Creating Conflict with a Purpose

Conflict. No one likes conflict. Except, of course, readers of fiction. And, one hopes, writers of said fiction. Why do I say “one hopes”? Because I’m surprised by how many manuscripts I edit and critique that have very little to no conflict in the story. And conflict is crucial.

I might even be so bold as to say that if you don’t have a strong element of conflict inherent in your story, you don’t have a story worth reading (or writing). And this is why conflict is one of the four essential corner pillars in constructing a novel.

We’ve been delving into this year-long course on novel construction, which will thoroughly examine the twelve key pillars or elements you must have in your novel to provide that solid support so your story holds up. To create a lasting work of fiction that stands the test of time and scrutiny, all the pillar supports must be strong and in proper place. And there are four primary supports, which we’ve begun looking at over the last couple of months.

We’ve covered the first two: concept with a kicker and protagonist with a goal. And now we’re going to dive into conflict. But not just any ol’ conflict. Sure, you want to have all kinds of conflict going on in your novel, and we’ll be talking about that in upcoming posts. But what needs to be pointed out first, before going any further, is that conflict has to have consequences.

Layers of Conflict

I could spend months talking about conflict and stakes. The two need to go hand in hand. What point is there in showing characters arguing, for example, if there is nothing at stake? Does it serve the “interests” of the plot to have a husband and wife arguing over what restaurant they will go to for dinner? Without something at stake, something of “value” on the line for those characters, the answer is no. Conflict without purpose (which I’m going to pair with “stakes”) only takes up valuable real estate in your novel without accomplishing anything of importance. Throw that scene out. Or rewrite it so the conflict serves a purpose.

Without getting too off track here, note that there are layers of conflict in life, and so our novels should have them as well. So, yes, there can be places for small conflicts that accomplish small essential things in your story. Not all conflict has to be huge.

One Primary Element of Conflict

But amid all the various conflicts your characters will face between the beginning and ending of your novel, there should be some central conflict that poses the main opposition or obstacle for your protagonist. Obstacle to what? By now you should know that answer—the goal your protagonist is trying to reach.

Put simply, the conflict with high stakes is intrinsically tied in with your protagonist’s efforts to reach her goal for the book. We looked at how that goal needs to be set up right away in your novel—a twofold goal made up of a visible plot goal and a “spiritual” goal the character reaches at the climax of the book (both in the same scene). If you missed this, be sure to read these posts here and here, for starters.

It’s been said there are only a small handful of basic plots, and some tout there are essentially only four—all described by the conflict inherent in the story: man against man, man against nature, man against society, man against self (and of course you can substitute “woman” in all of these). In a sci-fi novel like I, Robot, you can even have man against machine. But the operative word here is against.

Let’s take a step back and look at the word conflict. One definition Merriam-Webster’s gives is “the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.” Anything that opposes your protagonist and that gives rise to dramatic action in conflict. The tendency for many is to conclude that the central conflict in a novel must be a person, who is presented as the antagonist. And in many novels, that is the case. But conflict doesn’t have to mean one individual.

Conflict Is All about Your Protagonist’s Goal

As implied by these classic plots, conflict can come in other forms. The key, though, is that the conflict must be tailored such that it poses the highest stakes possible in regard to your protagonist attempting to reach his goal for the book. And tied in with this, which we haven’t explored yet, is the underlying theme of your story.

We’re going to dedicate a whole post just talking about stakes and what those are. But for now, spend some time thinking about your story. Have you determined what the central conflict element is in your novel? Once you know what your themes are (why you are writing this novel and what “take-home message” you want to give your readers) and what visible goal your protagonist is after, be sure the central conflict inherent in your story creates the greatest opposition possible, with the highest consequences.

In your second checklist you are asked some questions about your protagonist and her goal. How can you make things worse for her, even impossible, as she tries to reach her goal? What or who can oppose her that could force her to risk everything she wants and loves? If you tailor your conflict to create the highest stakes possible for your protagonist, you are on the right track to constructing a strong corner pillar in your novel.

Any thoughts so far on conflict with high stakes? What is your novel about, and how does the central conflict you’ve created present the greatest challenge possible for your protagonist?

