25th Trillium Award


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Shaun Smith - author of Snakes & Ladders


With Hilma Wolitzer, Kate Messner, Susan Sherman, Eli Gottlieb, Eowyn Ivey, Paul Grossman, Marissa Meyer, Eileen Cook, and Corban Addison.

For this month's Fiction Craft I asked nine authors the following question: How do you approach the use of conflict in storytelling?

Conflict is a fiction. It is an idea that exists in the minds of people. When a fender-bender happens on a busy city street, it is not the two cars involved that feel annoyance or concern, it is the people driving the cars. The event is given meaning by those people only because it has an impact on their lives. Such events can be felt as conflict.

This perception of conflict is one of the “tools” people use to navigate the world, and in writing fiction it is one of the tools writers use to propel story. In the simplest formula, the protagonist is given a goal, and then an obstacle is placed between the protagonist and the goal. If the reader is sympathetic toward the protagonist, then the protagonist’s need to overcome that goal will increase the reader’s empathy. Narrative drive (the thing that keeps us turning pages) is created when the solution to one conflict generates a whole new conflict.

When I write fiction, I aim to create a sympathetic protagonist. Who is my reader? Who do I want my reader to be? The answer is another question: With whom do I sympathize in the real world? My sympathies as a person will dictate who I want my work to appeal to as a writer (and conversely, if I can be so bold, who I want it to educate). To have sympathy is to understand another person’s feelings of conflict. Around such understanding the writer can construct an artifice of obstacles to create what’s called a “compelling story”. Character is the key. Even a villain, if s/he is to be a great character, must have goals, desires and conflicts.

Conflict is a fiction, yes. But to generate empathy, it must grow out of reality, out of individual human reality. I approach conflict in my writing first by understanding the needs and desires of the type of person I want to write about, and then, in a rather unsympathetic way, I place obstacles between them and those needs and desires, all with the aim of creating the greatest struggle of their lives.

Now let’s see how some other authors approach conflict.

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of the novels An Available Man, Summer Reading, The Doctor’s Daughter and Hearts. She lives in New York City.

All stories are driven by desire and conflict. Someone wants something; someone else tries to keep him or her from getting it, or one person struggles with the morality and consequences of his own longings and choices. That’s what creates both the narrative and emotional suspense in fiction.

The resolution of conflict in my own work often surprises me, because nothing is ever preordained; everything is subject to change as the characters evolve. So I write the way I read: to find out what happens. Even as a kid, listening to the same old bedtime stories, I often believed things might work out differently this time. The bears might eat Goldilocks; Sleeping Beauty might not awaken to the prince’s kiss. (Maybe my vision was a little darker then.)

My novels usually take place on a small domestic canvas, so larger conflicts, like war and political battles, occur in the background, but still affect the characters’ private lives, as they do our own. Tensions spread from the outer world to the household and the other way around. I’ve been told that things tend to end happily in my writing, but that’s not completely so; along the way compromises are made and losses are sustained. And even God or kismet doesn’t guarantee a happy resolution of conflict.


Kate Messner is the author of numerous books, including the novels Eye of the Storm, Sugar and Ice, and The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. She lives in Plattsburg, NY.

When I’m writing a thriller like Eye of the Storm, my goal is conflict on every page, whether that’s a tornado threatening to wipe out the main character’s home, a fight with her science camp partner, or an internal struggle about a dark secret that she doesn’t want to acknowledge.

While the external conflicts like killer storms or evil antagonists on the prowl tend to provide the most heart-stopping moments in a thriller, a book has to be made of more than chase scenes, and it’s often the internal

development of a character that really helps a reader relate to her. That character development – the way a character grows and changes throughout a book – are so often fueled by internal conflicts. When we have to face an uncomfortable truth about ourselves or someone we love, that changes us, and I think readers relate to characters who face those same kinds of challenges.


Susan Sherman is the author of the novel The Little Russian. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

What would we writers do without conflict? It’s as important to writing as a computer, paper or a good story. Bring on fear, loss, jealousy, unrequited love, natural disasters, war and disease, but don’t give me a happy person. Happy marriages, healthy people, peaceful, unremarkable times are deadly in fiction writing.

Conflict doesn’t have to come at the end of a gun barrel or in a raging river or near a ticking bomb. It can be expressed as a flick of an eyelid, a whisper of hesitation, a bright smile held an instant too long. But it has to be there. We use it to move our stories forward and to parcel out exposition, to create drama, suspense and empathy for our characters. When I’m getting ready to write a scene, I unconsciously look for the conflict. Like a carpenter absently feeling around for his hammer, I look for the emotional heart of the scene and the conflict that drives it.

