One of the key ingredients of any novel – or, indeed, any piece of fiction – is conflict. It’s the glue that holds readers to the story.
Conflict in all its forms explains the ‘why’ of the plot – gives meaning and place to what is happening. It helps readers identify with the characters.
All conflict has to tie in to the characters, one way or another; it’s how we learn about them, and it’s how they learn what they need to progress through the story.
Conflict takes many forms. It can be conflict between characters: people who don’t get along, or who have different points of view, and who argue. Usually it’s argument over direction needed to resolve a plot problem.
Conflict can also be between the characters and the environment – as in Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.
Ideally it is a mix of both.
Conflict also creates the dramatic tension you need to keep readers hooked. The trick is to gauge it: conflict is a powerful tool for creating the rising waves of dramatic tension that drive readers into your novel. But don’t start with the big explosive tension – start small and build up. Plot it on a chart first. Useful questions include:
- What does this conflict do to advance the character arc? What do we learn about the character from the nature of the conflict and the way they resolve it?
- What is the scale of this conflict-point? Is it appropriate at this part in the plot?
- How does this conflict interact with other conflicts?
- If it’s a character conflict (like an argument), how does it interact with the plot? If it’s a plot conflict, how does it interact with the characters?
Without conflict, attempts to make things dramatic reduce a story to ‘The Perils of Penelope’ – serial dangers where the only point is the danger itself, which doesn’t drag readers along.
That happened in Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) where he tried to inject drama into the ‘Professor explains’ sequence at Teabing’s house, by having an assassin sneaking up on them. This was melodrama. And very silly.
Don’t do it that way, OK?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015