A collection of musings, articles and news about romance fiction.

Posts tagged “craft of writing

Writing 101: Conflict Basics

What is internal conflict? What is external conflict? What other types of conflict are there? How do you set up conflict in a novel? How do you sustain that conflict?

If you’re just starting out with writing a book, conflict is one of the most important – and most challenging – elements to grasp.

I love conflict (only in my books, of course). I love the way it can put your character through the crucible, and have them emerge as a purer essence of themselves. I also love the potential for drama in humour that conflict can create. Conflict is such a critical aspect of writing, and it’s such a huge topic, I’ll cover it over a number of posts. This first post will look at conflict basics – what it is, and what it isn’t, and the two main categories that conflict falls under.

So…what is conflict?

Simply put, conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces.

Think…Two people applying for the same job…Cinderella and the stepsisters fighting over Prince Charming…Taylor and Brooke wanting Ridge…or cops and robbers – one wants to apprehend, the other wants freedom…

Conflict then becomes the basis of suspense: which force will triumph?

Without conflict…nothing happens. We can pick up our bat and ball and go home, because nothing is happening. No crimes or mysteries to solve. No relationships to resolve. Police are superfluous. So are superheroes (I know, gasp).

Conflict drives the plot of your story. In the beginning, something happens and creates a story question. For example, in a romance, boy meets girl. Story question – will they somehow get their Happily Ever After? Conflict: Boy doesn’t like girl. In a murder mystery, someone dies. Story question – will the detective figure out who the murderer is? Conflict: Murderer frames another suspect for the crime. In a fantasy, the Least-Likely-To-Succeed must complete their quest. Story question – will they find their Holy Grail or enable/disable the prophecy? Conflict: The evil witch is sending her minions out to destroy the Least-Likely-To-Succeed.The conflict is the issue that immediately prevents that story question from being answered within that first chapter – and keeps us reading.

Good conflict creates doubt in the reader. Doubt creates curiosity, and with that comes suspense. If the conflict is simple, if resolution is easily conceived and thus easily achieved, then it doesn’t really create doubt – and we stop reading. If it’s obvious from the start that Boy likes Girl and Girl likes Boy – well, they will get their Happily Ever After. If it’s obvious who the murderer is…well, then there’s no mystery. And if the evil witch and her minions are disorganised and ineffectual, than Least-Likely-To-Succeed…succeeds. End of quest.

Note: Conflict is not an argument. It’s not based on a misunderstanding that can be cleared up if only your characters would really talk: You ran away because you left the iron on, and not because you’re afraid to commit? Ooooh. Great. Let’s get married. (End of conflict, end of story.)

So…how can you create conflict?

Well, as stated earlier, conflict is the complication that prevents your character from obtaining what they want. It’s the begetting of trouble.


For example: She wants children – but doesn’t have a suitable partner who can get her pregnant. No partner = conflict. Story question: Will she get her children? He wants the promotion – but so does she. Rivalry = conflict. Story question: will he get the promotion, or will she? Superhero wants to save the world – but supervillain wants to take over the world. Opposition = conflict. Will s/he save the world?

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at internal and external conflict, and the different variations of conflict, and ultimately how to use conflict with plotting.

For now, good luck and get writing!


Writing 101: Character Self-Concept

This post will be a short one, but I felt self-concept is a key building block when starting out with character arc. The self-concept of your character (this can also feed into character conflict, which will be covered in our next post) is how your character views him/herself.

How does s/he think of themselves? This is not who s/he is, or how others perceive them, but rather how s/he perceives him/herself… It’s not the whole truth, it’s their self truth.

Your heroine might be an exceptionally capable, efficient boss in a high-powered executive role – while she might actually see herself as the Plane Jane/Ugly Duckling who believes she can’t be successful in the looks department, so must work doubly hard to prove her smarts… or perhaps she feels her life is out of control, despite her control and efficiency that others see.

Or your hero might be an undercover agent who believes that as he has no personal connections and he’s always playing a ‘role’ that others don’t really see him for who he is, he’s invisible, and perhaps – less than human. Or that he’s just a mouse running in the wheel, with no real impact on the world around him – there’s always another criminal to take the place of the criminal he’s just caught, so he’s less than effective , while others may instead see the capability and justice he delivers, in the lives that he saves – or the lives that he ends.

