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!
There are two drivers for novels; character and plot. Character-driven stories are those where the character’s actions and reactions drive the story forward and fuel turning points and happenings. Plot driven stories are where the focus is on the actual incidents and happenings that propel the story forward. Creating dynamic characters using a basic practice is what we are focusing on with this article.
The Four W’s
When it comes to fleshing out character, one of the basic ways to do it (and I still think it’s the best way) is to nut out the four W’s of that character. For a very good resource on character development, try Debra Dixon’s book on the craft of writing, Goal, Motivation & Conflict – it holds the best instructions and explanations for creating your characters. It’s well worth the investment!
Who is your character? Deciding on a name is often like sticking a note to a corkboard with a pin, it anchors the important information in place. Once you have a name, think of a descriptor that accurately portrays the traits and/or roles of this character. For example: John McClane from Die Hard could be described as your rogue cop. William Wallace from Braveheart could be described as your determined warrior. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada could be described as your disdainful autocrat. I’m going to create a character for the purpose of this post. His name is…Max. Max Brooks. Max Brooks, protective father.
What does this character really want? World Peace? The antidote to the poison they’ve been injected with? That job promotion? A secure home for his/her child? Mr. Right? What objective is your character working toward? I usually break down the ‘what’ of a character even further into two categories – want and need.
- Want: The clear objective that your character defines on their own. Sometimes this is also called an external goal. It’s something tangible, and like any form of goal-setting in the ‘real’ world, there is success when the objective is reached, or failure if the objective is lost. It can be self-serving (job promotion/antidote), or self-sacrificing (world peace/safe home for family) – either way, it’s something that the character can get – or not.
- Need: The deeper yearning that drives your character. Maybe it’s complicated, like finally getting the approval from your mother, or simple; proving your independence to yourself. Either way, these are emotional, subjective needs that will signal growth and development for your character if/when these needs are met. You can have multiple wants and needs, but for today, I’m going to use just one. So, using my character Max as an example: Max wants: the antidote to a poison he’s been injected with. Max needs: To provide a safe, secure home life for his son
Why does your character want what s/he wants? This is the part that creates the most fun for me as a writer. This is where you create a backstory for your character, and where you give your character the motivation for their actions and reactions. Again, answering this question for both internal (subjective) and external (objective) goals creates believable motivation for those goals. It’s also where we channel Tom Jones – Why, Why, Why, Delilah…? Again, using our hero: Max wants an antidote to the poison – why? To save his own life. Why? His wife is dead, and he’s the only living relative for his son, Chad. He needs to be there for Chad. Why? Because he never had a father figure, growing up. His mother struggled to provide a safe roof over their heads, they ended up living on the street for a while, and he saw things, experienced things that he doesn’t want his son to see or experience. He wants to see his son grow into a healthy adult. He needs to save his own life, and in doing so he saves his son’s life.
See? It’s kind of like twenty questions, only you get to make up the answers. By continually asking why you create a more compelling, in-depth character.
There has to be some problem or issue, some roadblock that prevents your character from getting what they want – otherwise your novel is a dead-boring read. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, why bother reading the rest of the story. Boy meets girl, and they live happily ever after – zzzzzzz. Where’s the excitement? The tension? What makes the reader sit up at night and wonder – oh, heck, what’s going to happen next? Will they or won’t they? What is the complication, the conflict your character faces that stops them from achieving their goal? Again, conflict on an external (objective) and an internal (subjective) level adds not only dimension to your character, but suspense for the reader. Our hero, Max, can’t get the antidote because the person who injected him with the poison has it, and has now disappeared. Yikes! By not getting the antidote and saving his own life, his inner need to provide a safe, secure home for his son will not be met. He’ll die…or will he?
We’ve also introduced high stakes – life or death… but we’ll cover stakes (and how to raise them) in a later post.
So, in a nutshell:
Who is your character, what does s/he want, why does s/he want that, and why doesn’t s/he achieve that right now?
We’ll be covering these elements in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, good luck and get writing!
I do not play soccer. In my family, that’s not just unusual, it’s almost a crime, and spawns many a long conversation on the supposed merits of the game at family gatherings.
