I was recently at my mother’s reading a magazine with the title, How to increase Conflict. My mom looked at me with a strange expression and I realized how the title must look to the non-writer. Who wants to increase conflict? Of all the self-help books on the market, I doubt any of them have that title.
Most of our lives we try and avoid conflict and tense situations, but then we have to turn around and create them. This was a major issue that came up for me in my substantive edit: my main character was avoiding conflict. In a good-humoured way, my mentor did say she sees this a lot. Writers tend to avoid conflict in their own personal lives, and then do the same on the page. The good writers realize that’s where to get it all out, all the conflict they’ve been avoiding.
So my major re-write has me focusing on creating the right amount of conflict and tension in my novel. How much is too much? Depends on the story and the reader. Ultimately, there is no one answer. It’s a balancing act known as pacing, and only the reader will tell us if we get it right. And each reader is looking for something different.
But there are some guideposts to follow.
Internal Conflict and External Conflict
Internal conflict is the inner journey of the character over the course of the novel. Generally, we want to see movement here. This is a bigger issue in literary writing which is more concerned with character development than plot development.
External Conflict is otherwise known as plot. These are the external events happening, forcing your character to take action. Genre writing tends to be more concerned with the plot.
But good books, no matter what their leaning, will have a combination of both. External factors (plot) will force your character into an internal struggle to make the right choice. Literary writing will focus more on the internal struggle, whereas genre writing will focus more on the external journey, the plot.
And each reader has a feeling for how much of each they like. As always, write the book you want to read!
Tension vs. Conflict
“Tension is the reader’s need to know what happens next, and the sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye. It’s the anticipation of something about to happen.
Conflict creates tension by putting a character into a situation when the outcome is uncertain, and readers anticipate what will happen or what will be discovered.”¹
Types of Conflict
Person vs. Person – two characters have competing goals.
Person vs. Self – the struggle is internal but the plot is external and affects a core belief of your protagonist.
Person vs. Society – the protagonist is challenged by a society belief system and fights to change that.
Person vs. Nature – your protagonist fights a natural phenomenon such as an avalanche, or forest fire—tapping into something personal about themselves.
Character Belief Systems
The challenges a character faces must be a challenge to the character’s core belief systems, otherwise, there will be no internal struggle, only the external journey of overcoming obstacles. You must make the conflict hit the core of the character.
Character Complexity and Conflict
Character complexity is rooted in conflict. There are three levels of antagonism:
How your characters react to each should be different and increase in depth, complexity and severity as novel progresses.
As you can see, conflict is at the core of your story. It is definitely worth taking the time to think through these aspects before writing your novel, or at least after your first draft. If the conflicts don’t tie into your character’s core beliefs, they become just obstacles to be overcome and the character has no “skin in the game.” Tighten up your conflicts to make your story strong on all levels.
The ideas here are from Janice Hardy’s book, Understanding Conflict; and from the following online course taught by Annabel Lyon and Nancy Lee (highly recommended): https://www.edx.org/course/how-write-novel-writing-draft-ubcx-cw1-2x-2
And if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I challenged myself to re-write my novel by the end of March. I’m using Pacemaker to track my progress and I’m 26,000 words in. Now that I’ve tightened my conflict up, this draft is going quickly. However, I’m about to enter the messy middle so I can only hope my energy keeps up! You can track me here: https://www.pacemaker.press/users/dianefwriter/plans/novel-re-write
¹p. 14, Understanding Conflict, Janice Hardy
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