Monday, April 23, 2018

Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the more common reasons why a story isn't working is the lack of a strong conflict.

Without conflict there is no story. No matter what the story is, you can boil it down to “protagonist wants something and someone or something is standing in the way of that.” The novel is about getting past that person or thing to resolve the conflict and earn the protagonist their goal.

As simple as that sounds, it’s not always so clear when you’re looking at your idea. Ideas are often more concept than plot, a great premise without a solid story yet, and the conflict at the core of that idea is fuzzy. Your instinct tells you it’s there, but critique partners or even agents just aren’t seeing it.

In most cases, the conflict isn’t strong enough yet, or it’s not clear what the actual conflict (and problem) is.

No matter what type of story you have, your novel’s conflict will come from one of four areas. If you’re not sure which one best fits your idea, ask:

Is someone actively (or unknowingly) working against your protagonist?

Then you probably have a Person vs. Person conflict. Someone is keeping the protagonist from whatever it is they want. For example, the killer wants to remain free and eludes the detective trying to catch him. The evil warlord is sending minions to kill the hero and stop her from saving the world. They might not always know they’re interfering in the protagonist’s life, but they are.

If this is your conflict: You’ll see a character in the story who is plotting or acting to cause trouble for your protagonist. They might not appear in the story, but their actions are felt nonetheless. If you removed this character from the story, your protagonist would have no problems getting their goal or resolving their problem.

To strengthen a Person vs. Person conflict, look for ways to:
  • Make the problems between protagonist and antagonist more personal
  • Cause the external and internal conflict to be mutually exclusive or in some way incompatible
  • Make resolving the conflict require crossing a personal line the protagonist doesn’t want to cross
  • Make the protagonist face their greatest fear or use their greatest weakness in order to win

(Here’s more on creating conflict in your novel)

Is there a flaw or personality trait keeping your protagonist from getting what they need?

Then you probably have a Person vs. Self conflict. Sometimes the problem is the protagonist and their behavior or beliefs. For example, the party girl who won’t admit she has a drug problem. The commitment-phobe who bolts at the first sign of real intimacy. They’re creating their own problems and only they can change their behavior to achieve their goals.

If this is your conflict: You’ll see a personality trait or behavior that’s causing your protagonist to be unhappy or not get what they want. The character flaw is the problem, and overcoming that flaw is what changes that character’s life. If you describe your protagonist as being their “own worst enemy,” odds are this is your conflict.

To strengthen a Person vs. Self conflict, look for ways to:
  • Make the external problems reflect the internal issue the protagonist is struggling with
  • Give the protagonist a symbolic antagonist that represents their issue
  • Show the consequences for failing to overcome this issue

(Here’s more on Person vs. Self conflicts)

Is the world at large or some aspect of society causing trouble for your protagonist?

Then you probably have a Person vs. Society conflict. Protagonists suffering under the rules of society don’t typically have a nemesis or person “after them,” they’re just one of many oppressed or hurt by the way the world is. For example, the man who has minutes taken off his life every time he’s late. The woman who gets stoned to death when she’s chosen for the annual sacrifice. It’s something that affects many people, so it isn’t personal or unique to the protagonist.

If this is your conflict:
Your protagonist is a victim of something inherent in the society, usually a law, rule, or tradition. Life is unfair, and the protagonist (in most cases) decides they aren’t going to take it anymore and fights back. It’s not uncommon to have a person who represents “society” or what’s wrong, even though that person is just doing their job and has no personal issue with the protagonist.

To strengthen a Person vs. Society conflict, look for ways to:
  • Show how the society is causing trouble or hurting the protagonist
  • Give the protagonist a personal reason to fight the system
  • Show how changing the status quo will make things better (or worse)

(Here’s more on Person vs. Society conflicts)

Is your protagonist fighting against the natural world in some way just trying to survive?

Then you probably have a Person vs. Nature conflict. When nature is the problem, it’s more about survival than victory. For example, the man who must divert a river to save a town. The team who must brave the wilds of Alaska to find a lost child. Mother Nature is keeping the protagonist from their goal and it’s not about “beating” the other person.

If this is your conflict: Your protagonist is facing something in the natural world, such as a storm, geological event, plague, animal, etc. It’s something that can’t be reasoned with or tricked, only survived or circumvented.

To strengthen a Person vs. Nature conflict, look for ways to:
  • Escalate the stakes as the natural disaster or situation grows
  • Add a personal element that affects the protagonist
  • Surround the protagonist with likable characters readers will worry about (and go ahead, kill a few off)

(Here’s more on Person vs. Nature conflicts)

Knowing where your story’s conflict comes from makes it easier to plot and develop that story. You’ll have a better sense of the types of problems, obstacles, and challenges your characters can face, and how to best raise the stakes and weave in any internal conflicts that will make decisions harder (and thus more interesting for readers).

What type of conflict is your work in progress? Do you know where your conflict comes from?

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. I like seeing the different types of conflict spelled out.

    But I have a question. How important is it for the primary conflict to be identified on the very first page? When should the primary conflict be introduced?

    I've been building up to the primary conflict chapter after chapter. Yes, building tension with other conflicts related to the primary.

  2. Thanks for these pointers, Janice. My protagonist has two conflicts going on but I admit they aren't as colossal as they probably should be. Your suggestions for strengthening to conflict are going to help.

  3. Hi Janice,
    Am I trying too hard if the first section of my novel involves a person vs person conflict, which then sets off a self conflict (mental health issues) and then culminates with a person vs society conflict (protagonist lost in bureaucratic red tape against the health system that should be looking after her)? BTW, I didn’t mean for it to end up so complicated; it’s based on real life!