This Business of Writing

How to Use Conflict in Fiction

In The Craft of Writing on November 18, 2009 at 9:21 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Conflict is critical to any good story. It’s what makes your story worth reading and, in fact, is the key component that weaves all the elements of your novel together. Without it, you’ve simply written a series of facts and occurrences. Conflict is what gets your readers’ hearts beating, their blood boiling and their fingers turning the page. (And turning that page is what generates buzz and book sales.)

I feel there exists a major misunderstanding among writers, especially new writers, as it relates to conflict. I’ll explain what this is by first telling you what it is not.  It is not the crisis or what happens to your characters. It is not the battle, the argument or the deception. Surprised?

Conflict rests upon their thoughts and feelings, toward the events your characters experience. It’s found within the moral choices your characters make. It’s within the building, then exploding tension between opposing forces.

Think of it this way. A daughter tells her father a lie, but the father could not care less. Where is the excitement? Where is the energy? Where is the drama? It’s in the father’s reaction to the lie, not within the lie itself. You’ll have greater conflict if the father gets angry about the lie rather than ignoring it.

There are five premier conflict types to utilize within a story. They are:

Inner Conflict: This is when your character struggles within himself. For example, your protagonist has trouble balancing his fear of heights and his assignment as a paratrooper in the army. Inner conflict is often based upon a character’s vulnerabilities. Strong inner conflict often makes the best stories.

Relational Conflict: This occurs when two people struggling against each other, as in the example of the father and his daughter’s lie.

Social Conflict: This takes place when someone comes in conflict with a group. Think of a soldier caught behind enemy lines.

Conflict with Nature: This is when a character struggles with a life and death situation born by the universe. Maybe your hero is caught in an avalanche.

Situational Conflict: This occurs when your character is in conflict with not his boss, but his boss’s ambitions, or a like situation.

If you think about people, they tend to stay within comfortable boundaries and shy away from disruptive choices. Your characters are no different. They need someone, or something, to force them out of their tidy little lives. An effective method is to develop your antagonist so they will poke at the root of your hero’s internal conflict. This works quite well, especially if the bad guy’s goal is in opposition to your hero’s. Keep in mind your antagonist need not be someone wearing a black hat. It can be anything including animal, vegetable, mineral, idea, desire, thought – whatever you wish it to be.

I’ll now give you some general tips for writing conflict.

Too much drama, or too little, will distance your reader. There is a delicate balance of conflict necessary for a good story. Evaluate every instance within your novel and eliminate everything that is unnecessary to moving the story forward.

Keep the number of conflict points to a minimum. Two opposing conflict points, one internal and one external, are usually enough to carry your novel. Can you put in more? Sure, but with each new conflict point comes an increased potential loss of control over the story. Be careful.

Build tension. Although a strong conflict from the very start of your novel is beneficial, drop quickly then build slowly to a crescendo. On that path toward your climatic scene, you should toss in a couple of other conflict points of lesser strength to keep raising the stakes. Yet, despite these conflict points, be always vigilant in building toward your final conflict.

Don’t have too many twists and turns in your conflict. A well-crafted novel exhibits that delicate balance between too much and too little conflict. It also strikes that same balance between conflict and crisis.

Your conflict should build in an upward trending straight line, with a couple of lesser peaks and their resulting valleys, towards the climax. This line falls in dramatic fashion after the conclusion of  your major conflict point. Find that correct balance, set an interesting pace to your writing, and draw your reader into the story.

Every chapter in your novel should have someone wanting something. This want need not be anything of utmost importance, but each chapter should contain some level of conflict. It may be as simple as a young girl wishing her mother would allow her to walk to school, to the reactions of your hero as he is thrust into battle. Regardless, you need conflict in every chapter.

Conflict begins and ends with desire. In your storyline, use the bond of your hero in disagreement with someone or something.

The essence of building tension is choice. Your hero must be forced to make choices in order to keep him moving forward on his quest. If your reader knows what your hero is going to do in each crisis, your novel has limited suspense and your readers lose a great deal of their interest. This is why the hero must learn as he moves toward his goal – it keeps your reader involved in finding out what he does next. Keep in mind you must maintain his personality, but by offering your protagonist conflicting alternatives, it keeps your tension at a higher plane.

Your conflict must have a final goal in mind. That goal is the growth of your hero. This evolution can be emotional, physical or any other “-al” you wish, but the purpose of all this running around is to, in the end, have your protagonist come out a better person.

Use cliffhangers. Have you noticed how commercials interrupt your favorite television shows? (How can you not?) I’ll bet you’ve noticed they come just as the tension is building to a crescendo. Use this same technique in your novels. End each chapter with a cliffhanger. They need not be of the magnitude of the hero’s death, but leave a question in the readers’ mind. It will keep them wanting to know more.

After your cliffhanger gets your reader to turn the page, don’t give the answer away right away. It’s yet another delicate balance as to when to give them their answer, so play with what works for your story.

I’ve mentioned the balance needed in your manuscript a couple of times already. One secret to this balance is to vary the pace of your novel. Give them some excitement, then tone it down so your reader can catch their breath. Build again, a little more this time, then let them relax once more. You can vary the pace of your novel by using action, the tone of your writing, the length of your paragraphs and even sentences. (Shorter sentences and chapters increase speed, while longer ones slow it down.) It’s an intricate technique, but once mastered, it will lift your writing to a new level of competence and sales.

Fear intensifies conflict. Your hero must face his fears so include fright at judicious points within your manuscript.

Use dialogue as a major tool in the building of your conflict. If used effectively, dialogue increases the emotion, tension and tragedy. It, too, can be used to increase or decrease the pace of your work.

Now for a short story that exemplifies the rise and fall of conflict within an effective storyline.

Three little pigs build three little houses. The first house is made of straw, the second of wood and the third of brick.

The Big Bad Wolf arrives, wanting to eat the three pigs. The three pigs are upset as to his arrival and retreat into their respective houses for safety.

The wolf arrives at the first house and tells the pig he wants to eat it. The little pig is terrified! The wolf blows the house down. Fortunately, after near capture and death, the pig escapes into the home of his compatriot, the second pig.

The wolf arrives at the second house and again threatens to kill and eat the pigs within. He huffs and puffs until the little house collapses. After a thrilling escape, the two pigs retreat into the house of the third pig.

The wolf arrives at the last house with two of the three pigs trembling inside. One pig, however, is confident. The wolf blows and blows but cannot destroy the brick house. The worried pigs breathe a sigh of relief.

But wait! There’s more!

The wolf sneaks down the chimney and those same two pigs again go into fearful tremors. The third pig is still confident he can save them all.

Down comes the wolf!

Oh! The tension! Two pigs are in hysterics. The third faces this new turn of events with continued aplomb.

The wolf is caught by surprise by the actions of the third pig when he climbs down the chimney.

The three pigs live happily ever after.

Now, after reading the story, answer the following questions.

  • Can you identify the various crisis points of the story?
  • Can you determine the points of conflict within the story?
  • Do you see the rising, then falling, then rising tension, or plot points, with the ending sigh of relief?
  • Are you able to identify the climactic point of the story?

If you were able to answer these questions correctly, you now understand the fundamentals of fiction.

Until my next post, I wish you all best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel “Born to be Brothers”

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