Tips for Revising an Old Story

There’s a story graveyard on my laptop, and I’m sure it’s haunted.  I heard it howl last night when I opened a new Word document.  It beckoned me to click a dusty yellow folder named “Old Drafts,” and when I did, the ghosts of a hundred tales appeared before me, most without an ending, several without more than a couple paragraphs.  I double-clicked one of the stories, and for the first time in a couple years, the story opened onto my desktop, begging for a revision.

We all have stories like that.  They’re the ones we put aside with every intention to finish, but we never do, and before we know it, they’re buried deep on the hard drive, never to see another edit.  There are reasons these works might live in the story graveyard:

  1. The story was rejected for publication too many times
  2. Inspiration dwindled in the midst of the story’s rising action
  3. Another story appeared out of nowhere and stole the show
  4. Life, work, and family needed more attention
  5. The laptop exploded, leaving the story in smoke

These are all (mostly) legitimate reasons for putting a story aside, but from time to time, an old draft finds its way back to the screen.  Fortunately, even if time passes, the writer can take steps to get the story back on the slate.  Here’s what I do when revising an old story:

Read the Entire Manuscript.

Most story ideas never go away, so when I revisit an old draft, I feel like I know exactly what it’s about.  The problem is that I remember how the story should have been written instead of how it was actually written.  For this reason, you should always read an old manuscript from beginning to end before making any revisions (Don’t even fix a comma until you’ve internalized the fullness of the narrative).  Sometimes the story will feel foreign, so you may need to read the manuscript several times before you again feel like it’s something you’ve penned with your own hand.  If the story’s been in the drawer awhile, it’s possible you don’t even remember your protagonist’s name, let alone his/her motivations.

Take Notes on Theme and Voice.

When you feel the story is your own, open a notepad and jot down the story’s themes and a sample of the main character’s voice.  When revisiting an old story, it’s important that all edits are organic, that when the manuscript is read, it’s impossible to discern the revisions from the style of the original piece.  Theme and voice are two elements that immediately stand out when not matched to the content and style of the unedited manuscript.  Always reference your list of thematic elements and voice to ensure the narrative remains consistent during editing.  There’s nothing worse than inadvertently derailing a major theme or giving your southern cowboy a New York accent midway through the story’s climax.

Revise in Chunks and Read Aloud.

Don’t get carried away with edits, not at first.  Instead of dumping whole paragraphs in the middle of the piece, find a place to add a single sentence, and write it in a style and form that enhances the original work.  Once you’ve added the sentence, back up and read the entire paragraph aloud, paying particular attention to how the new sentence connects on both ends to existing sentences.  When you’re sure the sentence is properly integrated, you can move on to other paragraphs and do the same, working your way toward the end of the piece.  When you’re comfortable enough to add whole paragraphs, be sure to go back and read them aloud in the context of the larger work.

Revise the Whole Piece in One Sitting.

If the story hasn’t been open in awhile (weeks, months, or years), there’s an urgency in the editing process to complete revisions.  Each time the story is revised, the writer must return to the main character’s mindset, spending a lot of time re-reading the story to do so.  This constant revisiting takes time and reduces momentum toward actually completing the story.  For this reason, when revising an old story, the writer should commit to completing the work in one sitting.  The story is already collecting cobwebs, but a firm broom might scare the spiders away for good.

Send the Story to New Publication Venues.

When the story is complete, it’s time to send it out for publication.  If the story was previously submitted for publication, be sure to revisit your tracking sheet so that you don’t send it to the same publication venues twice.  Writing credibility is hard to come by, so don’t squander it on a silly mistake.  Even if you’ve done a substantial amount of work on your story, never send it back to a magazine where it’s already been rejected.  If this is your first publication attempt, check out my article on how to submit a short story for publication.

Conclusion.

My story graveyard is full of ghosts, but they’re not all worth salvaging.  Before you spend valuable time re-reading and revising, make sure there’s potential in the old draft; otherwise, your creative energy is best spent on new and shinier works.  Stories are best when they’re inspired, so before you go raising an old one from the dead, be sure it’s a thriller, and be sure it’s fit to live again.

Have you ever raised a story from the dead?  If so, how did it go?  Let me know in the “Comments” below.

