Capturing Curiosity: The Power of Conflict

So, exploring the fourth way we can create curiosity in our readers in this weeks focus. We know we can do it through questions, the element of surprise, and gaps of information. This week we link what everyone knows a book needs to hold – conflict – with this powerful psychological process.

We learned in earlier weeks that one of the key reasons humans are drawn to story is because we want to learn about trouble (in the safety of a library or lounge room). Being drawn to conflict allows us to vicariously learn hard-won lessons that could help us negotiate our complex social world. The truly interesting part is how conflict relates to curiosity.

Conflict occurs when new information is incompatible or contradictory with existing knowledge. There’s a collision or disagreement of values or ideas or wants and our predictions are brought into question. When conflict arises in our mind, our brain determines this is something interesting and worthy of exploration. It knows we need to pay attention either because this could impact our survival, or because we can learn something from it (which will benefit our survival).

Conflict can occur two ways in your story. It can be external or internal, and both are going to suck your reader in. External conflict is the one we hear about the most; in the final book of EL James’ 50 Shades Trilogy, 50 Shades Freed, Anastasia falls pregnant, which was certainly not part of her, or Christian’s, plans. In this scene, Ana has just told Christian the news (warning, there is some colourful language coming up).

“I thought we agreed on this!” he shouts.

“I know. We had. I’m sorry.”

He ignores me. “This is why. This is why I like control. So shit like this doesn’t come along and fuck everything up.”

No…Little Blip. “Christian, please don’t shout at me.” Tears start to slip down my face.

“Don’t start the waterworks now,” he snaps. “Fuck.” He runs a hand through his hair, pulling at it as he does. “You think I’m ready to be a father?” His voice catches, and it’s a mixture of rage and panic.

The scene ends with Christian storming out, slammed door and all, and Ana left ‘alone in the silence,’ shell-shocked at her husband’s extreme reaction and abandonment.

Most writers (I would hope all writers) know that conflict is key to a compelling story; countless writers have written books and blogs and how-to articles about its centrality. But have they articulated the one reason it’s so important is that it arouses curiosity? In Ana and Christian’s scene, we have two characters with different goals and desires. Ana is already in love with her growing fetus; Christian is petrified at the prospect of being a father. They both want different things—for the pregnancy to be celebrated or for the pregnancy not to have occurred. Now we have two competing interests but we don’t have a resolution. To fill in that gap, to discover the resolution, we’ll have to keep reading.

As any of us have experienced, conflict can happen within the recesses of our minds—do I kill the villain or leave him to suffer, broken and alone? Should I save my pennies a little bit longer so I can get a kick-ass cover? (Rhetorical question, by the way.) Do I eat the second slice of cheesecake? (Also a rhetorical question.)  Those competing interests, the tug and pull of opposing desires or expectations or responsibilities, harness the power of curiosity in the same ways.

In Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give you the Sun, one of the protagonists, Noah, is struggling with feelings of attraction for his friend. In this scene, it’s night-time and Brian is introducing Noah to his love of astronomy.

My heart stops beating.

My back is to his front and if I move an inch backward I’d fall into him and then if it were a movie, not one I’ve ever seen, mind you, he’d put his hands all over me, I know he would, and then I’d twist around and we’d melt together like hot wax. I can see it happening in my head. I don’t move.

“Well?” He breathes the word more than says it, and that’s when I know he feels it too. I think about those two guys in the sky causing shipwrecks, causing things to burst into flames, just like that with no warning. “It’s crazy that it happens,” he’d said about them. “But it just does.”

It just does.

It’s happening to us.

“I have to go,” I say, helpless.

What makes you say the opposite of what every cell in your body wants you to say?

“Yeah,” he replies. “Okay.”

Reading this excerpt, the emotion is compelling, that’s for sure (thanks to Nelson’s impressive word-smithing), but would it be as compelling if Noah gave in to his impulses? How much harder is it for the reader to put this book down and go do the dishes now that our hero, torn and struggling, has walked away? The battle between his attraction and fear hasn’t resolved—we’re going to have to keep reading to find out which path Noah will ultimately choose.

And to top it all off, conflict can spawn more conflict! At its heart, conflict involves a dilemma—a choice that has no apparent win-win solution (and may not have one). A character can make a difficult choice, which is intriguing in itself, only to find that choice creates more friction. In the following excerpt of Jodi Picoult’s Keeping Faith, Ian is in the witness box. The gripping court-room drama that Picoult is known for is playing out as the judge and jury must decide whether Mariah’s daughter, Faith, is truly seeing and talking to God, or whether this is some reflection of a deeply disturbed mother who should no longer have custody.

Ian has made a living out of being a TV personality, one who is openly an atheist and travels the country debunking religious claims. He’s also fallen in love with Mariah, and seen the truth of Faith’s claims.

“Are you implying that Faith White’s visions are real?”

He thinks carefully about his answer. “I’m implying that Faith White is an extraordinary little girl, and that I don’t think she’s deliberately lying.”

“But, Mr. Fletcher, you’ve said repeatedly that you’re an atheist. Does this mean you now believe in God?”

Ian freezes. He realizes what Metz has done to him: He cannot get into Mariah’s good graces again unless he ruins himself completely. If he admits that Faith is a miracle worker, the attorney will press for proof, and Ian doesn’t care to divulge information about the private joy of his twin brother’s few lucid moments. He glances at Mariah, who is staring at him, waiting for his answer.

I’m sorry, he thinks.

“Mr. Fletcher? Do you believe in God?”

Ian raises his brows and adopts the charming mask of his television persona. “The jury’s still out on that one,” he says, playing into the hands of his audience, watching their grinning faces, instead of the one that matters most.

In this scene, we see Ian’s conflict—between helping Mariah’s case (and telling the truth) or making himself vulnerable and potentially ruining his career. In this scenario, Ian makes his choice. He chooses to hide behind his television persona, at the cost of the woman who is depending on him. Except the resolution to that dilemma-in-action has only generated more conflict, and consequently more questions (and curiosity). How will Mariah respond to this? What will this mean for the outcome of the court case? You got it—the reader is going to keep on reading to find out.

Capturing curiosity is essential in hooking your reader. By using questions, surprise, gaps in information, and conflict you’re harnessing the power of psychology. You’re actually tapping into their deeply wired drive to seek and grow and learn, and you’re giving them a dopamine hit to boot!

Although curiosity is only part of the picture. As you’re getting readers wondering and interested, you also need to get them invested.

Luckily, that’s exactly what we’re covering in upcoming posts. Until then, have you ever linked conflict with curiosity? Has it changed how you view conflict in your current manuscript? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy writing,


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