Construction checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Featured Photo Credit: Stephen Poff via Compfight cc

15 Responses to “Creating Conflict with a Purpose”

  1. CC Riley March 19, 2014 at 2:27 am #

    It’s funny how important conflict is in novels and how anti-conflict I am in real life. My last WIP fell flat because of a lack of conflict, and even worse was the fact that I was 75k words in. I am loving your posts on the 12 pillars of novel construction and I love your Construction Checklists. I’ve been looking at them with my current WIP in mind and have found some interesting twists to include! Thank you!

    • cslakin March 19, 2014 at 6:46 am #

      I’ll be talking in a future post about why conflict is good for us and how we need it in our lives! Something to think about!

  2. Matthew Eaton March 19, 2014 at 3:37 am #

    Another good one is the inner conflict too as far as the goal of the character versus the “easy way.” That’s always rich with internal strife and conflict, though I am not sure if that’s meant for a different entry.

    I’ve decided to tackle a novel with some of both. It should be an eye opening experience since I’ll be conflicted while writing it too (I have a hard time keeping up the drive and desire to write novels).

    Thanks for sharing this with us, much appreciated!

    • cslakin March 19, 2014 at 6:45 am #

      I’ll be going deep into inner conflict in upcoming posts. Stay tuned! Inner conflict is crucial to have in every story.

    • cslakin March 19, 2014 at 6:45 am #

      I’ll be going deep into inner conflict in upcoming posts. Stay tuned! Inner conflict is crucial to have in every story.

  3. Dana March 19, 2014 at 6:11 am #

    I’m really enjoying this series and it’s been so helpful to follow along as I rewrite my novel (which had begun as a revision). I graduated an MFA program five years ago and while I loved my professors and enjoyed being surrounded by talented writers, I feel like this kind of practical instruction was missing from the program. Maybe they assumed we knew this stuff already but it seems like a disservice in a way. I’m grateful for blogs like yours that offers such detailed and helpful advice.
    -Dana

    • cslakin March 19, 2014 at 6:44 am #

      Thanks, Dana, I love this topic, and these corner pillars are hugely important. The posts coming on conflict should really challenge writers!

  4. Destination Infinity March 19, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    What is your opinion on this (as told by a popular writer) – “Conflict is inherent in character, not created by situation.”

    Also, Literary Fiction is one genre that doesn’t necessarily have high-stakes conflict. Or does it?

    • cslakin March 19, 2014 at 7:16 am #

      Conflict comes from lots of sources, and the best novels have high conflict internally and externally, literary novels included. No, there is no set rule to any of this, but conflict generates interest, and the more levels of conflict, the better. Five more posts will go deeply into this. Stakes are all tied in with what is important to the characters.

  5. Traci Krites March 19, 2014 at 7:28 am #

    This series is just fantastic!!

  6. Carol Cassara March 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    I’ve always enjoyed a bit of conflict. Some of the best outcomes result from calculated conflict, in my opinion.

  7. Richard Brawer March 20, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    I ususally have at least two conflicts in my novels, one with an event and the other between the male and female leads.
    Richard Brawer
    http://www.silklegacy.com

  8. Karen Albright Lin March 20, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    Enjoyed your post. It’s always great to have reminders about the importance of conflict in our work. I’ve always thought in interesting that we create in our books exactly what most of us try to avoid in real life. Sometimes that is a problem for my coaching/editing clients is that they are too good on their characters, as they are good to people in their lives.

  9. Norah Jansen March 22, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    These posts are the highlight of my learning week. Thank you.

  10. Heather Hayden August 1, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Loving this course so far! Not quite caught up yet but working on it every day and learning a lot. 🙂

    Out of curiosity, are you referencing I, Robot, the short story collection by Isaac Asimov, or a novelization of the I, Robot movie starring Will Smith (which was inspired by Asimov’s work)?

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image

Yes—you CAN make a comfortable living as a writer. But you need a clear plan!
Enter your email to grab my proven 4-step system for mapping out your career (and you'll also get my useful twice-monthly updates!).

Yes—you CAN make a comfortable living as a writer. But you need a clear plan!

Enter your email to grab my proven 4-step system for mapping out your career (and you'll also get my useful twice-monthly updates!).

Awesome! Check your email for your free guide.