With the self-concept comes great potential for growth (character arc). If our heroine feels out of control and less than attractive, one arc that shows real development would be her gaining that control, and realising her self-worth, that beauty is relative, that she doesn’t need to continually try to prove something, she can be content, proud, etc.

Our hero could realise that what he does is important, that he is important, that there is a ripple effect with his actions, and that people do see him, see what he does, and appreciate it – particularly those effected by the criminals he brings to justice.

With the self-concept comes great opportunity for challenge, for raising the stakes, for creating conflict. For example, our heroine who is extremely efficient, yet feels out of control; what’s the worst thing that could happen? She could actually find herself in a situation where she has no control whatsoever. And then? Perhaps she could actually lose control of herself – she could cry, she could rant, she could hit.. Things she would never have thought herself capable of, and possibly dreaded.

Our hero feels invisible and inconsequential – what’s the worst that could happen? What if his cover is blown, and the criminals see him for who he really is? Or that someone’s life depends on him and he has to strive, has to succeed, it becomes vital for him to be effective, to be powerful, and to have some impact with his actions.

For ways to outline and plot your character’s self-concept, feel free to download the Character Self-Concept Worksheet.

Someone once said – put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. That’s what challenging your character’s self-concept is like – each time you throw that proverbial rock that hits the character at their core self-concept, they hurt, they heal, they recover – or they dodge. And maybe get hit by the next one. Either way, your character is forced to act and react, and consequently change. So, to add extra dimensions to your character, challenge his/her self-concept. Put them up that tree. Throw rocks. Then set fire to that tree – put your character through that emotional ringer.

Get writing, and good luck!

Writing 101: Motivating Your Character

Character motivation can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s where you get to ask, over and over, ‘but why?’ – and not get slapped for it. Creating motivation for your character is not only a great brainstorming exercise that encourages your muse, it’s also critical to developing a believable plot – or at least, a plot that your reader is prepared to believe. Without proper motivation that suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

As mentioned in a previous post on the Four W’s of Character Development, motivation is a fundamental aspect of building your character. Motivation is what drives your character, it’s the engine that gets that vehicle moving.

Motivation gives your character credibility, depth, and will create that emotional empathy with your reader.

So, it’s important. Don’t scrimp on the motivation. When you establish clear motivation for your character, s/he can literally get away with murder, in the eyes of your reader.

One way to create motivation out of the ether for your character (and we’ve mentioned already that there are so many different methods writers can use, what I suggest here is merely what works for me) is to drill down to their core belief system, and their internal and external needs.

Harking back to my Year 8 social studies lessons, needs are what MUST be met in order for you to 1) survive, and 2) grow/develop. To explore it further, we’ll look briefly at the psychological theory put forward by Abraham Maslow in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic of physiological needs must be met before one can focus on any higher level needs.

For example; a body needs food, water and shelter from the environment, and will pursue those needs until they are met. If they are not met, then the person may feel anxious, stressed – and deficient (hungry, thirsty, cold, wet, etc).

Once those basic needs are met, the individual can then focus on other needs, such as security – is the shelter safe from attack, are the members of my family/tribe/group safe, am I wounded/avoiding danger, etc.

At each stage when a need is met, the individual can build upon and lift their focus to the next stage of ‘need’, such as social, belonging, family, etc.

Maslow described our hierarchy of needs as:

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: those things needed for our physical survival.
  2. Safety: those things needed to make us feel secure, safe, comfortable.
  3. Love/belonging: those things needed for us to feel engaged, accepted, loved, welcomed, etc.
  4. Esteem: those things that make us feel respected, recognised, worthy, and reflected in our self-respect and self-esteem.
  5. Self-actualisation: the realisation of our full potential, the drive for accomplishment and self-improvement/self-mastery.

But how do we relate this to our writing, and specifically, to our character?

We’re going to start with what our character NEEDS.

Motivation is WHY your character thinks, feels, acts and reacts the way s/he does.

