Conflict: reviewing a year of writing

Time for another review of writing techniques, based on the last year’s work. Let’s talk about conflict.

To a good Catholic such as Nora, the authority of a priest is overwhelming

To a good Catholic such as Nora, the authority of a priest is overwhelming

Lesson #1: Personal conflict works. Some of the better parts of Martha’s Children, notably Nora’s tense interview with her parish priest, are driven by personal conflicts, people who have personal relations to each other coming into conflict because of different values, agendas, or knowledge of different facts. And there’s no point to “Dead Cellphone” without the personal conflict between Kristen and Patty.

Lesson #2: So does psychological conflict. Sanderson has to cope with her own character, intellect, and uncertainty of her powers to deal with the soul eater in Nightfeather: Ghosts. And some of the more frightening passages in Martha’s Children deal with Martha’s psychological instability (such as her fugue after killing a sorcerer).

A magical or spiritual war can be dramatic, but not if it's off stage!

A magical or spiritual war can be dramatic, but not if it’s off stage!

Lesson #3: On the other hand, conflicts that occur mostly “off stage” are difficult to do well, and can cause the story to drag. Martha’s Children is the biggest offender here. I just went back to reread it the other day. The “sorcerers’ war” becomes the dominant plot in the latter part of the story, and the pace and tension both drop considerably because we don’t see Martha and Cross in direct conflict until the very end. That was due to a decision I made about how the narrative was constructed, as explained in the epilogue, a decision which in retrospect I recognize was a bad idea. We don’t see what Cross thinks, so the sorcerers’ war is invisible for the most part, as well as being based on false assumptions. It would have been a better story if we’d seen Cross’s attempts to track down the sorcerer behind Martha.

Lesson #4: The build-up for a conflict should be proportionate to its significance and the length of the story. This worked out well for Nightfeather: Ghosts, which, like The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, is about an individual’s attempt to cope with the magical world around her. Sanderson, like Rebecca, drives the plot, and their conflicts are at its center from the beginning.

In contrast, once again Martha’s Children went astray, especially at the end. The resolution to the conflict in chapter 36 was a surprise to readers in the bad sense, a surprise because I didn’t devote enough time and energy to developing Ivy’s and Nora’s distaste for the methods of both Martha and Cross. Ideally, the reader should have been surprised, but thought that the resolution makes perfect sense in light of what the characters have said, done, and thought before. Instead, for several of you, it was a resolution that seemed to come out of nowhere.

This is not to say that the build-up always has to be extensive. “Dead Cellphone” is a short story, and meant to be a mystery, so the conflict between Kristen and Patty doesn’t need much explication: the two don’t get along, and Kristen’s situation is due to Patty.

Lesson #5: Magic works best in a story of conflict when it either sets up or exacerbates the conflict. None of the stories I’ve put on this blog would work at all without magic. But my stories work best when magic serves as part of the personal and psychological conflicts of the main characters. Ned has to learn how to be a vampire in Martha’s Children, Kristen suffers from Patty’s vengeance. In Nightfeather: Ghosts, Sanderson’s personal relationship with Doc Helen and Charlotte Smith are altered by the magic Sanderson uses.

I’m still figuring out next month’s story. But I hope thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in stories this past year will make me a better writer, and perhaps help you, the reader, as well, whether in reading my stories or writing your own.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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11 Responses to Conflict: reviewing a year of writing

  1. Excellent discourse. Your review helped me with my own writing. I found myself nodding along as I read because I could see the same points in my own writing, especially of late. I am looking forward to the next story as well as your observations. HH

  2. crimsonprose says:

    I remember reading a magazine article on fiction writing. ‘Begin every chapter with conflict’ – even if it’s only the internal conflict of toast and marmalade versus waffles with maple syrup for breakfast – or the blue shirt, or the white. I have discovered, that’s not possible to do, though I did once open a chapter with an early blackbird catching his worm, only to be slaughtered by a hungry sparrowhawk.

  3. L. Palmer says:

    These are some great points on conflict. I’m always impressed by anyone producing a serialized story. I usually get about two-thirds of the way through writing a story and have to go back to change a major plot point. It’ll be exciting to see what comes next.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      If it makes you feel any better, I also generally wish I could start over again after I’ve written so far. In fact, my first novel-length story (not posted anywhere on the blog) was drastically revised at about the halfway point. I realized that a significant death in the story was coming across as meaningless, so had to write a back story and then reintegrate it into the main story.

  4. Judy says:

    I have found all of your stories to be cohesive and flowed well for me. If I HAD to pick one which has more flaws, I guess it would be Martha’s Children. I think it might have been better to know more about Cross, his thinking, motivations, depth of evilness or so instead of being the evil behind things. The conflict in the end was good though. Sometimes when an author gets into the evil character, that changes things in a way which makes the reader have some level of sympathy or understanding of that personality. You can have sorrow for what made a person evil, but still have dislike or hatred for the person he or she became. This from someone who believes there is always choice….rise above or sink into it.

    I am truly looking forward to your next tale as no matter what, you craft characters that a reader can like or care about. I think that is one of the hard parts…believable characters whose dialogue rings true.

    • Brian Bixby says:


      You raise a good point, Judy. I’ve not tried to create a sympathetic bad character. William Maverick in DLS gets only a chapter to himself, neither Cross nor the soul-eater gets their own perspective . . . really, Martha herself is the most wicked character I’ve explored. Maybe that’s a challenge for the next story!

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