Category Archives: Writing Tips

What Conflict Really Means

Janice Hardy's cover for "Understanding Conflict (And What it REALLY Means) is in the background and the post title, 'What Conflict Really Means' is superimposed on the top.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Ask any agent or editor to list the top three reasons manuscripts get rejected and you’ll find “not enough conflict” on that list. Conflict is at the core of every story, and without conflict, there is no story. It’s so vital, “conflict” and “story” are almost interchangeable when writers talk about it. It’s common to ask, “What’s your story about?” and have the author describe the conflict.

Which is part of the problem.

Since conflict covers such a wide range of storytelling, it isn’t always clear what people mean when they say “conflict.” Does it mean the plot of the story? The character arc? Does conflict mean the characters have to argue? Does it mean a physical battle? Does it mean soul-crushing angst or a mustached villain plotting against the hero at every turn?

No. Conflict fuels the plot and character arc, but they’re separate elements. You can have conflict without battles, without major angst, and without evil villains bent on world domination. Some of the best conflicts are those between characters who love each other deeply, but can’t agree on what to do about a problem.

I think the biggest reason writers struggle with conflict is that it’s not just one thing. Conflict is a one-two combo of a challenge faced and the struggle to overcome that challenge.

  • The conflict of the plot (the physical challenges faced to resolve the problem)
  • The conflict of the character (the mental challenges faced to resolve the problem)

These are the two sides of conflict and they appear in every story (and scene) in some fashion. Let’s look at each of them a little closer. Continue reading What Conflict Really Means

Theme in Commercial Fiction

Sunset over the mountains with the post title superimposed on the top: 'Theme in Genre Fiction."

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Years ago I was stumped when I received an email from a middle school student. He was reading one of my books for a school assignment (this, in itself, was startling), and he was trying to figure out what the theme of the book was.  I guess he decided to cut to the chase and just ask the author directly. Because surely the author would know.

But the book was simple crime fiction. Cozy crime fiction. Maybe this is why the student was having such trouble figuring it out. I hadn’t explored theme in the story other than the typical ‘good versus evil,’ or ‘the importance of justice’ of your typical mystery novel.

After that incident, I made more of a conscious effort to incorporate theme, very lightly, in my books.  I didn’t want to hit the reader over the head with it and I still wanted to keep the lighter, comedic tone that I strive for in my cozies. Continue reading Theme in Commercial Fiction

Description: Letting Readers Fill in the Gaps

Sailboat in background and a man and a woman silhouetted in the foreground, looking out into the sea. The post title, "Letting Readers Fill in the Gaps" by Elizabeth Spann Craig is superimposed on the top.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I read a nice post by Nils Ödlund, “Don’t Show, Don’t Tell — How to Leave Room for the Reader’s Imagination ” on the Mythic Scribes blog.

As he says in the post: “…I’d like to explain why the reader’s mind is so strong: it’s because they put something of themselves into it. They use their own experiences, expectations, and associations to create the image, and this make it theirs. It becomes more personal; making it easier to understand and to believe in.”

Twice recently, I’ve been surprised by readers with compliments on my character descriptions.

One woman said, “I could see her perfectly. She was just like my Aunt May.” Continue reading Description: Letting Readers Fill in the Gaps

Writing Humor

A woman in sunglasses laughs on the right side of the image and the left has the post title, writing humor,.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

One thing that I love about writing cozy mysteries is the ability to integrate humor into the stories.

The amount of humor varies. I still somewhat regret writing A Body at Book Club which has a scene in which I actually laughed out loud while writing (startling the cats and dog around me). Since then, almost every book has at least one customer review that says: “It’s okay. Not as funny as A Body at Book Club.

I’ve noticed that humor comes easier as a series continues and I know the characters better and better. I think that’s because my humor is all character-based and the set-up for a humorous scene becomes easy when the readers and I know the characters very well. Running gags can be particularly effective over the course of a series. Continue reading Writing Humor

Mirroring a Book’s Beginning at its Ending

A car's rear view mirror is shown as the driver drives into a sunset. The post's title, "Mirroring a Story's Beginning at Its Ending" is superimposed on the left.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Many writers have a hard time with beginning and ending their books. I’ve never had much trouble starting a book (I rarely vary from starting with dialogue between two important characters), but endings I really used to struggle with.

If you’re like me, there’s a technique you could try to see if it makes your book’s ending stronger.  It’s a reflective, or mirroring technique.  The idea is to subtly remind the reader at the book’s close of a similar scene at the beginning of the book. It helps lend a full-circle feel to a story and can offer a satisfying ending for readers and a sense of closure.

I saw an interesting tweet recently from Open Culture.  They featured a supercut by Jacob T. Swinney of the first and final frames of 55 different films, shown side by side. Many of the films had reflective endings–and the ones that resonates the most with me did.

For my books, I use it mainly to re-establish order at the end of the book.  The idea behind these gentle mysteries is to have an idyll at the beginning of the book. Someone destroys the idyll via murders but, by the end, justice is served and peace is restored again. It’s very tidy. The loose ends are tied up.  My characters may be in the kitchen eating tomato sandwiches at the beginnings and ends of the story.  This technique can signify that, although the protagonist has overcome all sorts of trouble and conflict, some things remain, comfortingly, the same.

But you can get fancy with this technique, and expand it into other areas of your story.  Fantasy writer Janice Hardy has some great ideas in this post on working other mirroring techniques into your story. As she explains the role of these types of mirrors:

Mirrors aren’t just copies, but ideas and themes reflected in characters and situations around the protagonist. Sometimes they match the protagonist’s emotions or choices, other times they reflect the opposite, but they deepen the story by allowing the protagonist (and reader) to “experience” other potential outcomes without derailing the story. Stakes become more real when we see them occur, and the right mirror can do a world of foreshadowing and raise the tension.

Do you use mirroring techniques in your stories?  For endings, or in other ways?  As a reader, is this something you notice or find satisfying?

Using mirroring techniques in a story: Click To Tweet

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