Why you need conflict in your novel

Conflict is the glue that holds readers to a story. Any story – something that’s as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction.

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Conflict is often the ‘why’ of the plot, and gives meaning and place to what’s happening. But it can’t be purposeless – it has to tie in to the characters and is one of the key devices by which we learn what they need to progress through the story. 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 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:

  1. 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?
  2. What is the scale of this conflict-point? Is it appropriate at this part in the plot?
  3. How does this conflict interact with other conflicts?
  4. 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. For a particularly dire example, check out 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 pure melodrama. Ouch.

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If you want to know more about ways to write and pick up some handy tips about ways to get writing fast, check out my short quick-start manual How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

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4 thoughts on “Why you need conflict in your novel

    1. The only way I could read “The Of Vinci Code” (I know what I said…) was to take it with me on an international flight. Trapped in an airless tube with 150 other people and even worse junk on the in-flight entertainment system, it became the only option…

      1. ahahaaha (I understood what you said 😉 good one!). I understand- that’s how I read Twilight… and I read dan brown’s “masterpiece” at 13 when an adult told me it was “a big deal”- I learnt never to listen to adults again 😉

  1. When I read The Da Vinci Code I couldn’t put it down! It was melodramatic, but having read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail I was hooked more by the circumstances surrounding the book than by the actual writing. (After Angels and Demons I gave up on Brown.)

    Conflict is too often treated with the same single-dimensionality as villains; a shoehorned test rather than anything implicit to the story. And authentic conflict often resolves in unexpected ways. For me the more ambiguous the resolution, the better.

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