Note: This is part 10 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series.
10. Conflict and Its Importance
What is a great book without conflict? Just a book of course! Great books ooze with conflict. Almost every page has something going on that makes you want to turn the next page. Can you name me a great book that doesn’t have any conflict? I can’t. And yet so many debut authors don’t pay enough attention to this subject. There are so many other things they are trying to get right that they forget one of the major ingredients of the story.
I remember reading Cujo by Stephen King – an amazing novel chock full of conflict. A lot of people have see the movie, but not read the book, and the book is so different. The dog Cujo is a good dog at heart, he doesn’t want to do bad things. Then there’s… Oh wait, I’m spoiling the plot. Just read the book.
So what do we mean by conflict? The dictionary describes conflict as: A fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife. Controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties. Discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas. That’s a whole lot of stuff! The nature of conflict in your novel will depend on the subject matter. Is there a love interest? If so, then the conflict will be that the two people never seem to get together. Everything conspires against them. This conflict will make your readers want to keep turning the pages in the hope that they eventually get together. Or maybe your book is about something that your hero needs to do but isn’t strong enough or have the means to do. How will he struggle through this weakness to eventually overcome it? Perhaps your hero has witnessed something and doesn’t know what to do about it. How will he cope with the information he now has? Conflict. Sprinkle it liberally throughout your book.
I remember a saying I heard as a young kid: Smile and be happy, for things could get worse. So I did smile and was happy, and things did get worse! This is what makes a great book. Things need to get worse instead of better sometimes. Get the reader hooked, draw them in. Make them want your hero to be successful, but keep that success just out of reach right up until the end of the book. Most conflicts in life aren’t simple either. They come about because of morals or beliefs or something else that is put in a person’s way. And your conflicts in your book must be layered like this as well. As the book progresses so the conflict needs to get more and more layered. Creating a plot with complex conflicts is a huge key to creating a successful novel. Boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy and girl live happily ever after, just doesn’t happen in a great story does it? And yet so many debut novels are a little like this.
So how do we create conflict? And how much should there be? Let’s tackle the second one first. In most cases it’s true that you cannot create too much conflict. More is usually better. As for the first, how to create conflict, then you really need to get inside your characters heads. You need to know what makes them tick. Maybe they’re afraid of the dark or don’t like to go outside. Whatever it is, signal it up front, at the beginning of the novel. Then create a scenario where they need to overcome that fear. Now you have conflict! The only way the hero can save the girl is to travel at night into the dark haunted forest. The reader will instantly feel for the hero and want to keep reading. Part of you knows that something will happen, but you have to keep reading, just to find out. And maybe the hero gets through the forest successfully, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief, only for him to get attacked by the boat launch at dawn!
Plan your conflicts in advance. Don’t leave them until you are halfway through writing your novel. There’s nothing worse than having to go back and add some forced conflict to make the story better. Like I said, you know your characters; make sure they have plenty of challenges as the book progresses. If you need to, draw on things that have happened in your own life. Nothing ever happens as we plan it, does it? So use some of those life experiences. Sometimes people get sick or even die. If the plot can take it, add it. Just remember whatever you do, if you want to write a great book, make sure it’s full of conflicts.