. Internal conflict comes from trauma and old wounds. Neither of which are easily repaired.

Disadvantaged Starts

A story’s inciting incident is often seen as the start of the main conflict in a story. It is not the beginning of all conflict involved in a character’s journey. The reasons that a character struggles to achieve a goal are often rooted in their past experiences and situations.

Consider what disadvantages your character is starting with and how those will play into the storyline. Whether physical, financial, emotional, educational, or mental, everyone has sources of conflict they battle daily. Draw on these to develop meaningful stumbling blocks. The more personal the hindrance, the more believable it will be.

If a character is too close to achieving a goal when the story starts and there is not enough conflict in reaching a goal, the journey won’t be very interesting. Make a character have to work to achieve their goal.

Reveal Slowly

The main question that keeps reader engaged in a story is: what will happen next? When readers connect with characters and situations, they become invested in the outcome. If the answers are given too early or too openly without any work on the part of the reader, he or she may loose interest quickly.

Only give the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand what is happening in the scene. Do not reveal full backstories or motivations without good reason. Make both the character and the reader work to learn what he will face and whether she will succeed.

Be patient and detailed when fleshing out conflict in a story. Success should never come easily or in the most commonly expected way.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Types of Conflict

When considering how to add complexity to the conflict in a story, it’s important to cast a wider net on what types of conflict you are considering. Don’t stop at old emotional wounds in romance, a lousy boss in a workplace drama, or fear or the future in a coming of age story.

Developing Complexity

The first thing to consider when adding or developing complexity to a story conflict is that the stakes have to continue to raise throughout the story or it will stagnate. This often entails multiple sources of conflict that arise as the story progresses.

Ways to increase the stakes in a story might include:

  • Making the main goal become more desired or needed because of changes in circumstances, such as a desired promotion becoming absolutely essential when a character is threatened with losing their housing unless they can come up with additional funds
  • Adding an external factor, such as an antagonist threatening harm if the character doesn’t back down from pursuing a goal
  • Bring someone else’s well-being into the conflict, such as a family member falling ill and needing additional care or financial help
  • Increase the reward or cost of failure, such as losing custody of a child if a character cannot stay sober and provide a for a child’s physical safety

Power Struggles

Another avenue for adding complexity is to create a power struggle. This raises the stakes of the conflict by creating more desperation. It is not only the character who needs to achieve something in this situation. The character also has to stop the antagonist from achieving a goal in order for him or her to achieve theirs.

Types of power struggles might include clinging to something the character has power over or needs to gain power over, or a bid to escape oppression or danger. Power struggles are relatable for most readers and utilize high emotion that can forge a connection with readers.

Time Conflicts

Adding a time conflict to a situation adds complexity because the character is no longer free to work through a problem in their own time. He must race against a deadline to figure out a solution. This heightens emotion and stress, and reduces possible options for solving the problem. It also set a specific deadline for the reader to focus on, which can help form a deeper bond with the character.

Love and Romance

Adding elements of love and romance to a story whose main genre is not romance can heighten other areas of conflict. Emotional bonds can create interconnected barriers between goals and desires. In an office setting, a romance may complicate career progression or lead to hostility and drama. Personal growth-focused stories can be affected by romantic entanglements when the relationship hinders or complicates reaching personal goals.

Work Conflicts

Difficult situations in a work environment can complicate a character reaching her goals. Situations might include being asked to break personal morals in order to please a superior or client, stressing or breaking a relationship by taking unearned credit in order to secure a promotion or favor, bullying or sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment, etc. Such stressors at work then spill over and complicate other areas of the character’s life.

Conflicting Perspectives

Perspectives that don’t line up stresses relationships, whether romantic, friendship, work-based, or familial. Pressure to change a perspective or do something that does not line up with a character’s perspective becomes a barrier in reaching goals or making desired changes. Consider how moral, religious, political, environmental, ethical, etc. perspectives might create internal and/or external conflict for a character.

Powerful Internal Conflicts

Complex characters do not always do the “right” thing or make good decisions. Making mistakes or poor choices helps add complexity to a story’s conflict. However, characters must come off as empathetic on some level.

Readers don’t have to like or agree with everything a character does or believes, but there should be at least one aspect of his or her personality that a reader can connect with. Harsh or unlikable actions should be based in an internal trauma or personal torment a reader can sympathize with and understand.

Without powerful internal conflicts, a difficult character will simply be unlikable. Such internal conflicts create obstacles for a character achieving his or her goals. If a reader can understand the reason behind the behavior or belief, he or she will still be able to root for the character to overcome the obstacle and succeed in reaching the goal.

Going Beyond the Main Storyline

Subplots are excellent opportunities to add these layers of complexity to a storyline. It allows different conflicts to be weaved together and cross-impact each other. Subplots can nudge characters into actions or choices that affect the main storyline and provide depth that would be difficult to achieve within only the main storyline.

