Conflicts, hooks, characterization in a novel?

Another new author asked a very complex question about conflicts and hooks when the novel isn’t a suspense.. Most of you know the importance of conflicts and hooks in any kind of novel, but here was my response to her question—both an explanation and advice.

Gail said:
Your questions are so complex I’d have to write workshops for each of them. Let me say a few things – and then I would recommend you purchase a couple of good books on plotting. You can read them slowly and refer back to them when you get confused.

You also would benefit by finding a critique group so you have people who can look at your work and make comments specifically about some of the things are you doing well and the things that need work.

Every story needs conflict. Without them you don’t have a story -so you need to give serious thought to this. Conflicts (which creates tension) are the things that get in the way of the person reaching their goal or his need in the story. The goal usually is motivated by something that happened or is happening in the character’s life. For example – A man grew up very poor with no father in the home. He had to eat in soup kitchens with his mother. As he grows up, he is determined to get an education and have a good life — but this goal might have different purposes. He might want to be rich and successful because he no longer wants to be poor. Or he might want to be rich and successful because he wants enough money to help others who are poor so they don’t have to live as he did. The purpose would be based on the man’s character and personality
Now conflict is what gets in the way of his success. Perhaps he has a job and is working his way up in the business but the owner dies and his son takes over. He doesn’t like the hero who now starts having career problems. Or let’s say his job is going well but a new man joins the business, and the new man starts taking over and the hero begins to lose control of his success in the business. These are just a couple examples, but I hope you understand why conflict is necessary. Without conflict, you have a story of a guy who had a difficult life and now is doing well. That’s boring. . .even if it has humor in it.

Though I write romantic suspense, most of my novels are straight romance so they’re not scary at all, but the characters have problems that add tension to the story and make them more dramatic. Problems need to grow worse with each problem.

Suspense is a genre but tension, conflict and emotion are vital to any story whether it be family relationships, romance, coming of age, searching for purpose, or any other type of fiction.

Conflicts are not arguments. In fact that’s the weakest kind of conflict. Conflicts are those internal struggles we have in making decisions. Let’s say your character realizes that her brother has gotten involved in something illegal. She has the moral struggle to close her eyes and say nothing or confront her brother and hope he steps away from what he’s doing, or contact authorities and turn him in. This is internal conflict which is the strongest kind of conflict because it affects values, morals and beliefs which are important to each of us.

In romance, a conflict might be a woman who has lived a shady life—let’s say she was involved in prostitution or perhaps some kind of illegal business — and now she’s moved away and is living a stellar life, one she’s proud of. She meets a man and she’s falling in love. He’s falling in love with her — but she fears he will learn about her past and hate her for it. . .or walk away and not forgive her. She must decide to tell him and hope he forgives her, take the chance he’ll never learn about it, or walk away from the chance to love. This is real conflict with tension and emotion.

Now complicate that story. She decides not to tell him, but someone comes to town who knows her past. Now what does she do? You’ve heightened the stakes. You’ve added to the tension. Though this story is romance—not a suspense—it creates suspense.

Tension creates emotion and emotion is what makes your story interesting for readers. Without tension and emotion, you don’t have a plot which means you don’t have a story.

Conflicts and tension helps characters change and grow. a must in good fiction. If you’re succeeding with that, you are doing a good job because you’re creating “real” people. Think of your own life. Everyday you are a different person because of something that has happened in your life. You learned a new lesson, you focused on something that you’ve never noticed before. You learned something new about yourself or about someone else. You found something you can’t handle. You make a choice or a decision. These are all changes that characters experience in novels. As you read a novel, you should dissect it so that you can see how these characters are changing.

Hooks are very important to keep your reader turning pages and finding out what’s going to happen next. Without hooks, they have no reason to keep reading so keep that in mind. A hook can be an open ended question at the end of a chapter. It leaves the reader trying to decide what he will do. At the end of a chapter, a hook can be a phone ringing and the chapter ends. This would work if the character is waiting for an important call that will answer a vital question or offer a needed job or help. Put a scene involving someone else  between the character answering the phone. Don’t do that too often or it will lose it’s hook value.
Final comments:
As a new writer, you can’t learn everything in a day or a week or a year. It often takes many years to write a novel that is saleable, but you shouldn’t give up. Put aside the old novels if they don’t have enough story to create drama, and start a new one, using the new techniques that you are learning. Most people don’t sell their first novels. I have numerous novels I wrote early in my career that are not published.  Let this information soak in slowly and don’t get discouraged. Copy this info and learn it in small pieces.


Leave a comment
  1. Sophia Richardson February 21, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    This is a great summary of these all important elements of story. Thanks for sharing!
    – Sophia.

  2. Gail Gaymer Martin February 21, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Thanks, Sophia. The question I was asked was so complex that it needed numerous workshops, but I tried to summarize for her so I’m glad you found it helpful.


  3. Martha Ramirez February 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Great advice , Gail. You always have the BEST advice. Thank you!

    And this is soo true. There is so much to learn and like you said finding a crit group can be very helpful.

    “As a new writer, you can’t learn everything in a day or a week or a year. It often takes many years to write a novel that is saleable.”

  4. Jillian February 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    You certainly have a knack for making things more clear to those of us who are new to the writing world. Thanks, Gail!

  5. Gail Gaymer Martin February 21, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Thanks, Martha and Jillian. I was a teacher for years so I guess I know how to break things down and make it easier. I taught high school for a few years and then at the university level. I do love teaching.


  6. Sheila Deeth February 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

    Talking with new writers in our writers’ group, I’ve begun to wonder if we couldn’t use a different word instead of conflict. Enjoyed this article–it’ll help me answer what conflict is next time I’m asked.

  7. Gail Gaymer Martin February 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Sheila – Another word is tension, but they’re a bit different. Conflict is the action and tension is the emotion of conflict. I hope the info helped.


  8. Hosted SharePoint 2010 March 2, 2011 at 4:31 am #

    Thanks for the advice dear! Interesting it was!

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