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So Your Story Was Rejected, Now What?

My story was rejected today.  I sent the poor thing to six different journals, and my top choice turned the story down cold.  I was sitting in the car while my wife went into the gas station to buy snacks for a short trip home.  Scrolling through my phone, I saw an unread e-mail and immediately noticed the journal’s title splashed across the heading.  With one eye closed and my lower lip quivering, I clicked the message and read aloud:

Dear Shannon Deaton,

Thank you for sending your work to [Redacted].  Unfortunately, it’s just not quite the right fit for the magazine at this time, given the other selections for the next issue.

I wish you all the best in finding a home for your work.

Sincerely,
Editor

This is a typical form rejection letter, not even the kind with a personalized message to give the writer some hope.  It’s a firm “no,” and the message is loud and clear.

So what should writers do when the familiar rejection letter comes rapping at the chamber door?

Sigh.

It’s okay to get mad.  Every blog or journal I’ve read gives the same advice on rejection– Don’t worry about it, get back to work, keep on trucking, put the gun away, etc.  I disagree.  There’s a moment following rejection when writers just need to draw in a deep breath and hate everything about the process.  It’s perfectly justified, and it’s healthy too.  Just take a big sup of oxygen, and huff it out with a fat, grumpy frown.  Normal people do normal things, and it’s normal to be upset when your baby’s tossed with the bath water.  Get mad for a minute.

Self-Reflect.

Think about the rejection letter and consider whether there’s anything useful there.  Most of the time, rejections are impersonal and direct.  They say things like–Good luck elsewhere, your story just doesn’t fit, try again next time, etc.  However, once in a blue moon, a rejection letter gives you useful feedback for future submissions.  My rejection example above notes that my story wasn’t a good fit for the magazine at this time.  I could drive myself crazy wondering if next time will be different, so I’ll only spend about two minutes on this step before moving on to the next.

Smile.

Come on, it’s just the first submission, and you’ve probably sent the story to a half-dozen other places.  Put on your best Joker face, and flash those pearly whites.  It’s one person’s opinion, and due to the sheer volume of submissions, rejection is bound to happen more often than not.  Now’s the time to let the anger subside and have a hearty laugh at the system.  We’re talking thousands of submissions per journal, with only 2-4 getting accepted during any given publication period.  Math is a funny monster, so chuckle in his face, and remember that the more you play the odds, the better your chances will be for actual publication.

Submit.

Get back to work.  Yes, every blog says this, and every blog is right (The other blogs are just wrong when they suggest starting at this step).  When you’ve had your little tantrum, it’s time to get back to the business of writing.  You’re a writer after all, and if you’re a real one, quitting isn’t an option.  There will be more rejections before you’re successful, so increase the volume of quality submissions to increase your chances of getting one through the pipeline.  Above all, remember that you’re not defined by a rejection letter; you’re defined by your grit and passion to continue.  Write, write, write — submit, submit, submit.

Conclusion.

Write for publication, but also write because it’s what you love to do.  When the inevitable rejection comes, just sigh, self-reflect, smile, and submit again.  Somewhere along the way, you’ll see your name in print, and it’ll all be worth the trouble.  It’s always worth the trouble in the end.

Tips for Establishing Suspense in Fiction

I listened to an incredible Freakonomics podcast over the weekend about suspense.  The podcast started with its ordinary pomp and circumstance, but when the conversations veered toward writing, I became enthralled and struggled to keep the car on the road.  It’s not every day you get writing tips from the radio, so my heart skipped a few beats.

On the podcast, author Harlan Coben defined suspense in this way:

[…] Suspense is to me, keeping people engaged and gripped and turning the pages.  Someone can put a gun to your head, and you will want to read.  That’s suspense.

Imagine suspense so great that you keep reading when a lethal weapon’s pressed to your ear.  Those are the types of experiences readers crave, and there are several strategies that writers can employ to establish this level of suspense in a narrative.

Missing People, Not Dead People.

So many stories operate on the premise of solving murder mysteries (CSI, anyone?).  The setup is typical — an extraordinary opening scene leads to the “unexpected” death of a trivial character, and subsequent scenes follow two or more gritty detectives on a hot pursuit for the truth.

