Conflict development: ensuring proper progression

Lately, I’ve been seeing a goodly number of manuscripts where there are conflict discrepancies. For example (Not from a ms. submitted to White Rose): Jane Heroine works for XYZ church. She’s enjoying her job and spending time with Joe Hero, another employee of the church. Then, one day—several chapters into the story—Joe Hero asks her to help him prepare a special prayer service, and Jane Heroine thinks, “I can’t do that. I had a really bad experience with church-going folks being mean to me when I was a child. Church-folk are hypocrites, God never listened to my prayers for deliverance from these people, and I quit praying a long time ago.” (Of course, if she’s painting all church-goers with the hypocrite brush, caution needs to be taken [see the previous post about heroines being heroic])

Anyway…now, you may be wondering what’s wrong with that. It makes for good conflict, the fact that a non-praying heroine has to organize a prayer meeting—and it does. This is an excellent vehicle to help her rebuild her relationship with Christ. However, there’s a major flaw here—not in the conflict, but in how the conflict has been developed. We’ve been in this story for several chapters and we’ve never heard before that the heroine doesn’t pray. In fact, the logical assumption is that she does. After all, she works for XYZ church. She doesn’t seem to have any issues with faith, so when we hear she’s had a bad experience in her backstory and mean church-goers are the catalyst for her move away from faith, we wonder, “Hmm, why is she even working for a church?” Realistically, people tend to shy away from those things that have hurt them in the past. If Jane Heroine’s experience was so bad that it caused her to make the decision not to pray, why would she take a job where she has to deal with church-folk on a regular basis?

What needs to happen here is a set-up before the “non-pray” conflict is revealed. Early in the story, we need to know that Jane Heroine took the job at the church because she lost her previous job (for example) and had to take the only thing available, and now she struggles with trying not to be judgmental towards the current church-folk, whom she logically knows are not the same people who were mean to her in her backstory. If the information is just dropped in several chapters into the story, it reads as though the author just made up the conflict on-the-fly as she was writing the scene where the hero asks for help with the prayer service—which for authors who are “pantsers” can happen. But if it does happen, be sure to go back through the early parts of the manuscript and weave in the set-up for the newly-developed conflict.

Conflict cannot be something just thrown in at any given moment. It has to be constructed in a logical sequence, hinted at, melded with character development and plot progressions. If it isn’t, it throws the reader out of the story, and then we’re sunk.


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