Writing 101: Conflict Basics
What is internal conflict? What is external conflict? What other types of conflict are there? How do you set up conflict in a novel? How do you sustain that conflict?
If you’re just starting out with writing a book, conflict is one of the most important – and most challenging – elements to grasp.
I love conflict (only in my books, of course). I love the way it can put your character through the crucible, and have them emerge as a purer essence of themselves. I also love the potential for drama in humour that conflict can create. Conflict is such a critical aspect of writing, and it’s such a huge topic, I’ll cover it over a number of posts. This first post will look at conflict basics – what it is, and what it isn’t, and the two main categories that conflict falls under.
So…what is conflict?
Simply put, conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces.
Think…Two people applying for the same job…Cinderella and the stepsisters fighting over Prince Charming…Taylor and Brooke wanting Ridge…or cops and robbers – one wants to apprehend, the other wants freedom…
Conflict then becomes the basis of suspense: which force will triumph?
Without conflict…nothing happens. We can pick up our bat and ball and go home, because nothing is happening. No crimes or mysteries to solve. No relationships to resolve. Police are superfluous. So are superheroes (I know, gasp).
Conflict drives the plot of your story. In the beginning, something happens and creates a story question. For example, in a romance, boy meets girl. Story question – will they somehow get their Happily Ever After? Conflict: Boy doesn’t like girl. In a murder mystery, someone dies. Story question – will the detective figure out who the murderer is? Conflict: Murderer frames another suspect for the crime. In a fantasy, the Least-Likely-To-Succeed must complete their quest. Story question – will they find their Holy Grail or enable/disable the prophecy? Conflict: The evil witch is sending her minions out to destroy the Least-Likely-To-Succeed.The conflict is the issue that immediately prevents that story question from being answered within that first chapter – and keeps us reading.
Good conflict creates doubt in the reader. Doubt creates curiosity, and with that comes suspense. If the conflict is simple, if resolution is easily conceived and thus easily achieved, then it doesn’t really create doubt – and we stop reading. If it’s obvious from the start that Boy likes Girl and Girl likes Boy – well, they will get their Happily Ever After. If it’s obvious who the murderer is…well, then there’s no mystery. And if the evil witch and her minions are disorganised and ineffectual, than Least-Likely-To-Succeed…succeeds. End of quest.
Note: Conflict is not an argument. It’s not based on a misunderstanding that can be cleared up if only your characters would really talk: You ran away because you left the iron on, and not because you’re afraid to commit? Ooooh. Great. Let’s get married. (End of conflict, end of story.)
So…how can you create conflict?
Well, as stated earlier, conflict is the complication that prevents your character from obtaining what they want. It’s the begetting of trouble.
For example: She wants children – but doesn’t have a suitable partner who can get her pregnant. No partner = conflict. Story question: Will she get her children? He wants the promotion – but so does she. Rivalry = conflict. Story question: will he get the promotion, or will she? Superhero wants to save the world – but supervillain wants to take over the world. Opposition = conflict. Will s/he save the world?
Over the next few posts, we’ll look at internal and external conflict, and the different variations of conflict, and ultimately how to use conflict with plotting.
For now, good luck and get writing!