The trouble with this approach is that dead people aren’t mysterious.  When a character dies, questions may surround the death, but the death itself is without suspense.  From the first scene, we know the character is dead, and he/she is not coming back.  But what if there was more to the story?

When writing a mystery, try letting your characters go missing instead of killing them off.  In this way, you establish hope, a powerful emotion for developing suspense in later paragraphs or chapters.  The potential of finding a character alive is more suspenseful than the reality of knowing a character is dead.

Work Backwards From the End.

Great mystery stories leave readers looking forward to the end.  The reason is because many mysteries end with a twist or an unexpected deviation from what the reader anticipates.  This feeling of the unknown creates suspense in every scene leading to the final page.

Writing twists at the end of a story require planning.  Unless you bleed perfect plot lines, it’s nearly impossible to write a believable twist without some idea of how the story might arrive at that destination.  Given the complexity of most plot twists, what can a writer do to ensure a potential twist is believable and well-planned?

Work backwards.  Begin with the final plot twist, and map how events could lead to that outcome in the end.  It’s as simple as writing down what you wish to accomplish and then charting the course that will lead you there.  It’s much easier to arrive at a destination if you’ve been there before and know the general direction you’re traveling.

Fiction is Stranger Than Truth.

It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction, but the opposite is more accurate.  If a person is accused of murder in real-life (and if the person is actually guilty of the murder), the evidence is straight-forward and dull concerning the fact.  The knife has the accused person’s fingerprints, and a shred of the person’s DNA is found at the crime scene.  The world locks up another criminal, and no one bats an eye.

Consider the same scenario in fiction.  If the accused person’s fingerprints and DNA are all over the crime scene, the reader’s first instinct is to believe the person is innocent.  Why do we do this?  The reason is simple: We know the author must sell the reader on suspense, so if something uneventful occurs, we anticipate it must be a decoy.  Years of reading suspense has wired us that way.

Writers can use this wiring to their advantage.  To establish suspense in a story, the obvious solution is usually not the correct one.  Just when the reader thinks he/she has it all figured out, the writer can flip the script and prove nothing is as it seems.  Writers must remain mindful of where the reader thinks the narrative is going and then change it at the last possible moment to evoke suspense and surprise.

Conclusion.

Suspense can be used with great success if employed in unpredictable ways.  Think about your own experiences with fiction and the twists and turns taken by a particular author.

In the comments section, let me know your favorite narrative twist and why it was so effective in establishing surprise and/or suspense.

What Music Can Teach Us About Storytelling

My wife and I stopped at a local music festival on our way home from shopping yesterday.  On a makeshift stage, five weathered men sang Eagles tunes in Hawaiian shirts, and couples took to the street dancing.  We sat on the sidewalk, and I listened to the music, every verse, chorus, and bridge.  It was the story of summer, and it was available to anyone with an ear.

It struck me how musicians use musical devices to convey the elements of storytelling.  I play in a local band too, and obvious as it may be, I never made the connection between music and storytelling until last night.  You can’t just listen to “Lyin’ Eyes” and not be transported to another place.  Contemporary music is a model for storytelling, maybe one of the best we have.

The Rhythm.

Every band member played together.  It was more than reading notes from a page; there was a connectedness in every beat.  When the bassist plucked, the drummer stomped the kick drum, the guitarist snapped a soaring riff, and the vocalist belted a line in perfect synchrony.  The music was felt and not just heard by the assembled crowd.

In writing, every sentence and paragraph builds toward a collective melody.  Although a missed beat is noticeable in music, more so is a wrong beat.  A story’s characters, theme, setting, and plot should move in tandem so the reader can dance and not lose balance.  The difference between an average story and a noteworthy story is one of agreeable rhythm.

The Verse.

The music of each song began with a repeating melody, a building lyric that established the premise of the story.  Each verse of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” did just as the song title prescribed; it settled and focused the audience.  The driving rhythm became mellow, and the vocalists sang softer with less harmony and more stabbing, pointed lyrics.

A story cannot live in ‘high thrills.’  There must be exposition time, setting time, inner-monologue time.  These elements make the climax more enticing for the reader; it gives readers a reason to care.  If a fisherman is to catch a fish, a hook will never do without a line.  Like music, the hook brings crowds to attention, but the line (the verse) positions the hook where it needs to be.

