Friday, July 16, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, July 16, 2010 11 comments
Are you familiar with the term "jumping conflict"? It means your characters are calm or simpatico one moment, then inexplicably shouting at each other the next.

Granted, there are some people with extremely short fuses. They're perpetually angry and fly into a rage with little provocation. But those types are usually pretty easy to spot. They exhibit signs of being short fused in how they carry themselves and their tone of voice. If such a character exists in your fictional world, be sure to make those warning signs clear. Otherwise, his fits of rage will seem simply melodramatic, and he'll be a caricature rather than a character.

Most characters have longer fuses. They shift from calm to angry in gradual stages--slow burn. Negotiation (see this post and this one) or conflict avoidance should be more common than out-and-out fights. And when those fights do occur, they need to be appropriately paced. How?

Have the characters in conflict chip away at one another, perhaps. Or have one try to back off or refuse to rise to the bait. Establish a pattern prior to the fight scene--repeatedly provoke a character so that she's ripe to burst with a little more pressure. Or establish a trait such as worry or paranoia, so that his response to this trigger seems reasonable.

Most of all, try to think creatively about complex emotional responses. Straight-up anger is easy to write, and we can get lazy. In most conflicts, several emotions are at war. The mom who has to pick up her drunk teenager from a party can be as much worried and afraid as angry. The bullied nerd desires acceptance as much as revenge. Explore those layers of emotion, and conflicts will become more interesting and more tense.

One of the scenes I plan to revise today has bugged me for a while. My CPs said it felt "off" when I asked them about it. I now realize jumping conflict is the issue. So, I'm off to lengthen the fuse of my MC's uncle, and let his complex emotions come to the page.

Have you struggled with jumping conflict? How did you know? How did or will you repair it?


  1. Hi Laurel,

    I'm so glad you're discussing this. My CP and I used to call those types of scenes 'sandbox squabbles' because they reminded us of the angry, often unprovoked squabbles you'd hear in the playground.

    I get very frustrated reading scenes like that; I much prefer a more well-grounded scene. I like your suggestion of one character walking away. I actually did that in a scene recently and instead of it draining the tension, it amped it up because it left the other character frustrated.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.


  2. Ahhhhh, good post! So many things to think about when crafting a book, enough to make your head spin. I'm building more conflict into my WIP right now, so thanks for the good reminder!

  3. Oh jeez, I think I have a problem with this! I tend to make one character in particular flip flop like this. But I think I have an idea of how to fix it, and I really like your idea of having them refuse to rise to the bait. That's a good one!

  4. This is such a hard thing to fix, when you find it...

    - Eric

  5. Great post! I'm in the middle of revising a scene to ensure this doesn't happen!

  6. Ha! The same thing happened to me. The scene was described as "off". I felt it, too, but wasn't sure what it was. Then, I noticed that they went from fairly calm to completely brutal with hardly any provocation. Oops.

  7. Mary: thanks for coming by. And that's a great idea--delay confrontation. In fact, the longer you delay it the better from what I've seen in my favorite books.

    JEM: conflict is the core of plot, so it's good that you're giving it special attention. You might want to look at my earlier posts on negotiation linked here for more ideas on approaches to conflict.

    Crystal: Me too--largely one character has been my problem guy. I haven't always listened to him well and let him become a caricature in places.

    If your ready-to-blow character is short fused, the key is to make that a consistent trait. He'll flip out when his toast burns, honk the second a light turns green, carry himself tensely, speak in an aggrieved tone.

  8. Eric: It takes detective work and analysis. I like using methods from Sandra Scofield's _The Scene Book_. She recommends breaking down problematic scenes into "beats" (small units of character action and reaction) and identifying the scene's turning point. Often you'll find with jumping conflict that there's too little rising action within a scene's arc. So you add some additional "beats" to slowly build toward the climactic moment of screaming. Make sense?

    Steena: Good luck--and see my comments above for ideas on how to make the repairs.

    Tina: the key is to treat each scene like a mini story with a story arc. You need to be sure there's tense rising action before reaching the climax moment of real meanness and brutality.

  9. I'm revising my wip and saw a scene with jumping conflict. What I did was add some brief transitional paragraphs to buffer between low tension and high tension scenes. I don't want to draw it out too much and lose anyone's interest, and at the same time I don't want it to look unnatural.

  10. Hi Laurel -

    Thanks for the tips on layering emotions. I haven't seen much on this subject.

    Susan :)

  11. Medeia: sounds like a good fix to me. I found that building the tension in increments made it feel more organic and well-paced.

    Susan: I did a more detailed post on the topic in March. You can find it here: