This Business of Writing

The Secrets to Conflict in Novels

In The Craft of Writing on March 15, 2010 at 5:57 pm

By C. Patrick Schulze

 

As humans we tend to avoid conflict whenever possible, but as creators of characters, the use of conflict is one skill we must master.If your dreams of success include penning of The Great American Novel, then conflict is your friend.

Conflict is 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 to beat faster, sets their blood to boil and encourages them to turn the pages. It also is what generates buzz and book sales.

With few exceptions, every successful novel is grounded in its story and the story is grounded in conflict. Think of it as forces in opposition. That is, you create one character who exhibits some undeniable desire and you pit them against another character who wishes to deny that ambition. It matters not the form of your conflict, only that one person wants it and another wishes to keep them from it.

I feel there exists a major misunderstanding among writers, especially new writers, as it relates to conflict. Conflict is not the crisis or what happens to your characters. It is not the battle, the argument or the deception. Instead, conflict rests upon your characters’ thoughts and feelings toward the events they experience. Conflict is found within the moral choices your characters make, in their emotional reaction to the events that swirl about them.

Consider this example. 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? Now, imagine if the father loses his temper over the lie and strikes out at his daughter. Now you’ve got conflict. It is not the action, it is your character’s response to an action.

Let’s look at some general tips about conflict.

There exists a delicate balance between too much or too little conflict. Have you ever read a boring novel or have one overwhelm and exhaust you? Only use that conflict that is necessary to your story.

In most cases, two opposing conflict points, one internal and one external, are enough to carry your novel. Can you put in more? Sure, but each new conflict point increases the potential loss of control over your story. Cut any conflict that is not necessary to your fundamental storyline. Though you may toss in a couple of other conflict points of lesser strength to keep raising the stakes, stick to a major conflict point or two for best results. Should you wish to add more conflict, think subplots. (For more on subplot, read THIS article.)

Your conflict should build in an upward trending line, with a couple of lesser peaks and their resulting valleys, towards the climax of your story. Think of the way your conflict builds as a line graph. It should rise and fall, rise and fall again and again until you’ve created a line that looks like an ever growing mountain range. Each of these peaks and valleys builds then releases the tension until you reach that highest crest where your hero and his villain clash in your most powerful scene. This series of growth and collapse sets an interesting pace to your writing, and further draws 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, your novel requires some level of conflict in every chapter.

The true secret of conflict is that it begins and ends with desire. It’s all about who wants what and who wishes to keep it from them.

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. His choices, and the process of learning that results from them, are what keep your reader involved in your story. It also maintains the tension of your novel.

Fear intensifies conflict. Your hero must face his fears, so include doubt or worry at judicious points within your manuscript.

Use dialogue as a major tool in the building of your conflict. When used for best effect, dialogue increases the emotion, tension and tragedy.

If you spend the time to develop your conflict as you would your most important of characters, your novel will shine brighter.

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

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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