A singular focus on the main storyline limits complexity and opportunities for character growth.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Complexity Between Characters

How complex conflict in a story needs to be can depend on factors such as length or genre, but it should always be complex enough that characters have to work to get through it.

If the main conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it is likely too simple and unrealistic as the main source of conflict.

While some writers are more storyline focused that character focused, character are still an integral part of developing complex conflict. A great place to start when integrating characters and conflict is to develop inherently conflicting characters. Jane Austen’s works are prime examples of pairing up conflicting characters, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

All stories should have complex and conflicting characters, but in character-driven stories, conflict MUST start with the characters in order to provide believable opportunities for growth and development. Internal conflict is key in character driven stories. Differences in personality, beliefs, desires, or goals will push characters away from each other, creating a stumbling block they must work to overcome if the relationship is to work or the goal is to be met.

This type of conflict may be derived from aspects such as specific character traits, race/nationality, political/religious/morals views, money, career, family, social status, long terms goals, etc.

Conflict Between Groups

This same idea can be expended to character groups. Conflict between specific groups can create obstacles for a character reaching their goal or desire or achieving personal growth. Members of specific groups (work, social, athletic, racial, religious, etc.) have certain types of goals or core beliefs.

When pitted against a character with opposing goals or beliefs, he or she is forced to make difficult choices or changes. This can be a great source of internal conflict with external ramifications.

It’s important to consider this type of conflict when initially developing a character and setting the goals the will work toward in the story. Once you have each character profile compiled, compare the profiles of the two main characters.

Where do their goals clash? How will those opposing goals hinder a relationship (friendship, romantic, or familial)? Determine whether the opposing goals are deeply held enough to provide rich and believable conflict or if they need to be further explored and developed.

Love Isn’t Enough

Resist the urge to lean too heavily on the “love conquers all” idea. While we all might like to believe that love will fill in the gaps between conflicting desires and goals, it doesn’t. Not long term, anyway. Readers know this and need more than love to explain why the story will continue to work out after the last page.

Giving up too much or making too many personal sacrifices that aren’t met equally will eventually lead to resentment and distancing. It isn’t necessary to explain everything, but if you have succeeded in creating complex conflict between two characters, put an equal amount of effort into making sure your explanation for why it will work out in the long.

If a character changes a core belief or goal, there needs to be a strong and valid reason for that change, and falling in love isn’t enough of a reason by itself. Something needs to change internally for the character. External reasons for change are often short lived.

Sacrifices between characters may not be equal, but there should be a balance that makes sense for the story and characters. If one character gives up or changes a major belief or goal and the opposing character gives up nothing and only gains, this will not feel believable or long lasting to most readers. Both opposing characters need to grow and change.

Looking at Jane Austen again, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had to make internal changes and reevaluation their goals and desires by the end of the story. If only Elizabeth had changed to be less hasty to make judgments of others and Mr. Darcy was allowed to remain haughty and dismissive yet win still Elizabeth over, the ending would have felt dissatisfying and unrealistic.

When developing conflict in a story and between characters, take the time to determine whether it is complex enough to be believable and create a satisfying ending for readers.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Crisis vs Conflict

The difference between crisis and conflict may seem slight, but it’s very important and can have a huge impact on a story.

Crisis is an event or action (an emergency), while Conflict relates to the impact of an event or action on a character or characters. Think about an action movie versus a drama. Action films focus on events, and often have a succession of events that add more crisis up to the climax. Dramas are more focused on the fallout, rebuilding, or working through involved after a crisis or trauma has occurred.

Crisis cannot sustain an entire story (in most cases) in a realistic manner. It’s exhausting for readers to be constantly immersed in major events. Conflict, however, is the basis of a strong story arc. There are events and crises woven into the story arc, but there is also time between events for development, growth, reflection, failure, and change.

Crisis centers on action, excitement, and/or danger. The reader’s attention is intended to be held by constant new events. This method often leaves too little room for character development and meaningful story progression. It relies on highlights rather than deep diving.

While Conflict does include action, excitement, and/or danger, it centers on how the characters experience the events, how living through a crises affects him or her, and how each individual character recovers from a crisis or deals with the consequences.

To illustrate the difference, consider these examples.

Crisis: Someone holds up a bank and the character witnesses a fellow customer get killed.

Conflict: The character survives the hold up and is plagued with fear for her safety, is having difficulty functioning at work, and is pulling back from relationships.

Conflict deals with long term effects of crises and can involve in multiple interrelated crises over the course of the story arc. Crisis is a single event, and instigates conflict. This is why it’s important to have a balance of the two. Use crises to spark dramatic change, but develop conflict through the character’s thoughts, emotions, and actions that are caused or exacerbated by the crisis. This provides more opportunities for development and growth and will ultimately create a deeper and more engaging story.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Realistic Progression

Developing realistic steps and reaction in critical in planning and writing great conflict. Readers need to be able to connect with and understand a character’s choices, even if he or she doesn’t agree with or like that decision.

