I was so conflicted about what to write about today. Well, would you look at that, conflict just happens to be the next item on the editing checklist. To see the full editing checklist, feel free to check it out here.
We all face conflicts in our daily lives. Small conflicts like what to eat or wear. Major conflicts like getting a divorce, having surgery, or moving for a job.
People enjoy conflict–not in their own lives, but in the lives of others. Ever notice how engaged your friends and coworkers are when you tell them about your divorce from hell, but for some reason they glaze over when you recap your relaxing weekend. People feed off of drama like plants feed off of light. Maybe it distracts them from their own lives; maybe they relate; maybe they are addicted to the chemicals released from experiencing negative emotions. Whatever it is, harness its power to engage readers. If conflict keeps people at the water cooler, it will also keep readers turning the page.
Types of Conflict
Conflict is the most important part of your novel. After you introduce your main character, you introduce the conflict. The story doesn’t truly begin on page one, but when the protagonist sets out to resolve the conflict. When we think conflict, we often think of something exciting, like a plane crash or a car chase, but a conflict can be something invisible and small-scale like an emotion. To help understand conflict, let’s break it up into categories.
External: Any force outside of the protagonist: fire, tornado, shark, sharknado, etc
Internal: Internal conflict adds meaning to the external conflict. Consider the Battle of Blackwater in a Game of Thrones. Since this event happened in season two, I hardly feel the need to announce a spoiler alert, considering there are five seasons now. You’ve had your chance to catch up.
There are a lot of external conflicts in this scene: Stannis’ fleet, under-protected walls, fire, etc. However, the true drama comes from the characters’ inner conflicts. There are a lot of characters we could choose to focus on: King Joffrey, Tyrion, or Stannis, but let’s look at The Hound (I don’t remember what his real name is). The character is a great fighter, so why does he freak out and leave in the middle of battle? It’s not the ships, it’s not the men with swords, it’s the fire. Because he was burned as a child, The Hound fears fire, which is everywhere at King’s Landing. This is a great example of inner conflict layered underneath external conflict. His fear, and inability to overcome it, makes this scene more dramatic. Kudos goes to George for playing on a character’s weakness, but before I hand out too much praise, let’s just see how this character arc ends. George typically fails at character conflict resolution. No, this is not just my opinion. There are a lot of arcs that are never closed off and conflicts unresolved because Martin kills off a character instead of developing a more satisfactory conclusion (e.g., most of the Starks). Lazy, just lazy. For the Hound’s conflict to be resolved successfully, he will have to overcome his fear of fire in order to achieve his goal, but George will probably just kill him off–which is ok as long as it’s with fire.
- Self: inner conflict: flaws, doubts, prejudices
- Person: an antagonist e.g., a villain
- Society: tradition, laws, culture e.g., Hunger Games
- Nature: weather, elements e.g., Robinson Crusoe
- Technology: tech takes over
- Supernatural: something superficial: Gods, demons, fate, destiny
How to create conflict
To add conflict, you don’t have to plan a ton of major events, like explosions, war, etc. If you’ve ever read The Teahouse Fire, you’ll notice there was only one catastrophic event in the entire story: the fire. Other than that, not a lot happened, but every page was saturated with conflict. To create conflict, simply ask yourself, what does your character want? Once you know what they want, take it away and make it difficult to achieve.
a Hippopotamus for Christmas
Give your character a goal that your audience can relate with. The more they can relate, the more they’ll root for your protagonist. Create situations that prevent your character from getting what they want, and show their struggle to achieve it.
How to increase conflict
1. Give a Deadline
Think of a ticking clock. Imagine the story of Cinderella without the midnight curfew. Not as exciting, is it? A race against the clock adds suspense and drama.
2. Make your Character Choose
Decisions, decisions. Giving your characters choices will keep your readers on the edge of their seats. What will they choose? Will they complete their goal if it means ruining the lives of others? What will they sacrifice to get what they want?
3. Conflicting Goals
Like real people, your main character can have more than one goal. Make those goals compete.
Example: He wants to get a promotion and save his marriage. To get the promotion, he has to spend more time at work. To save his marriage, he needs to spend more time with his wife. He obviously can’t do both.
Also, group your protagonist with side characters who have conflicting goals or who have personality traits that conflict with your character.
Returning to the prior example. He has a mother-in-law who hates him, persuading his wife to leave.
4. Include Conflict in Every Scene
To iterate, this does not mean you have to have an explosion in every scene. Just make sure your character is struggling with something. Are they conflicting with their morals, another character, nature?
5. Inability to take Action
Render your character helpless to act. What always comes to my mind is a villain hand-rubbing and cackling while the main character, usually tied up, declares that they won’t get away with it . . . to which the villain always replies:
Let’s look at Star Wars (The good ones). You might think the main conflict is about the battle between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance; however, the main conflict is actually Luke’s inner struggle between choosing the honorable way of the Jedi or getting revenge. The war complements Luke’s struggle because it is a battle between good and evil.
One conflict is not enough. On the road to your character achieving his or her goal are smaller conflicts. Think of these like bumps in the road. A good story has layers of conflict. Multiple conflicts add realism, depth, and interest. Interweave them so they are related. Let’s return to A Game of Thrones, however, we’ll take a look at Daenerys this time. Her main conflict is her desire to rule the iron throne. The battle hasn’t begun, but already she’s had many side conflicts: choosing between her family and her rule, hunger, obtaining an army, her brother, etc.
Note: Don’t forget to give side characters conflict as well. Make their wants compete with the main character. Just make sure their conflicts complement, not compete.
Raising the Stakes
Every conflict should be worse than the one before.
Conflict one:They mess up your order at McDonald’s
Conflict two: You’re late for work.
Conflict three: Your boss gives you a write up.
Conflict four: You’re girlfriend calls you during lunch to breakup with you.
Conflict five: You get pulled over on your way home and receive a ticket.
Conflict six: You get home to find all of your stuff is on the lawn.
Conflict seven: You have nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep, so you spend the night in your car while your stuff gets rained on.
Compare the first and last conflict. I bet you’d happily eat that Mcmessed up egg muffin now.
What happens if your stakes decrease?
One of several things. Your readers will lose interest or the conflict will get resolved too fast.
How to make sure your stakes are rising.
It’s easier if you plan your conflict while you’re planning your novel. Map the conflicts on your outline in the order they occur. You’ll obviously put the major conflict last.
What if it’s too late? You’ve already written your first draft. It’s never too late to rearrange or cut scenes. Keep a list of the conflicts that arise in your novel and compare them to make sure they appear in the correct order. I did this while editing my sister’s novel, The Quest for the Holy Something or Rather. Kay and Pig’s conflicts include a bear, a salesperson, and a kidnapping. Obviously the salesperson came first, followed by the bear, and lastly the kidnapping.
Don’t Raise the Stakes too High
Sometimes writers raise the stakes so high the protagonist cannot resolve the conflict realistically, resulting in a deus ex machina. I love her, but Karen Miller is infamously guilty of this. Do not let a God step in or bull-shit a magic ability at the last minute.This robs the reader of a satisfactory conclusion.
Rules of Conflict
- Conflict must always be resolved (That goes for you too, George R.R. Martin)
- Conflict must always be resolved by the main character or as the result of their actions
- No deus ex machina
- Have conflict in every scene
- Have multiple conflicts
There you have it. When it comes to writing, don’t save the drama for your mama.