The Chorus.

The audience huddled, they whispered, and they crowded.  When the band hit the first lick of “Take It to the Limit,” everyone knew where the mood was shifting.  Every verse built toward the chorus, and every mouth readied to proclaim the hook with anticipated satisfaction.  Even the band smiled when the moment approached, the music growing toward a resounding delivery.

In storytelling, the chorus is a repeated conflict, characterization, or plot element.  Its energy rewards the reader for his/her ongoing investment in the story.  Writers can leverage the repeated impact of conflict, characterization, and plot to fuel the rising action of lyrical tension.  Consistent striking of a reader’s nerve will invariably lead to a mind positioned for what happens next.

The Bridge.

The band shouted, and the crowd echoed; the band sang in falsetto, and the crowd danced the concrete harder; the band drove the rhythm raw, and the crowd lifted their hands in satisfied applause.  The bridge of “Take It to the Limit” was nothing more than a repetition of the chorus, but it was somehow more involved, somehow more intense and sensational.  Everyone knew it too.

The bridge of a song is the climax of a story.  In writing fiction, this is the moment when every drop in the bucket overflows onto the reader’s face.  It’s the moment when your bullied hero stands, your oppressed people rebel, your unabashed dreamer resolves to do more than imagine.  It’s the moment the reluctant dancer throws caution aside and shimmies into the twisting fray.

The Finale.

There is resolution to a song like there is resolution to a story.  Writers can learn much from what is thought to already be known.  I’ve listened to and played music all my life, but its connection to storytelling never hit me until I started listening with a different ear.  I listened with the ear of a writer, and in doing so, I found a story where none had been before.  I found a story made of music itself.

How to Create an Eerie Mood in Fiction

Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”  If ever a writer lived who captured a story’s mood in every line, it was Edgar.  He twisted the reader’s emotions into a perfect knot, and just when you thought he’d give your heart reprieve, he buried it under the floor.

As a ninth-grader, I remember my first experience with Edgar.  I stood at my seat in freshman English class reading aloud the lines of Annabel Lee.  A darkness resided within each word and syllable,  a mood of foreboding and dreariness.  Poe established mood like clouds establish rain, picking up steam drop by drop until the sharp tingle falls in torrents.

In short fiction, each and every sentence holds a key to the door of your reader’s mood.

Eerie Mood Tip # 1:

Characterization. Make your characters creepy, haunting, or otherwise insane, and your story’s mood will follow suit.

When considering mood through characterization, think of The Addams Family.  In the television show, the offbeat family is oblivious to how different they are from the normal world.  In fact, they have a hand in a box for a pet.  They’re the epitome of irregularity, a grand recipe for eerie fiction.

The Addams Family lends itself to a sort of dark humor.  The daughter cuts the heads from dolls; the uncle electrocutes himself for sport; the butler moans and stomps about the home with sallow skin and an expressionless visage.  The cast is an ensemble of eerie misfits, a crew of frightening players.

Use deranged characters like these in your narrative to fuel your reader’s sleepless night.

Eerie Mood Tip # 2:

Setting. Bring your setting to life, and unsettle your reader’s mood.

In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a dark mansion resides within an ominous tapestry of broken nature.  The opening paragraph paints an ugly collage of decaying foliage, ghastly tree-stems, and vacant eye-like windows, the setting itself living and breathing, just another character in Edgar’s eerie tale of lineage and the grave.

Let your character’s surroundings reflect uncertainties and apprehensions.  When a character fears the dark, let the dark become a personified extension of that fear, the trees reaching out with clawing hands, the moon staring as a sickening eye.  Let every piece of the land, air, and sea become the character’s inner-turmoil, a mirror of his worsening situation.

Make the room itself cry before the character sheds a single tear.

Eerie Mood Tip # 3:

Plot. Make awful things happen from nowhere.

Characters should never be at ease, and events should occur in an unanticipated manner.  When the character opens a door, let the reader believe its entry spells certain doom or nothing at all.  Suspense and foreshadowing are the tools of an eerie plot, a mystery that floods the reader in a dark sea with questions like, “What will happen, and to whom?”

