How to Use the Right Critique Partner to Add the Right Conflict to Your Story

“If they’ve already made significant strides towards resolving these issues after seeing each other for two days, then is it enough of a conflict to keep them apart for 200+ pages?”

“I would keep reading if the stakes were increased.”

“I felt it was a bit unclear what the main conflict was since it took a long time to build.”

These are just four statements made in regard to my initial novel’s first manuscript. I was Confused™️.

  • What do you mean “enough of a conflict”? Clearly there are several things keeping them apart. You obviously read the story wrong.
  • “Increased stakes”? There’s so much at stake, it’s not even funny. You also read the story wrong.
  • “The main conflict took too long to build”? Well, don’t be so darned impatient!

Needless to say, I was more than a little defensive. Infuriated and hurt might be better descriptions. I put over 75,000 words into the virtual hands of writers and editors I trusted, and they tore my baby to pieces. I was Upset™️.

I haven’t touched that manuscript in going on six months. What I have done, though, is start a whole new novella, this time simply exploring who my characters are and how they react when their back is against the wall (or the refrigerator). It’s a complete turnaround to how I approached my first manuscript.

What makes it worse is the realization I had while starting to plot out this new story: My writing critique volunteers had been right all along. My concept of what conflict was did not align with genre or reader expectations. There’s nothing more humbling to a longtime fiction writer. Yet, it’s a lesson all fiction authors who want to publish well-told stories should take to heart. Of course, not every critique partner will focus on every type of conflict. Here’s some tips on using the right critique partners to add in the right type of conflict your story needs.

Does your critique partner write in or read the same genre your story is set in?

Although one of my critique partners is a writing coach and editor like me, she’s not an author herself. However, she is a voracious reader of my genre. With over two decades’ experience in the publishing industry, frankly I’d be a fool not to take her critiques to heart.

Look for a critique partner who has as much as, if not more, experience in your manuscript’s genre. Since external and internal conflict are the heart of story, their feedback will likely come from a more objective viewpoint. They’ll spot those sections of your story that are diverging from a reader’s expectations. They can appreciate what you’re already written while also providing specific and actionable ways to improve the story as a whole.

Exchange book recommendations, geek out over books you’ve both read and loved, and pick apart the books you’ve both read and not loved. What lessons can you glean from those books that you can then apply to your own manuscript? Effective critique partners show you where you missed the target, whether by an inch or a mile.

Do you have thick skin? Does your critique partner?

By its very nature, writing critiques are tough on the ego. You’ve spent a significant amount of time on your story. You believe it’s perfect just the way it is, and don’t see how anyone could ever say anything bad about it. However, also by its very nature, publishing fiction is being willing to show your vulnerability as a creator. Building up a thick skin to the inevitable criticism is simply part of the writing process.

During the critique phase, remember that the focus is not on you as an individual. The story you’ve written has no bearing on your humanity or your valid experiences in this often-too-cruel world. Expect tactful yet brutally honest assessments of the story itself, specifically when a lack of conflict is the primary concern. Readers don’t want to follow characters who don’t struggle on every page, either externally or internally.

The flip side is knowing your critique partner is willing and ready to accept the same level of assessment. The best way to determine this is simple: look for a critique partner who takes their writing as seriously as you do. They don’t have to be a full-time author, or even a part-time one. They just need to accept that creating a story from scratch and seeing it through to publication is not for the weak at heart.

Do you like your critique partner? Do they like you?

Over the past few years, I’ve developed strong working relationships with editing colleagues literally the world over. Some of them have even become good friends, to where we spend ninety-five percent of our monthly meetups discussing everything BUT editing or writing. Our vibes mesh in a way I could never have anticipated when I reached out to set up that initial coffee chat.

Finding a critique partner you get along with outside of your writing connection is probably the highest priority in this process. Getting to know them as a person is sometimes even more challenging than getting to know them as an author. It’s this compatibility between you as people that strengthens your critique partnership. You learn to trust them outside of just writing. That leads to increased trust that they want to see your story succeed, to help you turn it into the best version of itself.

Pair up with a critique partner who shares your energy levels, likes and dislikes, and who is unafraid to challenge you on a personal level. Your critique partner should know, like, and trust you enough to know their advice or suggestions of what kind of conflict is missing at certain points in your story will be taken seriously. This is especially true if conflict is something they excel at, while it’s something you (like me) openly struggle with. You can exchange critiques based on your mutual levels of expertise.

As I was drafting this week’s blog, I was inspired to start looking for my first “official” critique partner. The pre-drafting stage is starting to look like the best stage to find one. Instead of waiting until that horrible first draft is done, I can look for a critique partner to hopefully help me make it at least a little less horrible. Conflict, especially external conflict, is a concept I’m still wrapping my head around as an author. I can spot when it’s missing in my client’s work. When it comes to my own, though, my author blinders slide into place as soon as I open the Scrivener project.

Knowing how and when to add the different types of conflicts into your manuscript is a challenge all storytellers struggle with, regardless of experience levels. Looking for and finding the right critique partner can be even harder. Using the above questions gives you a good starting point. After all, it’s outside and objective eyes that can best help you reflect on your story-in-progress one word at a time.

Scroll to Top