Friday, August 11, 2017

How to Create Conflict in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Without conflict, you have no story.

Ideas are easy to come up with, but it's not always easy to know what to do once we have them. The tough part is figuring out how to turn those great ideas into a story and then a plot. Conflict is often the key to that, since figuring out where the struggle lies also tells you who has the most to lose and who might be in opposition.

Back when I was first brainstorming The Shifter, I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of healing, and I wanted to give healing consequences. I'd never seen healing portrayed in a negative light, and I figured there was a bad side to everything, so why not healing? I thought it would be fun to explore the downsides of something so inherently good. It was the seed of the idea, but I was nowhere ready to write the novel with just that. I didn't have the conflict.

My original story idea (written down years ago) was about evil pain merchants looking for pain. They put it in a box and someone in their group had a nasty plan to use that box and do bad things with it. They found a boy who could shift pain, and they used him to help them in their evil plan. As weak and vague as this was, the core idea still intrigued me.

Finding the Conflict Within Your Story

To find the conflict, the first thing I did was step back and start world building. I loved the idea of a culture that bought and sold pain, and someone who could shift pain between people. This talent had to be a bad thing, but I didn't know how yet. Understanding how the culture worked would help me figure out how this talent could be used and misused.

For any story, I think this is a key element to your conflict. Someone needs to be hurt by what's going on, but someone also has to benefit (it can be the same person, too). It also shouldn't be black and white good vs evil either, because that's makes it too clear which side is right, so the story becomes predictable. If it's ambiguous, then there's more mystery as to what might happen. Mystery is good, as the reader won't predict what will happen and thus be compelled to keep reading.

(Here's more on an easy way to create conflict)

My worldbuilding led to the creation of pynvium, a magical metal that could be enchanted to hold pain. This magical technology had good and bad aspects, so it created conflict in how someone chose to use it. The positive use was to hold pain and facilitate healing, and so the Healers' League (my world's hospital) was born. The negative side--pain merchant culture--evolved after that. All that pain-filled metal had to go somewhere, and selling pain-filled items for both weapons and defense seemed a logical step in such a world. Naturally, where money's involved, there are people who would abuse the system to get it. At this point, I had a culture with the potential for good and ill surrounding a particular skill and resource. I was close to my story now, but something was missing.

The conflict.

This is where some writers dive in and start writing. They'll have a cool premise, but there's no protagonist with a problem driving the story yet. They end up with various characters going about their days and causing trouble (or causing good), but without someone stuck in the middle, there's no conflict to wrap a plot around.

(Here's more on the four classic conflict types)

Conflict-creating tip: Think about the personal aspect of your story at this stage. Who can benefit, and who can be hurt from the situation? Where is the story's conflict going to come from?

About this time in my story's development, I was watching TV and saw an ad for a rerun of Firefly. I loved this show, and a piece of the characters' history is that they fought on the wrong side in a war for independence. I knew instantly my story was set in a city that had failed its own war for independence, and that the resource that caused that war was pynvium.

Now, I certainly didn't copy Joss Whedon, but I couldn't shake the idea of a city yearning to regain their freedom under enemy occupation. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and even if you are inspired by something popular, you can still make it your own and make it fresh. I started thinking about who'd be left behind in that situation, and how they could be taken advantage of in the culture I was creating. The people trapped in this conflict.

War orphans. Kids left behind after their parents were killed, struggling to survive in an occupied city that didn't want them. But after a war, Healers would be in short supply, so any kids with healing abilities would be very welcome, and be offered a life a normal orphan couldn't get. A very desirable life, and filled with potential conflict. Help the enemy or struggle to survive? Heal the sick or let them die? Show mercy to the children of your enemy or destroy them so they can't rise up against you later? Conflict existed everywhere.

I finally had a culture ripe with inherent conflict. I just needed some poor soul to stuff in the middle of it.

Conflict-creating tip: Look for a protagonist at the center of the problem. Who is caught in the middle? Who faces the toughest choices or the hardest challenges? What are those choices and challenges?

My protagonist began to take shape. She was someone trapped in this situation, but on as many level as I could plausibly achieve. She'd have flaws, bad history,  and world views from this war that would color and affect every judgment she'd make throughout the story. Everything she did would be a struggle, but that struggle would also be personal as well as external. Her life would be hard, but the reasons would matter to her in a personal way that simply moving away won't fix. Her personal conflict would mirror the setting's conflict.

Along came Nya, a war orphan who could heal, but couldn't sense pynvium or put pain into pynvium like other healers. She had the skill to heal, but not the rest of the ability required to be the Healer she longed to be. To add insult to injury, I gave her a little sister who did have the right skill, and who was being offered everything Nya wanted.

This is when the whole story and plot-driving conflicts came together. Not only did I have a setting where day to day life was hard, but a situation where Nya's dreams were unobtainable. Having a sister who was obtaining that dream gave Nya some inner conflict as well. She both loves and envies the only family she has left. Very powerful motivators.

All I had to do now was create a situation where the very thing that kept Nya from her dream, was the one thing that could save her sister--her pain-shifting ability. But to go down that path would force Nya to make some very tough choices, and do things she believed was wrong. Who wouldn't make sacrifices to save their little sister? Especially when they had no other family. So I created an incident that set the whole thing in motion, putting Nya's talent at odds with her goals (the conflict). Making her sacrifice what she had to get what she wanted. (Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out what).