The writer should make unexpected events occur, all the while planting clues and distractions to open a multitude of possibilities for the reader.  This see-saw of dark wonder takes the reader up, an adrenaline rush of narrow escape, and down, a thumping heart that pounds and throbs in anticipation.  Give your reader thrills and chills with intermittent downtime, just to start anew on the following page.

Leave both the character and the reader alone in the dark to see how it all turns out.

Eerie Mood Tip # 4:

Diction (Word Choice). Choose your words carefully, each one adding to the feeling of dread.

Writing the perfect sentence requires thought and intentionality.  Each word, each syllable, each letter should render a collective effect, one that embodies the desired mood.  Never let your characters “yell with force” when they can “scream bloody murder.”  Write with purpose, and allow each sentence to advance the eerie mood.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

When creating an eerie mood, use puns and double meanings to keep your reader anxious and guessing.  In The Cask of Amontillado, Montressor hands Fortunato a “Flagon of de Grave,” a wine whose translation means “The Grave.”  In the next scene, Fortunato buries Montressor in the wall behind his family catacombs.

Assemble words with such eerie specificity that the reader is unnerved and terrified by the end of every line.

The Final Nail.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, capture your reader’s heart with an eerie mood, and just when the eye opens widest, flip him screaming from the bed.  Readers love that sort of thing.

How Do I Make My Characters Fall In Love?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the Ant-Man movie.  In the midst of cheesy one-liners, supercharged CGI, and Stan Lee cameos, I found myself thinking about “love” and how it often plays out on screen and in print.  With the intent of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Ant-Man, like nearly every superhero, has a love interest in the film … and it just doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Love” as a thematic concept is excellent, and when written correctly, it adds a dynamic to storytelling that is impossible to accomplish through any other means.  The problem with Ant-Man, and many stories like it, is that “love” is forced, and the narrative isn’t improved by its inclusion.

Knowing that love interests are often overdone in writing, it’s difficult for writers to determine how and when to develop feelings of love between characters.  The first question to ask before characters fall in love is…

Does the Story Need the Characters to Fall in Love?

Failure to answer this question is the single greatest reason why “love” often fails in fiction.  In the race to keep the reader attentive, writers use many tricks and strategies to evoke an emotional response.  Unfortunately, this sometimes means making characters fall in love, even when the story doesn’t need it or isn’t moving in that direction.

Characters should fall in love if…

  1. Plot events are intentionally moving in that direction.
  2. Character dynamic is improved in making the match.

Notice that characters should not fall in love for the sake of love itself.  If falling in love enhances the plot or improves character dynamic (the interaction between characters), there are several “tried and true” methods for turning up the heat on character relationships.

Childhood Friends.

Childhood is a magical time in the lives of characters.  It’s a time when physical and emotional changes occur that impact the characters’ attitudes, relationships, and stability throughout the entire narrative.  Use this crucial time frame to give your protagonist a childhood friend.  This friend should grow with the protagonist and share in his/her childhood triumphs and challenges.  In adulthood, this relationship may transform into a believable love, strengthened by mutual life experiences.

Shared Tragedy.

Tragedy produces extreme emotional responses from characters, which makes it an ideal device for building relationships.  Character flaws and weaknesses are exposed during times of turmoil and tragedy.  If characters undergo a tragedy together, they share a unique experience that can strengthen their physical, emotional, and spiritual connection.  The tragedy can take place on a small scale (the death of a loved one) or a large scale (the death of the entire human race), depending on the needs of the story.

Opposites Attract.

Characters with opposing qualities can be written into interesting situations.  If one character smokes and the other does not, the two characters may argue or disagree in dialogue, promoting the possibility that interactions could move into flirtation or a crush.  With opposing characters, it’s easy to force a relationship, but it’s important to allow one to evolve naturally.  Allow your characters to be gently converted to the other’s way of thinking before sealing the deal with a steady relationship.

Isolated Together.

When characters spend an exorbitant amount of time “alone together,” this creates a reliance on the person they are alone with.  In these situations, the writer should allow the characters to develop trust for one another, a virtue that may lead to a more meaningful relationship.  This tactic is especially effective when combined with a shared tragedy (e.g. the characters find themselves stranded together in an isolated region and forced to spend large amounts of time relying on each other for survival).

Conclusion.