I’m going to break motivation into two basic tracks –

  1. Deepest Desire
  2. Fundamental Fear

Deepest Desire

Primary Motivation: what does your character want, seek, crave, desire? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character needs to feel safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list of twenty. Then make another list. You’ll find the first list are obvious needs and motivators. In the second list, there will be some things that may surprise you, intrigue you – and be a great, realistic, believable, compelling motivation for your character.

Newton’s Law of Motivation:

For every deep desire, there is an equal and opposite fundamental fear.

Each Deep Desire will have an equal, opposite and reactive Fundamental Fear if the desire (need) is not achieved.

Deep Desire vs Fundamental Fear

Fundamental Fear

Primary Motivation: what does your character dislike, fear, shun, hate, and is repulsed by? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character fears and prevents him/her from feeling safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list for each track.  Make another list. Write as many deep desires and fundamental fears you can think of for your character, and select what works for you.

Then create the backstory for your character – how they developed these deepest desires and fundamental fears – you now have motivation that adds depth to your character – and possibly to your plot (but that’s another post!).

Feel free to download a Motivation Worksheet.

Good luck, and get writing!

Writing 101: Four W’s for Character Development

There are two drivers for novels; character and plot. Character-driven stories are those where the character’s actions and reactions drive the story forward and fuel turning points and happenings. Plot driven stories are where the focus is on the actual incidents and happenings that propel the story forward.  Creating dynamic characters using a basic practice is what we are focusing on with this article.Goal, Motivation & Conflict

The Four W’s

When it comes to fleshing out character, one of the basic ways to do it (and I still think it’s the best way) is to nut out the four W’s of that character. For a very good resource on character development, try Debra Dixon’s book on the craft of writing, Goal, Motivation & Conflict – it holds the best instructions and explanations for creating your characters. It’s well worth the investment!


Who is your character? Deciding on a name is often like sticking a note to a corkboard with a pin, it anchors the important information in place. Once you have a name, think of a descriptor that accurately portrays the traits and/or roles of this character. For example:   John McClane from Die Hard could be described as your rogue cop. William Wallace from Braveheart could be described as your determined warrior. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada could be described as your disdainful autocrat. I’m going to create a character for the purpose of this post. His name is…Max. Max Brooks. Max Brooks, protective father.


What does this character really want? World Peace? The antidote to the poison they’ve been injected with? That job promotion? A secure home for his/her child? Mr. Right? What objective is your character working toward? I usually break down the ‘what’ of a character even further into two categories – want and need.

  • Want:  The clear objective that your character defines on their own. Sometimes this is also called an external goal. It’s something tangible, and like any form of goal-setting in the ‘real’ world, there is success when the objective is reached, or failure if the objective is lost. It can be self-serving (job promotion/antidote), or self-sacrificing (world peace/safe home for family) – either way, it’s something that the character can get – or not.
  • Need: The deeper yearning that drives your character. Maybe it’s complicated, like finally getting the approval from your mother, or simple; proving your independence to yourself. Either way, these are emotional, subjective needs that will signal growth and development for your character if/when these needs are met.  You can have multiple wants and needs, but for today, I’m going to use just one. So, using my character Max as an example: Max wants: the antidote to a poison he’s been injected with. Max needs: To provide a safe, secure home life for his son


Why does your character want what s/he wants? This is the part that creates the most fun for me as a writer. This is where you create a backstory for your character, and where you give your character the motivation for their actions and reactions. Again, answering this question for both internal (subjective) and external (objective) goals creates believable motivation for those goals. It’s also where we channel Tom Jones – Why, Why, Why, Delilah…? Again, using our hero: Max wants an antidote to the poison – why? To save his own life. Why? His wife is dead, and he’s the only living relative for his son, Chad. He needs to be there for Chad. Why? Because he never had a father figure, growing up. His mother struggled to provide a safe roof over their heads, they ended up living on the street for a while, and he saw things, experienced things that he doesn’t want his son to see or experience. He wants to see his son grow into a healthy adult. He needs to save his own life, and in doing so he saves his son’s life.

See? It’s kind of like twenty questions, only you get to make up the answers. By continually asking why you create a more compelling, in-depth character.

Why not?

