Martin Cavannagh is a writer for Reedsy, a marketplace with tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy’s services.
When you sit down at your desk to plan your novel, you’ll probably first want to sketch out your plot, characters, and setting. That’s a good start — but you don’t want to stop there. Very often, aspiring authors ignore one of the most central tenets of storytelling: conflict.
Think about all your favourite books. Where would they be without their central conflict — whether it’s the struggle between protagonist and antagonist or the personal demons the central figure encounters in their biography?
The conflict is the engine of a story (whether it’s fiction or a memoir), and you neglect it at your own peril. That’s why I decided to investigate the topic more thoroughly. Here are just a few of my favorite tips for building a conflict that will drive your story from start to finish.
Define the protagonist’s goals
Have you ever noticed that the “conflict” in a movie or book could often be resolved with a simple conversation? A common mistake is to create a conflict that’s actually artificial.
To build a conflict that feels organic, go straight to the central nervous system: the protagonist’s deepest goals and desires. True conflict emerges when there’s a fundamental gap between what a character wants and what they’ve currently got.
At any point in your writing process, you should be able to answer this question: “What does my protagonist want and why can’t she achieve it right now?” This is easiest to achieve when you have fully-developed characters in the first place. Take the extra time to completely flesh out the inner psyche of your protagonist.
Understand the six types of conflict
You can boil all the greatest duels in books down into six types of conflict. Don’t believe me? Here they are below:
- Character vs. Nature
- Character vs. Character
- Character vs. The Supernatural
- Character vs. Society
- Character vs. Technology
- Character vs. Self
At some point, you’ll need to determine what kinds of conflict your own story is going to introduce. Will it spring from your character’s relationship with another character? Is it society at large that your protagonist is battling, as in The Hunger Games? Or will your character square off against some force of nature, like the sea or a tornado? From whence will the internal conflict — a key component of your character’s growth — arise?
To make your story compelling, it’s vital that you understand what type of conflict you’re using — and the ways that the great authors have incorporated them into their narratives. Many books are rich with strife, so it’s worth it to take a quick glance at past examples to open a floodgate of ideas.
For more in-depth examples, you can read this article on the six most common types of conflict in fiction.
Line the character arc up with the internal conflict
If your protagonist’s character arc doesn’t is free from internal conflict, then you’ve got a problem. Sure, it’d be nice (albeit unrealistic) for a character to never experience no self-doubt whatsoever. But that’s like staring a still, isolated ocean: nice to look at for a short while, but not interesting enough to stick around for.
You can solve this by aligning your character’s internal conflict with their character arc. Conflicts should introduce some kind of internal consequence. It’s this inner conflict that will bring about the change in the character’s arc. The resolution of this internal conflict will mean the character’s triumphantly arrived at the end of their arc in the story.
Don’t juggle too many conflicts
Why is it that some books pack ten separate arguments into as many pages? In some of the books that I read, the author seems to be thinking, “Conflict! People enjoy reading it. So I will write a conflict on every page.” But there’s definitely such a thing as too much. What’s the point of nine consecutive squabbles over who’s going to take out the rubbish?
Frankly, if it doesn’t move the plot forward or contribute to the character’s growth, it’s probably unnecessary. Nobody would watch a film where people yell at each other for 120 minutes without any build-up to justify it. Avoid it. It’s better to figure out where the meat of the tension is and focus on teasing out that central conflict.
Look in the mirror
Remember that most characters are just like us in the end. They’re people: people who entangle with other people, people who make mistakes. We all need to overcome slings and arrows in order to obtain what we want in life.
On a basic level, this means that you might be able to achieve some realistic insight simply by turning inwards. Interview yourself! How would you approach this conflict? How do you resolve it? Which types of conflict do you encounter in real-life? You may be surprised to discover that the richest source of inspiration is staring at you in the mirror.
(c) Martin Cavannagh