From a story structure standpoint, I applied the conflict to Nya's goals. I could have given her a ton of tasks and had her run into all kinds of miscellaneous problems, but the story wouldn't have had the same impact. The conflict is what makes the story interesting and worth reading. Narrowing what Nya, forcing her into that conflict made everything she did have matter more. She really only has two driving goals in the whole story: survive in a rough world, and save her sister. Everything she does is driven by a desire to achieve one of those two things in some way, but the conflicts put those goals at odds on a regular basis.

Conflict-creating tip: Think about how you can tie your conflict to the main goals driving your protagonist. Find ways to put your protagonist between rocks and hard places that also create compelling conflict. 

The core conflict in The Shifter is that Nya has to save her sister at the risk of her own freedom. However, just saving a sister was pretty clear cut, so I wanted to make doing that problematic in ways that weren't just "bad guys get in the way." And thus, the moral choices appeared from the internal conflicts Nya faced--use her pain shifting abilities to hurt people for a greater good. No matter what choice she made, she faced a conflict with a consequence. And no choice was obviously right or wrong.

(Here's more on creating core conflicts)

Creating strong conflict does take work, but it's worth it. You end up with a much more layered plot, deeper story, and every action and choice the characters make have far reaching consequences that could (and do) affect what happens at various points in the novel.

What's your novel's conflict? 

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow! This was a great post - it sounds so easy in this post, but I am assuming that it didn't feel easy while figuring out your story!

    When I used to write (waaaay back in high school), I would start with world-building and creating side characters with back stories...and then find a hard time coming back to the main story. I have trouble with writing conflict and digging deeper!

  2. Thanks so much! It's interesting that so much of the "writing" happened internally, before you ever typed Chapter One at the top of the page.

  3. Glad it helped :)

    Epic Rat, my first novels were all over the place. I had characters and subplots out the wazoo. Took a while to get to this point, but so much of writing is like that. Have to do it wrong before we get it right ;) (by the way, I e-mailed you about your other comment)

    Anon, I do a ton of pre-work before I start. I've found knowing who my characters are, what they want, and what they have to do to get it before I start writing makes the writing so much easier. I can let the characters be themselves and they do most of the work!

  4. Another question: Did you have the other two books planned out initially, while you were writing the first? Or did you see the potential for a trilogy only when the first was finished?

  5. I did the first as one book, but about halfway in I saw where the story could go. I mentioned in my query that is was a stand alone, but could continue as a trilogy. When Kristin was submitting it, she had me write up a synopsis for book two (two pages) and one for book three (half a page) so editors could see where the story would go. It worked cause I sold all three!

  6. Congrats! Your story is inspiring!

  7. Hello! I found your blog on Absolute Writer Water Cooler, I had asked the question about whether people edit as they go or wait until the end and really appreciated your answer and then got sucked into reading your very helpful blog! Then, I'm a regular follower of Kristin Nelson's blog so what a surprise that she posted about you! This was really helpful and I love your posts and since you write fantasy I was wondering if you could do some posts about world building. I'm thinking of asking this question on the boards, but you explain things really well and I've read Orson Scott Card's excellent novel about creating worlds, but that's not so much my problem as how to weave it into the story so that it's seamless and invisible and not an info dump. Any words of wisdom or advice would be greatly appreciated because your novel sounds FASCINATING and I can't wait until it comes out!

  8. Thanks all! Shorty411, sure, I'd love to do some world building stuff. If you're interested in that, a good friend of mine blogs about this pretty regularly, so check out the TalktoYouinverse link as well (it's in the links section on the blog). She's a linguist, so she has some very unique takes on the subject.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation! I did look at it when one of your posts mentioned her workshop. I did a little poking around and she seems like a fascinating person :) Thanks again! Also, do you know if you're going to go on a pre-publication tour at all before the release of your book?

  10. I saw you mentioned on Kristin's blog this morning and thought the title sounded familiar, then I went to the AW water cooler and figured out that this was Danthia! How cool that you got Kristin as an agent. I'll be looking for the book.
    AW handle --adktd2bks

  11. Yep, that's me! I feel pretty lucky to have Kristin. She's great.

    Shorty411, I know I'm doing a bunch of PR stuff, but I don't know any details yet. I do hope to do a blog tour though, and pop in on everyone online. I'll post here and on the website (soon as I finish it, bad me) when I have more details.

  12. Awesome post, Janice. Makes it sound easy (though I know from close up that it's not!).


  13. Really helpful post, especially as I'm finding myself needing to take off a few days or a week to roll up the sleeves and figure out some major details in my plot.

    I really appreciate the "deepen" the plot vs "widen" the plot note.

    Really an awesome, very useful, insightful blog. V helpful. Will seriously be keeping your advice in mind. (Not least as I'm carrying notes from it in my little journal now, too.) :)

    (btw, I'm errantruth at AW)

  14. Awsome article, you helped me a lot in my quest for becoming a better writer. I'll be a regular guest on your blog :)