There is something about the thrill of the game, the smell of the fresh air, the warmth of the sun on my head that I’m just not really enamoured with. Maybe because it’s a winter sport and I’m freezing my tush off watching kids run around a muddy pitch – then have to wash muddy clothes. Or maybe because ‘they’ schedule games close enough to sparrow’s fart on a Saturday morning when most folks would prefer to be reading the paper over a leisurely breakfast. Maybe.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to the game, or any sport. I think team sports are important, fitness is important, developing coordination skills is important. I enjoy watching my kids’ efforts, I enjoy cheering them on, regardless of who scores, and I love that they develop resilience. I occasionally kick a ball around, an activity that is both enjoyable and satisfyingly destructive if the wrong window gets in the way. But perhaps because I attend so many games and watch them with an enquiring eye, I’ve learned something.
Soccer is not so different from writing a book.
Why do people play any game? It comes down to the thrill of the competition, of pitting oneself against the odds to triumph, and the satisfaction of knowing you rule the soccer pitch, if only for one Saturday morning. There are the obvious benefits – fitness, hand-eye coordination, and the in-your-face fist pump when you score that goal (we’ll call this external motivation).
Then there are the less obvious benefits, the communication one learns and shares with playing in a team, working together, learning to offer assistance and accept aid, as well as the confidence and satisfaction one gets from being active. There is the joy of winning and the crushing disappointment of losing. We’ll call this internal motivation.
There may be other factors at play, also – your opposing team member may be the bully or ‘ace’ student at school and you finally have a chance to show them what’s what… Or maybe you do this because your father is a massive Bend It Like Beckham fan and you don’t want to disappoint him, or your friend does it, and it’s a way to get out of the house and hang with your mates, thus avoiding chores… either way, this motivation contributes to backstory, and having a compelling and relevant backstory makes any book interesting to read. Just like soccer, though, when information emerges over the course of a season, so too must backstory be threaded through the course of a novel, and not in one info dump (otherwise you’re that kid – or parent – on the sideline that everyone avoids talking to).
In a game of soccer, you have two opposing forces (teams). In writing a book, you generally have at least two opposing forces (a protagonist and an antagonist, or for a romance, your hero and heroine may be your opposing forces).
Either way, that’s conflict.
Each side has a clear objective. In soccer, the objective is to score a goal, and hopefully prevent the other team from scoring a goal. In writing, your character/s must have a clear goal, and in a good, compelling story, those goals will also be counter-productive.
When you have counter-productive goals that work directly against each other, that’s GOOD, STRONG conflict.
In reaching your clearly stated objective in soccer, you may run into another player (literally). In writing, your character must run into obstacles. For a number of reasons:
• Nobody wants to watch a boring, one-sided game, and nobody wants to read a boring, obvious book.
• When you really have to struggle to achieve that goal, victory so much sweeter and exhilarating.
• The more your character struggles, the more your sideline supporters (readers) cheer on that character.
• The more your character blocks or is blocked by an opponent, the more tense the game becomes.
In a soccer game, the ball is kicked back and forth, changing direction with a calculated strike or a careless bump. Just like the soccer ball, your plot bounces from one direction to another, based on the actions of your characters. Without this constant movement, or plot direction, the game is over, and spectators go home.
This constant movement of the ball creates tension in the spectator as well as the player – will they score this time? Will it get near the goal posts? Will that kid with the bleeding nose stop the ball with his face again? In writing, the to-ing and fro-ing creates tension in the reader, as well as the character. And just like in a story, when one goal is scored, either by one team or the other, it raises the stakes – will the other team come back and equal the score, or possibly win? What is going to happen next? How will this game end?
And as with any book, in soccer there are peaks and lulls. Tension ramps up before a goal – and regardless of the resulting mini-climax, there is always the decline in tension, only to be ramped up again at the next goal opportunity, and then the next. Also, tension ramps up with any clash or conflict, until the ball is kicked out of that tussle and the immediate conflict is over – until the next time.
The entire team are your supporting characters, each acting independently, with consequences for each action. Each character has virtues and flaws, and these traits can contribute to conflict between characters on the same team – he’s a ball hog and won’t pass, or she doesn’t want to get hurt and won’t fully commit to a hustle. If you’re lucky, they’ll eventually get their act together and work cohesively in accomplishing that goal. And if you’re not lucky – well, I guess you’re not writing a Happy Ever After.
