I’ve had a few writers talk to me this week about conflict and how important it is in a query letter. Conflict is one of my favorite things about editing. I love working with writers to make their conflicts stronger–ultimately making their characters stronger.
So what is conflict?
Conflict is what is keeping your character from his or her goal.
Let’s go back to The Princess Bride, because it’s such a good example. And because I just really like talking about it. Westley’s goal is to rescue Buttercup from Vizzini, and then again to rescue her from Prince Humperdinck. His conflict is everything he has to overcome on his journey to rescue her: The Cliffs of Insanity, dueling with Inigo, fighting Fezzik. And after he rescues her from them, he has to get her from Humperdinck. Conflict: Torture and being “mostly dead.”
Those are big, not-so-subtle conflicts. So let’s talk about subtle conflicts for a minute. The kind of conflict that may not be obvious from the back cover blurb, or even from the beginning of the book. Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. *Pause for a moment of love*
Charlie’s goal in the book is to get through high school. He talks in the opening of the book in a countdown to how many days he has left to get out of there. He also wants to make friends and fit in. His conflict may not be all that obvious to some: He’s introverted. He’s shy and awkward. He’s also in a world of pain, which it seems like he doesn’t realize this until much later in the story, but we as readers see it. His conflict is very internal and quiet, and it works in that story.
You must have conflict. There’s really no doubt about it. But your conflict doesn’t have to be giants or torture or being “mostly dead.” But you must always have something to hold your character back from his or her goal. And it must be conveyed in the query letter.
Let’s talk to that friend again and say they should read/watch The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You mention Charlie’s goal of surviving high school and it’s like “So what? Ninety-nine percent of teenagers are just trying to survive high school. What’s different about this joker?”
Then you explain his conflict. His shyness and awkward moments and grief from his aunt who passed away and his friend who committed suicide. Now we care. Now we know what it is he’s having to overcome to reach that goal. Remember that conflict can also make your readers care about your characters even more. Make the conflict big for your character, and it will be big for your reader.
If you’re having trouble with your query letter, I’m running a sale on partial manuscript edits right now. Check them out here.