Conflict drives a story. It’s what makes the excitement. It provides the obstacles for character motivation. It’s what makes a reader care. Without conflict, a book has nothing but dull words on a page. Who would want to read a story where everything was happy and good? Where everything went the main character’s way? It might be nice to live, but not so entertaining to read about.
Ever read a story that should have been great, but it felt kind of flat? Possibly some of the types of conflict are missing.
Without all sorts of conflict and tension, readers will yawn. It needs to be ongoing and in every scene. There are many types of conflict and the smart writer includes all of them into the page. If they build in only one type, the story will still be dull.
Conflict Based on Plot
This is the main drive to your manuscript. It’s Harry trying to deny Voltemort. It’s Frodo and Sam journeying to Mordor to oppose evil. It’s Bella falling for a vampire and doing everything to make that work. In my story Grudging, it’s the city trying to survive a devastating army.
We’re talking the driving conflict that moves the story. Without this, well, a book hasn’t got squat. It’s what blocks the main character from achieving their motivation/goal. Usually it’s the conflict the author builds the rest of the story around in the planning stages.
But… plot conflict alone isn’t enough to save a book. You need much more.
This is the doubt and worry going on in the main character’s head. The feelings of insecurity. The fear that paralyzes. The indecision that makes each major choice the main character faces into a dilemma.
Imagine a character so secure in themselves and so decided in their ways that they never have doubts. Then picture a big boring Mary Sue, because that’s what has been created. That’s not the way humans work. They hesitate. They debate. They feel guilt and nerves.
When Ramiro is sent off on the mission to find a witch in Grudging, he’s not sure what to expect — and he’s not sure he’s up to the job. This kind of conflict can come out in internal thoughts, actions (how the character responds to things), and even with dialogue.
Character arc is all about bringing a character around and fighting through their inner conflict. If you don’t have any inner conflict, then your character arc is likely flat.
Whenever there’s a big moment, and indeed, especially in the slow moments of a story, if an author adds some internal conflict to their main character, then they’ve increased the tension. Not only that, but they’ve given the reader a way to connect with that character. (Why Harry Potter worries about death just like me.)
Watch for internal conflict and see if it doesn’t add spice to a story.
Conflict Between Characters
In many stories there are groups of characters who are working together for a common cause. They should all just be best friends and braid one another’s hair, right? Hold hands and sing together. Never argue. Always be in agreement.
Even allies disagree and a smart author knows this. It’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione splitting up in the middle of the story because they’ve argued. It’s Boromir trying to take the ring from Frodo. It’s disagreement large and small between allies or enemies or even casual strangers your main character meets.
Every character in your story should have a separate and distinct motivation. Sometimes those motivations are going to clash. Such as when Ramiro does meet a witch in Grudging. Their goals — one to find help, the other to be left alone — are incompatible.
If an author has a spot where the plot lags and not much is happening, or a set up chapter before the big stuff gets going again, often they’ll throw in a little of this sort of conflict with another character. Presto! There’s now enough interest to keep readers going until the big stuff happens.
Physical Non-Plot Conflict
Life is full of small annoyances. A train stopped on the tracks. A sprained ankle from a pot hole you didn’t see. A car that won’t start when you’re in a rush. A broken heel on prom night. They don’t have anything to do with your story line, but they create conflict (and delay) for your main character. These sorts of occurrences can also add interest to the story and become a side plot.
Any obstacle to the main character can become a test of personality. Testing personality is an author’s job. They need to make things hard for their main character. Like having to trek through a swamp of quicksand to locate a witch. Who knows the main character just might learn to step up and become a hero from situations like this.
So when you are reading and the book feels flat, check for conflict. Is there a section where tension is missing? Is the main character too perfect and never doubts? Did the author forget to throw in some of the lesser sorts of stumbling blocks to supplement the plot?
The best stories put pressure on the main character so the book will be full of tension. Those are the sorts of books that are hard to put down!
Michelle Hauck lives in the bustling metropolis of northern Indiana with her hubby and two teenagers. Besides working with special needs children by day, she writes all sorts of fantasy, giving her imagination free range. She is a co-host of the yearly query contests Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, New Agent, PitchSlam, and Sun versus Snow. Her Birth of Saints trilogy from Harper Voyager starts with Grudging on November 17, 2015. Her epic fantasy, Kindar’s Cure, was published by Divertir Publishing. Here’s the synopsis for Grudging:
A world of chivalry and witchcraft… and the invaders who would destroy everything
The north has invaded, bringing a cruel religion and no mercy. The ciudades-estados who have stood in their way have been razed to nothing, and now the horde is before the gates of Colina Hermosa… demanding blood.
On a mission of desperation, a small group escapes the besieged city in search of the one thing that might stem the tide of Northerners: the witches of the southern swamps.
The Women of the Song.
But when tragedy strikes their negotiations, all that is left is a single untried knight and a witch who has never given voice to her power. And time is running out.
A lyrical tale of honor and magic, Grudging is the opening salvo in the Book of Saints trilogy.