Monday 20 September 2010


Because readers care and publishers care. So, if you want readers and a publisher - or even just one of those - you must create conflict for us to care about.

Without conflict, there’s no story. That’s not quite true. I’ll rephrase: without conflict there’s no story that anyone would actually bother to read. Therefore, lack of sufficient conflict is a very important and common reason why publishers reject books. Conflict is the thing we care about, that threatens the main character, that the character struggles against. So, whether it’s unrequited love, unrevenged hatred, unatoned remorse, or unattained zen, conflict is central to your book and must be central when you pitch the book. Multiple conflicts (within reason) are also a good idea, because you can solve one fairly early on, giving the reader some pleasure, but keep the others till later, ratcheting up the tension.

Conflict is not literally a conflict between two people. Two characters hating each other does not make a conflict, in the context of a novel. Conflict is what carries and drives the story forward: who will win? Will the MC discover she's being stalked before the stalker kills her? Will the detective find the murderer before he strikes again? Will the woman manage to find strength to leave her abusive partner? Will the boy die of leukaemia or not? Will the girl find the strength to stand up to the bullies / stop taking drugs / speak out about her rape? Will the estranged son find peace with his father before it's too late? Conflict is the struggle in the reader's mind as he desperately wants a particular thing to happen but fears that it won't.

Think of conflict as the obstacle(s) in the way of your hero. The more daunting the obstacle, the greater the struggle, and therefore the greater the excitement and pleasure when the conflict is overcome.

Make sure your conflict is one the reader will believe in and care about. Set problems in the way of the conflict and don't deviate from the path as your characters work around those problems. New plot strand? Is it relevant to the conflict? It must be. Everything in your story should focus on either moving towards or slipping back from resolution of the conflict. The reader needs to worry all the time about whether resolution is goign to happen. Readers should be on the edge of their seats, rooting for the MC all the time, desperate for everything to work out. We do not want to be diverted by loads of irrelevancies. Or even any irrelevancies.

Don’t only think about conflicts in connection with your MC, though. You can also have bigger conflicts: for example, conflicts between races and religions; between good and evil, male and female, emotion and logic, luck and talent, superstition and science, Aristotle and Plato, red wine or white – anything that’s right for your story and your theme.

The conflicts must progress in a controlled fashion. Not in a straight line and not always in the same direction – setbacks will increase tension. But you must be absolutely in control of how quickly, slowly, smoothly or bumpily your conflict develops.

The conflict should worry the reader but also create ambivalence. For example, if the girl needs to break away from the control of her parents, don’t make those parents too starkly awful: paint some different shades so that the reader can see both sides. Things and people are rarely all good or all bad; things wished for rarely bring unadulterated joy; events feared are rarely exactly as expected; death is rarely entirely sad or survival entirely marvellous. Be subtle in the strength of your conflict and in subtlety will be your strength.

But the most important thing about conflict is, as I said at the top, that the reader should care. Different readers will care about different things. An eight-year-old child might care very much about whether she’ll be able to save up for a new Barbie; a grown man won’t. This sounds obvious, but too often writers pitch novels where I question whether anyone would care enough or whether this conflict is anything other than run-of-the-mill. Yes, in real life I care very much whether my family appreciate the casserole I am making this afternoon, and we could well have some major conflict if they don’t, but that doesn’t mean that it’s sufficient conflict for a reader.

Different genres have different needs for conflict, both in terms of level and type of conflict. In a romance, for example, a personal conflict will suffice; whereas in a high-concept thriller, you'd usually need something which threatened or affected a wider population. In a crime novel, you'd expect high conflict, because if a major or violent crime is committed there would need to be not only major motivation but also dramatic fall-out.

So, take a look at your book now. Is strong conflict central to it AND have you made it central to your pitch to publishers? If so, hooray – you’re on your way. If not, back to the drawing board.


catdownunder said...

And conflict is SO HARD - when you really, really do not want hurt the characters! A writer has to be made of tough emotional strength - super industrial strength.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thanks, Nicola, for the wake-up call. It's back to the drawing-board for my WIP.

Ebony McKenna. said...

At the risk of appearing like a barfly (I do leave this blog and come back, I haven't been here the whole time)

I highly recommend Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. Fabulous. Loads of lightbulb moments for me. I was lucky enough to be at the RWAus conference in Sydney this year and enjoyed her workshop.

She summarised conflict as "two dogs fighting for the one bone". Great imagery!

Kath said...

I've added the italics but I think this sentence of yours is sending me back to look at my WiP: "Conflict is the struggle in the reader's mind as he desperately wants a particular thing to happen but fears that it won't."
The best books always keep me guessing whether the situation will be resolved or not, no matter how many times I re-read them.

I now need to make sure mine does the same, and, as you also point out, I have to write the conflict with my reader in mind and ensure that they'll care about it and that it fits the genre.

Thanks for the post, Nicola. I'm going to have a fresh look at my work.

Marisa Birns said...

So very well explained. I remember reading once that best conflicts force a character to choose between two basically good outcomes.

Dan Holloway said...

Lots of people talk about Dwight V Swain and other how-to writing books in relation to conflict. But there is absolutely none better than the account to be found in Kierkegaard's marvellous The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage (part of Either/Or, the best bit of art criticism since and possibly including Aristotle).

The thesis Kierkegaard outlines is that the Aesthetic is characterised by its continuous conflict with time. He went on to explain that, whereas some obstacles and battles are external - our fights with dragons and quets for gold), the Aesthetic has internailised these battles, and deals with the subject's struggle for a History, the battle with, and not just to persist but to change over time - to fight against stasis. Philosophers amongst you will notice a lot of Kant and hegel in those uses of space and time, but the principle he is making is one that not only helps us to get to grips with meaningful (readable) conflict, but with the previous topic of plot devices, and to distinguish between the kind of events that drive the story on and those that simply form "one damn thing after another" as I believe the parlance goes. To make the idea even more useful perhaps to Kierkegaard's constant struggle to exist in and over time, we could add a little of Dylan Thomas' rage against the dying of the light shooting back at our character from the horizon, and we'd have a skeleton onto which we could fit pretty much anything and make it readable

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post, dahlink. I wish every reader could see this before they query.

Anonymous said...

D'oh! I meant writer...not reader. Ugh, I need a keeper.

Fran Hill said...

Yep, that's great advice. I say it all the time to the kids I teach, and then don't make sure that I'm doing the same. I will try harder and give myself a detention if I don't.

Nicola Morgan said...

All - thanks so much for your comments. Sorry I haven't been replying. I've been away and also horribly snowed under. I've been reading all your comments but just not responding properly.