Your Goalie can be your hero – and your villain, depending on your perspective. If s/he is on your team, and they block a goal – Hero! If you’re on the other team – villain, and vice versa when the roles are reversed. Each team/character has an entrenched view that is constantly under challenge, and with each practice, each opportunity to develop that skill, there is character growth. Each team member has an opponent – this creates balance on the field, and good, strong competition. Just as your hero must have that opponent that challenges him/her.
And like soccer, it isn’t over until that whistle blows – there is always the chance that things can get better – or worse.
And when the game is over, hopefully those supporters will happily come back for your next book.
Okay, put your hand up if you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution, and then promptly forgotten it, only to realise in a blind panic in November that you’ve done nothing you’d planned to do in January…
Yeah, I see you.
I’m a list person. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll agree. They may even use the ‘anal-retentive’ or ‘obsessed’ phrases in conjunction with this statement. I’ll just leave it ‘list person’. I like making lists for a very good reason – if I don’t, I’ll forget something. Okay, I’ll forget a lot of things, for example; the milk, or paying bills, the release date of my new book, a guest blog post, or ordering the swag of author goodies… the list could go on (pun completely intended). I mean, even Santa has a list. Two, actually.
I also set my goals – writing, lifestyle – no portion of my life is safe from this exercise. The pleasure I get from crossing an achieved goal off my list makes me wonder if I might have a problem, but I’m not ready for therapy, yet. But I know at this time of year, we all do some sort of life-affirming nod toward organising a better life for ourselves over the next year, and while listing what we want to do may seem easy, delivering on that promise to ourselves is something we sometimes struggle with. (I’m using the royal ‘we’, here, folks.)
Here’s a trivial factoid: People who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.
So, instead of blabbing on about my customary S.M.A.R.T. Goal-Setting session, I’ve decided I’m going to try a different angle, by using a writing tool – G.M.C., and using it for Life Strategies.
Goal, Motivation and Conflict is an insightful book written by Debra Dixon – a very, very smart lady with a knack for explaining the basic building blocks for creating great characters and great fiction. If possible, I now have an even deeper appreciation for Han Solo. If you’re interested in writing, regardless of the genre, then this is a book you must have.
In essence: Goal – what does your character want? Motivation – why does your character want it? Conflict – why doesn’t your character have/get it?
Or, as I call it, the What, Why and Why Not?
Again, I can’t stress what an awesome resource this book is, and I’ll go more in-depth about it another day, but for now, how can we use the GMC writer’s tool for life strategies?
Goal: What is it that you want? To lose weight? To spend more time with friends and family? To quit smoking? To get out of debt? Identify your own specific goal, and make it specific. For more tips on setting goals, read my article on S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting.
Motivation: Why do you want what you want? This is possibly one of the most important aspects of writing – why does the character want that job/artefact/guy/gal/treasure/evidence? How has their experience and core values interlinked to set up a desire? Motivation is a reflexion of the complex moral fibre, so identifying your motivation is a good way of ensuring your goal is in keeping with your own moral values – if it’s not, or if it contradicts your own core value system, then you will naturally resist accomplishing it. For example: Do you want to lose weight to look good? Or to be fit and keep up with the kids? Or for your own self-assurance? Identifying why this goal is important to you will help it ‘click’, or resonate, and will strengthen your resolve, particularly when you reach a hurdle. This is what will drive you through the tough times, knowing why it is so important to achieve that goal.
Conflict: Why not? What is standing in your way to achieving your goal? For example, if losing weight is your goal, but your partner keeps stocking the cupboard with naughty munchies, this creates conflict for you. If you want to stop smoking, but always find yourself surrounded by those seductive cigarettes in other people’s hands, that’s going to create conflict. So is shopping if you’re trying to get out of debt. Identifying the conflicts, those ‘hiccups’ that naturally oppose and prevent you from attaining your goal, will give you some insight into your own character – will help you identify potential weaknesses, or areas that require just a little focus, or a little tweaking, to resolve that conflict. Figuring out why you can’t get/do what you want is part of the way to reaching your goal. Knowing what you’re facing, and planning a way around it, past it or through it is in itself a success.
And yes, here comes that old chestnut: Failing to plan = planning to fail. Get some insight into what makes you tick with your personal goals, and get strategizing to insure success.