Conflict is at the heart of every story. More than that really, it’s at the heart of every scene. It’s not uncommon for folks to think “conflict” and immediately assume fighting, but it’s not always violent, nor should it be. Conflict is just two things in opposition.
“I can’t make that meeting, I have a conflict.”
Sure, it’s not life threatening, though it could be in the right circumstance. But what it does do is force the person with the conflict to make a choice between them. That’s what’s so great (and helpful) about conflicts.
Conflicts force characters to act.
I talked about the head-butting conflicts before, so this time let’s focus on soft conflicts. These are the smaller moments that can add tension to a scene without turning it into a big melodramatic mess. They’re especially good for character-driven novels where the focus is more internal than external. But they also work well for internal goals and character arcs.
Disagreements can make folks dig in their heels even if they’re not ready to break out the heavy weapons. Mom sending the daughter back upstairs to change out of a too-sexy outfit (daughter wants to wear it, mom says no). Boss making someone work over the weekend when they had other plans. Anything that gets in the way of what the character wants to do. They also give you a chance to examine multiple sides of an issue without it coming across as preaching or infodumping. Two people having an honest debate can share a lot of information in a natural way. You can convey things you never could have otherwise.
Some conflicts are out of love. You want to go to a party, but your best friend wasn’t invited. If you go, you’ll hurt her feelings. Sparing someone’s feelings is a great conflict that might even have huge repercussions later on (remember all those forms of betrayal?). They’re also a wonderful way to mirror a larger emotional issue or show growth (or the need to grow) for a character. Since these are personal, the stakes are naturally higher even if the conflict is mundane. No one wants to hurt someone they care about.
Rivalries and friendly competition can cause conflicts, especially if they start out friendly then turn more serious. But even if it’s a constant one-up-manship, it can still be fun and make the reader curious how things will turn out. Who will get the upper hand this time? And will there ever be a moment when that upper hand matters? They’re even handy to show a skill the character might need later on without shoving it in the reader’s face.
Some conflicts can be all about the funny, like mom trying to put a diaper on a kid who’s running around laughing. Their goals are in opposition (mom wants a diapered baby, baby want to be naked and free) but there’s nothing adversarial here. While funny conflicts probably won’t work all the time (there’s often little to no stakes in this type) it can add enjoyable levity that can work well with more serious moments. A light scene right after a dark one, the calm before everything breaks loose. It can give your character something to do if the scene is mostly dialog and feels static. A funny conflict that distracts your protagonist might allow them to miss something they’ll need later. Or the funny might just be a way to share some aspect of your protagonist and make readers like and care about them. (Opening scenes anyone?)
Try looking at your scenes to see where you might add a soft conflict and improve the scene.
- Can you make two people disagree?
- Can you make anyone else want something different from what the protagonist wants?
- Can someone try to talk the protagonist out of something? Into something? Change their mind?
- Can one person be trying to spare the other’s feelings?
- Can one person be trying to keep the other from finding something out?
- Can someone be trapped between two others and be torn on who to side with?
- Is there a friendly rivalry?
- Does anyone want the same thing the protagonist wants? (In an “only one can get it” scenario)
- Can anyone have/get what the protagonist wanted?
- Can the conflict be played for laughs?
- Is there humor in the situation if two people disagree or have different approaches?
Conflicts are opportunities to act, so make the most of them.
Do you think about non-violent conflicts in your scenes? Can you think of any scenes in your current WIP that would be improved by a little soft conflict? How might your internal goals be strengthen with a little soft conflict?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound