Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Secret to Writing Conflict

By Nancy Bilyeau

According to what I hear from fellow authors, bloggers, critics and industry wags, book editors are laying down the law: We want more conflict! It’s all about higher stakes now. Drama. Heightened tension. Put your protagonist at greater risk than you ever thought possible. And then ratchet it up again.

To meet the challenge, writers are booking seats at Donald Maass workshops and buying his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, like crazy. One successful mystery-author friend who swears by Maass confided that before she’s done with a book she shuffles all the pages until they’re completely out of sequence and then reads each one to make sure there is conflict on every single page. Other friends plot their books with multi-colored index cards and arrows and circles, making sure to squeeze the drama out of every single moment.

While observing this frenzy, I can’t help but think of Laurence Olivier, who after observing Dustin Hoffman staying up all night so he’d be convincingly exhausted and otherwise punishing himself during filming of Marathon Man, said to him, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

Which is to say, instead of tearing out our hair to generate a book packed with hair-raising challenges worthy of a day at Great Adventure Theme Park, why don’t we create certain kinds of characters and put them in certain kinds of settings that contain inherent conflict? And so it's possible to propel the story forward, and have your main character struggling with obstacles, without needing to visit the dreaded Contrivance Closet.

All too often I read novels with likable, easy-to-relate-to protagonists living nice, easy-to-relate-to lives. That’s all well and good—except then it’s tough to generate conflict on every page. The story gets pretty, well, strained.

May I humbly offer you my thinking in how I came up with the idea for my series. Take from it what you will!

The first thing I decided was that I wanted to set it in a genuine historical period, Tudor England, to take advantage of my near-lifelong (and without a doubt scary) obsession with the 16th century. It was a tumultuous century. I narrowed it to the reign of Henry VIII, who, among other things, destroyed the monasteries in his quest to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England. 

Because of the policies of Henry VIII, devised by Thomas Cromwell (see Wolf Hall), the kingdom’s monks, friars and nuns were expelled from the monasteries, often with nowhere to go. A fair number of them were none too happy with the destruction of a 1,000-year-old way of life and they objected. Here’s how Henry VIII handled objection: troublesome monks and friars were imprisoned, hanged, starved, decapitated or disemboweled. Sister Elizabeth Barton, who preached defiance to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, was hanged and then decapitated. Just to be sure everyone got the message.

So the main character of my trilogy? A nun, a fictional nun based on research. Meet Sister Joanna. The Dissolution of the Monasteries took place between 1536 and 1541. The action running through The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry begins in May 1537 and ends in December 1541.


Next for me was creating a background for my MC. I could have made her a nun from a nice family, very supportive, no issues with the king. Instead, I put her in a family full of tragedy, a real family from history: the Staffords.

To understand why placing a Stafford in the reign of Henry VIII would generate intense conflict, you need to know a little 15th and 16th century history. I can hear what a few of you are thinking: “Check, please.”

No. Stop. We can do this together. It’s really going to be OK.

If you watch Game of Thrones, it will be helpful to the conversation. Because George R.R. Martin has more or less admitted that his books are the Wars of the Roses—plus dragons and White Walkers.

Game of Thrones

My husband likes to say I am drawn to Faded Glory and The Doomed. I won’t quarrel with him here. The Staffords were my kind of people. Definitely a family that had a hunger for action and a lot of style … but not too much sense.

There were three Stafford dukes of Buckingham and they all died violently. The first one, Humphrey, backed Lancaster over York in the civil war tearing England apart. Henry VI was the head of the House of Lancaster, and no one thought he was a particularly good king. Then Henry VI had a complete nervous breakdown and was, from what we can tell reading the documents, close to catatonic. This is the monarch that Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham, backed!

Humphrey Stafford

The enemy, the earl of Warwick, sent word just before the Battle of Northampton in 1460 that he wanted to speak to the king. Buckingham’s reply: “The earl of Warwick will not come to the King’s presence and if he does, he shall die.” (Your move, GRRM!) In the ensuing battle, the duke of Buckingham died protecting his king, clutching a sword.

His grandson, the second duke, is one of the villains of Shakespeare. In Richard III, you’ll remember Buckingham as the king’s right-hand man in getting hold of the princes and shoving them into the Tower of London. Later, according to the play, Buckingham got a case of the guilts and he put together a rebellion against King Richard. It failed, and he was decapitated in 1483.

Which brings us to the third duke, the one who appears in flashbacks in my first novel, The Crown. Henry VIII was an insecure king, deeply threatened by wealthy relatives with noble blood. It would have behooved Buckingham to lay low. Instead he lived lavishly and loudly. Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, met the axe in 1521.

Edward Stafford
In my trilogy, Joanna is the daughter of the duke’s younger brother. She grows up in aristocratic obscurity in Stafford Castle, already beginning to fall into ruin. The family is in disgrace. Just hearing the name “Stafford” is guaranteed to put King Henry VIII in a bad mood. There are two groups of people the Tudor king automatically dislikes. Blood relatives who don’t bend the knee. And people who have taken vows at monastic orders. Joanna Stafford is both!


When creating her character, I gave Joanna certain “good” qualities—she’s intelligent, loyal and thoughtful. But she’s also impulsive and stubborn, with a hot temper. The sort of woman who is quite capable of getting herself into trouble.


Finally, I bestowed on Joanna a talent. She is very skilled at weaving tapestries. After the Dominican priory in Dartford has been demolished, she tries to survive in the nearby town of Dartford as a tapestry mistress.

Now there is one man known throughout all of mid-16th-century Europe as an impassioned collector of tapestries, a true connoisseur who would pay any amount to get what he wanted. You guessed it: Henry VIII. At the beginning of my third book, Joanna is handed a royal summons in Dartford. She has no choice but to appear at Whitehall to submit herself to a king intrigued by her talent. A king whom she hates and fears

And that is the triggering conflict that sets my novel The Tapestry into motion.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com


  1. Sounds fascinating. But how did you manage to create a fictional member of a real family unless she was a by blow? :-)

  2. PS Chuckled over the business of Oliviier and Hoffman. Dustin H is, I believe, a method actor. It seems to work for him. I read somewhere that when he was doing his drag role in Tootsie, he embarrassed a child by turning up at her school as her mother.

  3. Howdy

    This is a truly fascinating issue. Lots of online college classes are available.



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  6. How does the article suggest an alternative approach to generating conflict in a story without resorting to contrived elements, and what example does the author provide to support this idea?
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