Learning About My Writing Flaws in the Writing of Others

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Recently, I was honored to be asked to read and score entries for the WOW's flash fiction contest. What an incredible learning experience it has been since I have begun to read these stories.

It's actually been a while since I've read non-published writing that has been submitted to a literary magazine or contest. About 10 years ago, I did a reading for a small lit mag for a little while (I still fondly remember a random story about a cat who is really an alien in disguise) but I haven't done it since.

And reading them now have opened up my eyes to aspects of my own writing process. I'll be honest, it's easier to see the flaws in others, whether in writing or in life. It really isn't as easy to see our own shortcomings. 

When I began to look at the scoring sheet, I wondered how my own stories would do?

One thing that jumped out at me that I noticed was a consistent problem in the stories I was reading: a lack of conflict. 

And the strange thing is, I struggle with that too.

Conflict can be hard in the story, but often it's the juice that keeps the reader going. 

When I struggled to find conflict in stories, I wanted to ask the question, "Yeah, but what is their battle to overcome?"

And I need to ask my own characters that same question. Strong character development can determine that factor. Imagine the conflict in your own life. What's your "why" for things? Has that "why" ever gotten in the way of someone else's?

Of course, there are all kinds of conflicts that can happen to your character that drive your story. It can be an internal conflict or an external force at work

If you have a hard time figuring out conflict (like me), here are a few things to consider:
  • What could get in the way of what your character wants (which begs the question, what does your character want? We all want something).
  • What would make things worse? 
  • What would complicate things right here, right now for your character? (If you can't answer that question for them, consider answering it for yourself: what would complicate things for you right here, right now?)
Not every story needs a big fighting match for there to be conflict. There are all kinds of conflicts in life. Just read the news (or hope onto Nextdoor). In part, I think this is about knowing your character. Their goals, their motivations, and their wants.

One great thing about reading story submissions like I am is that I can discover all kinds of new insights about writing. I'm so honored to read such incredible work.

How do you create conflict in a story?

Nicole Pyles is a writer and PR consultant living in Portland, Oregon. Say hi on Twitter @BeingTheWriter.


Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm so glad reading submissions inspired your own writing! I knew it would. Great tips! Conflict is often the spark that starts my fiction or CNF. Tension is necessary to keep a story going, and when it lets up--ugh--the story wilts. I've been revising some fiction lately, and I've noticed in dialogue if I will have one person ask a question and another one answer it, that totally kills the tension. If you have a character saying, "Do you the keys?" and another says, "Yes, I do." Question answered, energy gone. But if you have someone saying, "Do you have the keys?" and another character says, "The doctor called about your colonoscopy." Then you've just introduced a bigger issue and escalated the tension. Our job as writers is to challenge and confront the reader, and we can't do that if we're conflict averse.

Nicole Pyles said...

Oh I love that tip about escalating the conflict through dialogue! And because I'm not much of a planner, I often figure out the core conflict at the end of writing the story (or several drafts later lol). So, it's quite the process to revise and tweak the story to introduce the core conflict earlier.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I've been noodling your post over as I've been reading this and that. So much that I see (contest entries, substack, etc.) either has no tension or they got the message about adding tension but people don't understand how to effectively do it. As a result, the tension causing events feel random. I'm not going to claim that I've mastered this myself so . . . I guess I better go work at it!

Renee Roberson said...

I agree that there are benefits to reading the writing of others--especially in flash fiction! I also feel like I fail to incorporate conflict efficiently in the shorter pieces I write. I'm hoping it comes more naturally in my novel-length work, but it is a struggle! I also agree that introducing it as dialogue comes more naturally than anything else.

Kelly Sgroi said...

I found judging eye-opening too! It's amazing what you can learn from reading other peoples work. And sometimes, we are too close to our own work to see what conflict is missing. Great reminder!

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