Conflict in Romance

Love at first sight doesn’t mean smooth sailing into the sunset. A fast and intense beginning to a relationship often leads to belated problems because the couple makes decisions before they are prepared to make them or before they know each other well enough to accurately evaluate the situation.

Friends to lovers romances are great opportunities for conflict. There is often fallout with other friends and family, and the problems that come with knowing each other too well, such as knowing all of each other’s part relationships and indiscretions.

Workplace relationships face many external sources of conflict in addition to the usual internal conflicts. Company policy may force the characters to hide their relationship, staff may accuse them of favoritism, if the relationship fails they still have to work together, and so on.

Internal and External Progression

If the main conflict is largely internal, a character must take logical steps to address it. This may include therapy, opening up to another character, confronting someone who hurt him or her, etc.

External conflict, such a two coworkers going for the same job and being unable to keep work and their relationship separated, takes delving deeply into emotions and actions.

The conflict progression may look something like the characters not talking about it, to slipping in disparaging comments at work, to taking specific actions to derail their work or respectability. As the risk that they might not get the job over the other intensifies, so will the emotions involved and the willingness to take action.

A great example of this comes from the film, “What Women Want.” The progression focuses on two coworkers vying for dominance in the company and the progressive actions Mel Gibson’s character takes as he becomes more desperate to win despite having fallen for the female main character.

Planning Progression of Conflict

When planning the progression of conflict, first consider what the character wants (their main goal) and what major actions he or she needs to take to achieve that goal. Aim for 3 to 5 major actions, depending on the length of the story. Then consider how these actions might be thwarted, go wrong, or have unintended consequences.

Next, comes up with possible reactions to an action not working out as expected. Consider several options before settling on one and ask a few questions. Is the reaction realistic or contrived to support the writer’s goal or ideal progression? Is the reaction true to the character? Does the reaction provide opportunity for character growth and story progression?

If you aren’t sure about the answer to any of these questions, write several scenes using the different options and have a friend or beta reader read them and give honest feedback. It’s easy to push a story in a particular direction based off what you want to happen or how you want the story to move, but that can lead to forced, illogical, or weak reactions to conflict.

Characters may be fictional, and the author may be the creator of the universe, but conflict must move through and interact with a story and its characters in a way that makes sense and feels realistic.

Writing Compelling Conflict: The Stakes

For conflict to be truly meaningful in a story, there must be real stakes involved for the character. It is important to establish those stakes early in the development of the conflict so the reader is aware of how not reaching a goal or fulfilling a journey will affect the characters.

What are Stakes?

Simple put, the stakes are what the character risks by failing.

Don’t put limits the types of risks of failure or on how a character might be affected. If a relationship fails, yes there will be emotional trauma, but there might also be a ripple effect of losing other people from his or her life, a decline in self-esteem, negative affects on job performance, etc.

Explore all types of stakes associated with failure, then focus most on the stakes that will have the biggest impact, which might not be the most obvious one. This risk MUST matter and be big enough that the reader feels anxiety over the fact that it could all fall apart and harm the character in some way.

Failure to finish a degree or accept a job in order to relocate for a relationship can build resentment. Failure to confront something in the past can push a character to run from a current relationship. Failure to prioritize a relationship over work/money/ambition will result in missed opportunities and damage a relationship.

Risks can be internal or external.

External risks are those that would cause physical harm. These are often most at play in adventure, crime, mystery, thriller, etc. types of stories where the character’s physical safety is at risk if they fail to escape, finish a journey, solve a mystery, etc.

Internal risks are those that cause emotional or mental harm. These types of risks can be at play in just about any story type. Romance stories often focus on the emotional trauma of a relationship ending or losing a loved one, however the mental wellness of a character should also be considered. Personal growth or coming of age stories often do focus on mental wellness aspects of how a character is harmed by a trauma or the development and growth need to overcome difficult experiences.

Be sure you are considering and weighing the various types of risks and avenues of how a character might be affected when developing stakes in a story. The more layers, the more depth and realism a story will hold for the reader.

A great example of setting and developing meaningful stakes in a story is the film “Run, Fat Boy, Run.”

The main character Dennis signs up for a marathon after his ex-girlfriend’s (who he ran away from on their wedding day while she was pregnant) new fiancé brags about running the race. Whether or not the Dennis actually finishes the race doesn’t really matter to anyone but him. He needs to fulfill an internal goal of proving he can finish something difficult and not run away. There’s no external risk of him failing to finish the race, but the internal risk is quite high.

Once you have identified the main stakes for your character in not reaching or achieving a goal, take the time to develop 2 or 3 smaller stakes that add concern from the reader and deepen his or her emotional connection to the character.