The Unexpected: 4 Questions to Enhance Conflict in Your Story

© Barbara V. Evers, All rights reserved.
A weird thing happened to me a week ago. While following the prompts of the after-hours line of a doctor's office, my phone called someone else. It went like this:

To leave a message for the on-call doctor press 6.
  • I pressed 6
  • A phone started ringing
  • A man answered:  Hello?
  • Me:  Um, I'm trying to reach Dr. Beard?
    • (Had I gotten a direct connection to the doctor?)
  • The man:  I'm sorry, you have the wrong number.
  • Me:  You aren't part of the hospital system?
    • (Had the phone system forwarded my call to someone else related to the hospital where his office is located?)
  • The man: No. This is a personal number.
  • Me:  Weird. I was following the prompts, and then you answered.
    • (I'm wasting this man's time, but I'm trying to understand what happened.)
  • The man:  Sorry. That's not me.

I thought the voice sounded familiar, but, out of context, I couldn't figure out why. Later, I discovered my phone had called a member of my church who had called me the day before.

Who expects a medical office's voice prompts to jump into your Recent Calls, select someone else, and call them?

But that's what happened.

Things don't always go as planned. In fact, things rarely go as planned. When the unexpected happens, the character tries to make sense of them on the fly. You see this in my questions in parentheses above—my thoughts trying to come up with a plausible explanation.

Story lines don't work well if everything flows together without a hitch: a guaranteed way to bore your reader. Something unexpected needs to happen. Events that trip up your character, that make the character stop and rethink something, are the ingredients to an intriguing story. Writers need to let characters squirm and feel the pressure of something unexpected, preferably something downright uncomfortable, awkward, or threatening.

Pick up a book you enjoyed and start reading. You'll find multiple examples of the character's plans going awry. In some cases, the sudden shift in plans may seem implausible, but who am I to judge on that point?  If you told me last weekend, that I would be in the middle of voice prompts when my phone made a different phone call to a previous caller, I'd have told you no way. But it did.

So, here's my challenge to you this week:  Look over your current WIP (work in progress) and ask these questions:

  1. Have you made things easy for the characters?
  2. Have you missed an opportunity to ramp up the tension with an unexpected twist?
  3. Did you help the character out of this problem with little to no effort?
  4. What can you do to make them stew in the problem for a while before finding a way out? 

Work on these 4 questions, and you'll enhance the conflict in your story.


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