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Building Better Novels Through Conflict

Are your conflicts important and interesting?

It is no secret that conflict drives stories. The conflict may be clear and specific (a meteor is going to destroy the planet!) or understated and perhaps not even overtly discussed (Ed feels like a failure). Whatever the case, conflict is at the core of any story. Something should be or absolutely needs to be resolved, and dealing with that conflict is what the story is about. Because of the central conflict, a number of smaller conflicts emerge. Here are some central points to consider when approaching conflict in a story:

Why does it matter?

What about the conflict in the story makes it important, both to the characters and to the reader? When the meteor is approaching earth, there’s a pretty good reason to try to resolve the conflict. Death is on the line. A planet in peril is a major conflict.. But most story conflicts aren’t quite that easily identified with. For example, if you write about a forty-year old man who is committed to losing fifty pounds and running in a marathon, you have to come up with a reason why it is important to the man. Perhaps he has started to feel as if his life is routine and that he running out of time to accomplish something. That is the conflict. You also have to come up with a reason and why it is important to the reader. Should they like this guy? Do they think accomplishing the goal will be meaningful to him?

What can be gained or lost?

When you start out with a simple desire, such as the marathon, there has to be consequences and rewards. There are obvious benefits to the man getting in shape and running in the marathon. There is a sense of accomplishment to be had, and there are clear health benefits. There should also be consequences both for success and for failure. Clearly there is an emotional cost to failure. Not managing to accomplish this goal could mean that the man feels more like a failure than when he started on the journey. He may also risk physical injury. There is also the genuine risk that accomplishing his goal may not be as satisfying or life-changing as the man initially thought it would be.

What are the smaller conflicts that result from the central conflict?

When you have an overall conflict, such as self esteem issues and a lack of interest in life, which a person is trying to solve (by running in a marathon) there are going to be other conflicts that occur as a result of the central conflict. For example, the man’s wife might be overweight and resent the fact that he is trying to improve. She may be indignant or she may even try to sabotage his attempts by bringing home sugary or fatty foods or trying to find other ways to occupy his time. There may also be conflicts at work because the man isn’t working the overtime hours that he used to. There are also the aches and pains of running as well as the temptations of abandoning his goal in favor of an easier life.

How will the conflict be resolved?

The resolution of a central conflict can make or break a novel. There is, of course, the possibility of defeat. Not every conflict gets resolved favorably, even if the expected outcome arrives. We’ve already discussed the idea of consequences for victory as well. The man may complete the marathon but lose his wife or his job, for example. The resolution must matter to the reader. If the reader has stuck around for 50,000 words, only to meet up with a resolution that either doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel earned, the reader is going to be upset. If the conflict matters, than the resolution must feel logical and earned.

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