At times we are required to write scenes of unbridled happiness or worse, contentment. In The Little Russian I had to write a wedding scene where the protagonist, Berta Alshonsky, is deliriously happy. I wrote it this way and that, but nothing worked. She was just too damn cheerful. She had gotten everything she wanted and left me with nothing but a description of a Jewish Russian wedding. I finally put the scene in another character’s POV, that of a spiteful town mourner, and it all fell into place. Woe to the writer who has to write happy. May all your tranquil scenes be short.


Eli Gottlieb is the author of the novels The Face Thief, Now You See Him, and The Boy Who Went Away. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

For me, conflict is at the heart of storytelling. Novels are uniquely equipped to map relationships, and the motor of those relationships, invariably, is conflict. In the same way that a boat moving on a river requires either an engine or an oar to be able to steer itself out of passive acquiescence to the current, so conflict is needed in narrative to draw characters out of the chilly self-consciousness of the writer, and thaw them into the openness and possibility of a life--so we writers like to believe--independent of their creator.

Conflict is the bone-marrow of narrative. If not for conflict, narrative wouldn't exist, or breathe.


Eowyn Ivey is the author of the novel The Snow Child. She lives in Alaska.

In real life, I go to great lengths to avoid conflict. I'm the kind of person who wants everyone to get along and life to go smoothly. That's not a great tactic for writing fiction, though. Conflict is at the heart of plot; it gives the story momentum and purpose. Often in fiction, it takes the form of struggle between people. But in my novel The Snow Child, much of the conflict derives from the characters' interaction with the Alaska wilderness. How can they make a life in such a hard place? Will the dark, cold winters be the death of them? Will Mabel survive the night alone in the woods? Will Jack shoot the moose they need to eat for the winter? It's tempting to back the characters in and out of such adversity, but I realized as I wrote the novel that I had to force my characters head-on into conflict and let them fight their way back out again. Strangely enough, I felt terrible subjecting my beloved characters to such hardships, but I knew that was where they would prove themselves. And that's where I would find story—in the conflict.


Paul Grossman is the author of the novels Children of Wrath and The Sleepwalkers. He lives in New York City.

I write historical thrillers, so in my book(s) conflict is king. It rules from the first page to the last. The foreshadow...a single cloud on the horizon. A rising wind. An explosion of violence. Aftershocks: who or what has triumphed? What seeds of new conflict have been sown?

My good friend Sigmund Freud put it this way: “Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.” In other words, people are the furthest things from flowers. There’s no human life without conflict. Waking up involves overcoming inertia. Every step meets resistance. Internal. External. Force against force.

To offer a different metaphor: if writing a novel is baking a cake, conflict for me is the flour. It’s got to be blended with other ingredients of course, things that make it creamy, sweet, bring out the flavor, offer zest. And naturally it must be given plenty of time to rise, otherwise it falls flat. But really there can be no other main ingredient.


Marissa Meyer is the author of the novel Cinder. She lives in Tacoma, Washington.

I find that the best stories are made from a layering of many different conflicts—internal versus external conflicts, life-and-death versus small annoyance conflicts, romantic versus family versus enemy conflicts. When I’m writing, I try to let a multitude of issues grow naturally from the characters and their desires, the story, and the settings. If an unexpected enemy enters the fray, I go with it. If my hero is faced with a difficult decision, I try to let him puzzle through it and see where it takes the story.

It isn’t usually until two or three drafts into a manuscript that I start to pick apart these conflicts (each one usually represented by different subplots that have all intertwined into a huge tangled mess), and focus on each one individually. At that point, I try to ensure that each conflict has a beginning, middle, and end, just like with any story. When is the reader introduced to this issue? How often are they reminded of it? Does the conflict escalate over the course of the story? Does it reach a satisfactory conclusion and if not, is there a sensible reason that it’s left unresolved? Often, strengthening the conflict in one part of the story, say, the heroine’s emotional battle with good versus evil, will lead to strengthening other parts as well, such as her physical battle against the villain.

If I’ve done my job well, these different conflicts will read as one ongoing struggle, one continuous obstacle, that climbs to an inevitable confrontation. Hopefully, altogether they will make for one un-put-downable read.