There has to be some problem or issue, some roadblock that prevents your character from getting what they want – otherwise your novel is a dead-boring read. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, why bother reading the rest of the story. Boy meets girl, and they live happily ever after – zzzzzzz. Where’s the excitement? The tension? What makes the reader sit up at night and wonder – oh, heck, what’s going to happen next? Will they or won’t they? What is the complication, the conflict your character faces that stops them from achieving their goal? Again, conflict on an external (objective) and an internal (subjective) level adds not only dimension to your character, but suspense for the reader. Our hero, Max, can’t get the antidote because the person who injected him with the poison has it, and has now disappeared. Yikes! By not getting the antidote and saving his own life, his inner need to provide a safe, secure home for his son will not be met. He’ll die…or will he?

We’ve also introduced high stakes – life or death… but we’ll cover stakes (and how to raise them) in a later post.

So, in a nutshell:

Who is your character, what does s/he want, why does s/he want that, and why doesn’t s/he achieve that right now?

Four Ws

We’ll be covering these elements in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, good luck and get writing!

Where’s the Plot? Tuesday Tidbits with Kay Keppler

I have a terrible time figuring out a plot.

I know what plot is. It’s action, and especially, it’s conflict. Conflict drives stories. But conflict is hard. I hate making my heroine suffer. She’s so nice. Why can’t everybody just get along? But of course, there’s no story if everybody’s happy. Without action, without conflict, there’s no plot, and then there’s no story.

Not all actions are created equal. To be plot, actions have to have consequences. In one of my favorite series, Charlaine Harris’s character, Sookie Stackhouse, likes to take showers. Early in Dead Reckoning, Sookie takes a shower after a tough night waiting tables at the bar. She relaxes in the hot water, letting her concerns wash away.

Then she goes to bed.

Is that plot? Of course not. It’s description, and it’s foreshadowing, but Sookie’s shower doesn’t have any consequences. There’s no real action in the action.

It’s different, though, when Sookie takes a shower with Eric. As anyone who reads the series knows, that shower had a lot of consequences, and not just the immediate, ah, steamy ones.

And then compare those showers to the shower scene in Psycho. In it, Robert Bloch’s character Marion Crane is bathing to wash away her guilt about embezzling from her employer. (Conflict there, much? She feels guilty—internal conflict—and she’s being pursued as a suspect—external conflict. Conflict galore!)

We all know what happened in that shower scene in Psycho—Marion Crane is stabbed to death, and what washes down the drain in that scene is a lot more than just her daily worries. But her disappearance triggers an investigation, which leads to more mayhem. That’s consequence. That’s plot.

When I read books (sometimes many books) where the world is threatened, or the universe is threatened, or all the universes in all the galaxies in all of space are threatened, I sometimes think that’s a bit of overkill. I like a nice, juicy scare as much as the next person, but in real life, my biggest scare is usually along the lines of whether I’ll finish the milk before it goes sour.

But in writing Zero Gravity Outcasts, I went for the Big Scare myself, in the form of an interplanetary civil war. It’s because the consequences of actions have to be important. If they’re not, who cares? Not the readers, and not even the characters. The heroine might as well stay home and defrost the fridge.

Which I sort of like in a heroine, but I get that readers don’t—except maybe unless the secret capacitor compartment was punctured, and the freon escapes, and the world is threatened by expanding, poisonous gases… and the heroine doesn’t want to call Gas Busters because she’d planned to settle in with a movie and some popcorn, but the handsome agent rings the bell, and…like that. In any event, the concept of struggle—of conflict—is key.

The thing I have to keep asking myself when I write is, what’s at stake? If my protagonist fights the Deadly Hammer for 300 pages, killing angels and fairies and puppies along the way as collateral damage, suffers grievous wounds and the loss of family and friends, she better get more out of it than a trip to the store for a fresh quart of milk.

But that’s a whole other story. One that, I hope, I’ll be able to plot better next time.

Kay Keppler likes happy endings, whether they’re in the fiction she writes, the fiction she edits, or the fiction she reads. After all, an unhappy outcome is what the newspaper is for! Her characters are resourceful to a fault, hard-working to the extreme, and loyal to the end—but she’s still working on a decent plot. You can find her at kaykeppler.com, kaykeppler@yahoo.com, or @KayKeppler.

Zero Gravity Outcasts can be found at:

Carina Press


Barnes & Noble



And all good e-retailer stores!