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?