Even though fiction is fiction, there must be a certain amount of truth to help the reader suspend disbelief.  If Ant-Man needs to fall in love, the reader better believe it’s possible and necessary.  Fictional love is like real love in that way.

How to Establish Conflict in a Story

When I taught middle school English, I told my students, “If your story is about your character’s trip to the grocery store, he better break his leg, make an important decision, run from a tornado, or fist fight the manager.”  This was an exaggeration, but it made the students consider conflict, one of the key aspects of successful and interesting storytelling.

So, what exactly is conflict?

Conflict is a plot device that creates tension within and between a story’s characters.  All the critical pieces of a story’s plot stem from the central conflict. For example, if the protagonist loves his best friend’s girlfriend, the story may involve the protagonist’s relationship with the girl, which in turn will create both internal conflict (the fear of betraying his friend) and external conflict (the act of fighting or arguing with his friend over the girl).

There are four primary types of conflict within stories, and when leveraged properly, adding these elements increases both tension and interest.

Character vs. Character.

In this type of conflict, one character opposes another character.  This is the tale of two characters who actively try to prevent one another from doing something he/she wants to do.  Famous examples include:

Dorothy vs. The Wicked Witch (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
Harry Potter vs. Voldemort (Harry Potter series)
Montresor vs. Fortunato (The Cask of Amontillado)

Use It: To increase effectiveness when using this type of conflict, writers should focus on creating foil characters (characters who contrast one another in order to emphasize particular qualities in the other character).  For example, notice how Dorothy is both physically and emotionally different from The Wicked Witch, a tactic the writer uses to highlight the witch’s unattractiveness and emotional instability.  Try this exercise:

Exercise: Create two characters who are polar opposites.  Place them in a situation where they both want the same thing, but one must stop the other in order to succeed.  Focus on external conflicts through dialogue and physical interaction, as well as internal conflicts through the characters’ emotional responses to one another.

Character vs. Nature.

In this type of conflict, the character suffers immediate danger from an act of nature.  This is the traditional survival story, a character pitted against the elements of God.  Notable examples include:

“The Odyssey” by Homer
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
“Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson

Use It: Although the character may battle external circumstances (e.g. starvation, killer army ants, the sea, etc.), the writer should delve into the character’s psyche, illustrating how the character internally struggles as a result of his/her battle with nature.  Additional attention should be turned toward the physical devastation that occurs as a result of the external conflict.  Try this:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character is lost and only has one bottle of water in his backpack.  Focus on the character’s external response to potentially dying of thirst, as well as the internal struggle associated with rationing the final resource.

Character vs. Society.

In this type of conflict, the character deals with a law or perception that hinders personal interests.  This conflict often makes commentary on real, imagined, or exaggerated political and societal issues.  Well-known examples include:

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
“1984” by George Orwell

Use It: This conflict is enhanced when the writer places a unique spin on a trending societal issue.  Mark Twain took on the issue of racism, and George Orwell took on the issue of governmental tyranny.  To excel with this type of conflict, a writer must identify a societal issue and write a story that offers commentary on the issue’s long-term effects.  Give this a try:

Exercise: Create a story where an ethnically diverse character struggles with integration into a predominately single-race classroom.  Focus on the external conflicts that arise between characters of different cultures as well as the internal conflict of isolation.

Character vs. Self.

In this type of conflict, the character struggles internally with a personal decision or fatal flaw.  The conflict is often explored through inner-monologues where the character debates repercussions that may ensue if a particular decision is made.  Internal traits such as self-perception and mental stability often factor into the character’s struggle.  Recognized examples include:

Hamlet (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)
Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon)
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Use It: This type of conflict is improved by allowing the character ample time for introspection.  In other words, illustrate your character’s thought process, especially as it pertains to potential outcomes related to the character’s big decision.  Additional attention should be given to the external conflicts that arise as a result of the character making the big decision or exercising a fatal flaw.  Here’s an exercise to try:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character must decide between his own well-being or the safety of others.  Focus on the external conflict of the main character contending with the opinions of other characters, as well as the internal conflict associated with making a choice of self-sacrifice.

Conclusion.

Without conflict, characters exhibit unrealistic contentment.  Let them struggle so that they are made human by overcoming adversity.