Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gotta Love a Little Torture

Someone once asked me what I did to amp up the conflict in my stories? What did I do to create drama, to torture my characters?

It was a great question :) It tends to be the drama, the conflict, that drives a story…and you just can’t get that if your characters get everything they want and are happy all the time.

So how do I amp up the conflict, torture my characters? Simple...I take away whatever it is that my character wants the most. I throw up as many obstacles as I can. I tease her with it and then take it away. :D I let her be happy for a few short moments and then I crush all her hopes and dreams *mwahahahaha*

Okay, so it's not always so horrible (though really, it kinda is). I am actually in the process of rewriting my very first book. Back then, I wanted to write a book where the girl got her guy, kept him throughout the book, had an adventure that was scary blah blah blah, but where there was no real internal conflict. I thought it would be fun to have my book be different than all those other books out there where characters were being tortured all the time.

Guess what? It was boooooring.

Stanley Elkin said, “I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”

This is such a great piece of advice…a person at the end of their rope has no where to go but up….but there is always the threat of crashing down…and that makes a great story. If your characters never go through any kind of conflict or “torture,” then you have a story in which nothing happens. A happy person who has everything they want, and continues to be happy with everything they want…Where is the story in that?

Ernest Hemingway, in a book of advice to writers, said that a writer should…“find what gave you emotion; what the action was that gave you excitement.”

I LOVE that quote. And it made me think, “What is it that gave me emotion? What gave me excitement?” Sure, I am happy when a character gets the guy at the end, or finds the treasure, or gets to live in the big pretty castle and lives happily ever after. But that isn’t what keeps me reading the story. What keeps me reading, what gives me goosebumps and makes my heart pound, is when the heroine cradles her dying love in her arms…when she is on the back of a thundering horse, shooting a gun over her shoulder at the villain chasing her….when she made some stupid mistake and screwed up the good thing she had going….THAT kind of stuff makes me want to turn the page.

Did the love interest really die? Will she get away? (Or will the retort of the gun knock her on her butt?…because that is always fun) :D Will she be able to fix her mistake and get the good thing going again, or has she just completely screwed up her life?

So, that is what I do to my characters. I give the reader a reason to turn the page, by giving my characters a reason to keep going, giving them something to fix, to resolve, to get over and move past. Death, pain, despair, torture, emotion, threat, danger….these all get the blood pumping, the tears pouring…and make that happy ending all the happier for the mess they had to go through to get there.

What do you do to torture your characters? How do you create your drama?


  1. Great post. Yes, yes, and yes. I think one of the things I see missing when reading during my crit group is the missing conflict but behind that is that, when pressed, the writer also can not say what it is their character WANTS MOST. I think the story can get confusing and rambling when this point has not been clearly identified and then next to impossible to clearly keep the said want from them (i.e., conflict!)

  2. This is a great point. I'm usually too nice to my characters, and an easy way to keep the story moving is to ramp up the tension.

  3. Love torturing my characters! However, you never want to be melodramatic. If you continually torture them then I think the reader can start to feel indifferent toward them. It's good to have a balance of torture with some moments of happiness.

  4. when you said torture, i thought literally. and i *am* literally torturing one of my characters. it wasn't pretty and was very difficult for me to write because i really like him and hated what he had to go through.

  5. We writers are a sadistic bunch. LOL ;-)


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