Eileen Cook is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels Unraveling Isobel, The Education of Hailey Kendrick, and Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

The curse of a vivid imagination is that you can almost always imagine something that would make the situation worse. This is why if there is a sudden lurch on a flight, you can count on me to grip my armrest, mentally picturing the wing suddenly falling off of the plane. Strange noise in the middle of the night? Zombie apocalypse. Hacking cough and sniffle? No doubt the beginning of Ebola. It makes my life anxious, but it’s great for writing fiction.

Most fiction suffers from not enough conflict, not too much. With every book and every scene I ask myself “What would make this worse?” I take every character resolution technique I ever learned and turn it upside down. If a character is going to discover that she has been betrayed, who is the person that she will be most hurt by? How can she discover this in the worst possible way, or at the worst possible time? What can the person say that would make this news feel even worse? Imagine a man telling his fiancé that he doesn’t think he can go through with the wedding. Now imagine him telling her in the back of the church just before the wedding, or worse yet, right after the ceremony. Maybe it’s even worse, he’s in love with her maid of honor, or her sister, or his best man.

I find it easier to scale back conflict than to add it in later. The longer I spend with my characters, the more I like them. I’m less motivated to make their lives miserable even though I know that’s my job. I try and go big with that first draft, telling myself I can always scale it back later if it is too much. It rarely is.

Readers aren’t interested in happy people leading content lives. Readers read for conflict. To see characters in difficult situations who either triumph (or don’t) over those conflicts. Would anyone find Gone with Wind interesting if Scarlet had to handle a patch of bad weather instead of the Civil War? Scarlett has to cope with death of her parents, a sister, her first two husbands, her daughter, Melanie, and the Old South. She faces down betrayal, hunger, sickness, and unrequited love. About the only thing Scarlett doesn’t have to deal with is zombies – and who knows, those might have been in the first draft.
When in doubt, go big. Add a zombie, drop a plane wing, have them realize that the two things they want most in the world can’t both be had at the same time. Your characters may hate you for it, but readers will love it.


Corban Addison is the author of the novel A Walk Across the Sun. He lives in Virginia.

Conflict is a crucial ingredient in a compelling story—conflict between characters, particularly a protagonist and his or her adversaries; conflict within characters, pitting conscience versus necessity; and conflict between the expectations of readers and the unfolding events of the narrative, as suspense builds upon suspense en route to the climax. Conflict, properly handled, is like a spark in the cylinder of an engine, a critical mass of energy that gives a story its power.

In A Walk Across the Sun, readers are introduced to a plenitude of conflicts, all of which present questions that the story must resolve: How will two teenage sisters, Ahalya and Sita Ghai, cope with the devastating loss of their family in the Boxing Day tsunami? Will they find a way to survive when they are taken and exploited by human traffickers, when they are turned into commodities and sold, traded, and cruelly separated? Will anyone come to their rescue?

On the other side of the world, how will attorney Thomas Clarke overcome the death of his baby daughter and the estrangement of his wife, Priya? What will he do when his prestigious legal career is threatened by a false accusation, when he is forced to take a sabbatical from the law and join a human rights agency fighting human traffickers on the streets of Mumbai? Will he embrace the work or will he keep himself at arm’s length, biding time until he can return home.

As the story progresses and the narratives of Thomas and the sisters begin to intertwine, the conflicts, and their inherent questions, become more pressing. When Thomas meets Ahalya and learns of Sita’s disappearance, will he endeavor to help her? Even if he agrees to risk himself, is the quest doomed to failure? Can a girl who has gone missing in the international trafficking pipeline ever be found? And once Thomas commits himself—at first reluctantly, later passionately—to the task of helping Sita, does he have what it takes to rescue her? Does he have what it takes to redeem his broken marriage?

Many authors who succeed in writing powerful stories highlight the conflict between a protagonist and an embodied nemesis—a villain with a face and a name. In A Walk Across the Sun, the enemies are diverse and the ultimate nemesis is disembodied. The story pits Thomas and his friends in government and the NGO community against the global trade in human beings. It also pits Thomas against himself.

By creating and sustaining this interplay of conflicts, external and internal, I aimed to write a novel that would satisfy readers emotionally, intellectually and morally. In addition, I wanted to adumbrate a final, unresolved conflict—between the reader and the reality my story describes. If children really are being forced into prostitution around the world and on our own streets, what are we going to do about it?



Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

November 2011: How do you capture character voice in dialogue?

October 2011: Under what conditions do you do your best writing?

September 2011: What is your relationship like with your characters?


Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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