Writing conflict in your story
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
And me, Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing!
A necessary factor to writing conflict in your work is making sure that you have your pacing down first because you need to hit certain points at certain times to keep your story compelling. This is where being a plotter has more benefits than being a pantser, because you can plan these points out in advance and work toward them.
When should you introduce your conflict?
As mentioned in our blog post about plot, you need to introduce your conflict within the first act. Usually, this is when your main character or protagonist locks themselves into the story by making a goal or decision that pulls the rest of the characters toward the end goal. For a compelling conflict and story, I would highly recommend introducing your conflict at the very very latest by the end of chapter three. Ideally, it will be by the end of the first chapter.
Your main conflict, that is. To really hook readers, you should have a smaller conflict from the first—
Excuse me, this is my blog post. What are you doing poking around in here, B. C.?
But conflict is so important! I can’t let you miss anything.
Ugh, fine. Just don’t interrupt me too much, okay?
I’ll try, but I can’t make any promises.
Who brings about your conflict?
B. C., apparently.
But more seriously, in a character-driven plot, your conflict has to be driven by someone, so who is it going to be? It can be just about anyone in the cast who sets a conflict in motion. (If you want to learn about characters, you can take a look at this blog post from our new authors series, or from our character types series.) Depending on the character, it will change the tone of your conflict. For example, if your MC is a high school-aged girl who has to overcome her own insecurities, it can be an uplifting story of self-love and believing in your own abilities. If a bully in the school is deliberately and maliciously spreading harmful rumors about your MC, they now have a much larger problem to face than their own insecurities, and it will be more difficult to overcome.
Even family, friends, or lovers can create conflict when they have different relationship goals.
Or our meddling coworkers. I thought you weren’t interrupting? There isn’t much to add to this section, man. I did my homework!
Surprise! Conflict doesn’t have to be caused by a person
In event-driven plots, your conflict may perhaps be caused by someone’s actions, but it’s on a much larger scale. This would be something like a war that isn’t caused by one particular person as the examples above and happens well outside of the protagonist’s purview...usually. This is a particularly common conflict in historical fictions and fantasy novels. Another common conflict that comes in for fantasy novels, also sci-fi and dystopian, is a cataclysmic event that the characters have to survive.
I approve. I have nothing to add here.
Really? Then did you have to say anything? Am I allowed to move on now, O Knower of Conflict?
Yes, yes, you may.
Making your conflict compelling
This might surprise you, but you need to have conflict in every single chapter of your book. Remember, your conflict doesn’t have to be a supersized event all the time. It could be personality clashes between mother and daughter (or even mother-in-law and daughter-in-law!), a disagreement between lovers, friends, family, or journey companions, or between boss and worker. There are so many ways to bring conflict into your story—it doesn’t even have to be with a person. Maybe your character needs to reach their friend or child in a storm before they get washed away, but trees are coming down left and right. The weather, an outside force, is now driving the conflict in the chapter.
Give an example of micro conflicts at the chapter level. This is the area that a lot of authors struggle with and why things like travel scenes get a bad reputation. Superfluous sex scenes can do it too. For example, some of—
Hey! Who’s writing this blog post?
As I was saying, some of my romances could be erotica if I showed all the sex main couples are having, and while there are still a fair number of scenes in some stories, how much I choose to put on the page for each scene is about conflict. And those kinds of scenes don’t involve fighting or physical peril. In fact, even as they're the only two characters actually in the scenes, they aren't in conflict with each other but still struggle internally.
Anyway, it might feel overwhelming to hear that your conflict needs to be in every chapter, but conflict is what makes the story interesting, and a lack of it can easily make your reader put your book down.
Ooh! Dialogue is a great tool for micro conflict too.
What? Straightforward conversations are boring, but if it veers away from where the protagonist wants it to go, even a friendly conversation will have conflict. Because, at its core, conflict is all about something or someone becoming an obstacle to the protagonist’s goals, no matter how small.
B. C., this is my blog post! Are you even listening to me? If you wanted to write about conflict, you should have taken it.
There is a certain amount of suspended belief in the vast majority of genres, but how believable is your conflict? You have to match your conflict to the abilities of your characters. I’m not going to believe that a group of ten-year-olds are going to save the world with their technical know-how. They’re ten. But if you tell me a group of late teens to early twenties have to save the world with their technical know-how, I’d find it a lot easier to accept.
Another aspect of believability is how much your characters struggle within your selected conflict. If, without any struggle at all, your character manages to succeed at every task, and your character still manages to be beloved by all, you run the risk of having created either a Mary Sue or a Marty Stu. Once those characters are created, it’s very easy for your readers to say, “Well, of course they did!” to something they’ve done right or well and not want to continue reading.
And staying in character is important too. I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at the perfect couple who suddenly hates each other in the sequel just for conflict’s sake.
For heaven’s sake, B. C.! Can I not get through a single section by myself?
How conflict changes your characters
This is a very important aspect within your story: character growth or regression. How does your conflict affect your characters? Does it make them dig their heels in more and not want to deal with the problems until they have to? Or do they step up, help the people around them, and become better versions of themselves? This could mean they become braver, they become more compassionate, they become better rulers, etc. etc.
Ideally, your conflict will bring about character growth for your main character, and they’ll become a better person by the end of the story or more prepared to face the next big conflict in the next book.
Or perhaps it knocks them down a few rungs. Not every story has a positive character arc.
I give up. There’s no point in fighting if you’re not even going to listen to me.
Sometimes the conflict beats them into regression. Sometimes the conflict wins.
Have you accurately portrayed how someone goes through a certain conflict?
There’s one last thing I want to talk about that doesn’t happen in every book. This is traumatic conflict, such as kidnapping, rape, or miscarriage. I will say that everyone reacts differently to these types of events, but it would be unusual for someone to have no reaction at all. This is partially where “write what you know” fails authors since there are plenty of resources out there that can guide authors into believable and accurate reactions to these types of situations.
Wait—B. C. has nothing to say? Did she finally start listening to me?
I guess so. Thanks for sticking it out on our new authors series; we hope that it’s been helpful for both those just starting on their writing journey and those that are a little further along.
See, wasn’t this so much more fun with a little conflict?
What the f—
Join us next week when we start a two week series on editing! (And I promise not to interrupt Rebecca on that one…maybe.)
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