The Importance Of Story Conflict In Novels, by Alison Booth
Are you are writing a novel? If you’re like me, you write because you feel you have to, and maybe like me you’ve got hooked by the escape that writing offers you.
Escape from what? Perhaps from the confines of your own personality, or your own history or your day job.
Escape into what? Into another world, and one that you control. Except on those occasions when your subconscious throws up those gifts that are some of the delights of writing, or those shocks that are the curse.
As an academic, I find there are plenty of conflicts in my day job. In universities, as in any large organisation, there’s plenty of scope for conflict. Personally, I dislike conflict in my day-to-day life. If voices are raised and people disagree, I always want to move as fast as possible to another room. Of course, I don’t, and I see first-hand the antagonist and the protagonist in action. This is not the material of the novels that I want to write, although the principle is the same: the protagonist is aiming to achieve some goal and the antagonist is blocking him or her.
In spite of my aversion to conflict in my real life, perhaps the number one lesson for me in becoming a novelist was that conflict drives the narrative. To involve the reader you have to have compelling characters. To keep the reader involved you have to hurl obstacles in the path of your principal characters and to sow seeds of doubt in readers’ minds that a particular resolution will ever be achieved. It helps if the protagonist and the antagonist are fairly evenly matched in terms of skill, power and cleverness. This maintains the uncertainty of the final outcome and keeps the reader flipping over the pages.
The conflict of your novel can be external. This is the classic protagonist/ antagonist situation. For instance, your hero or heroine may have a goal to stop fracking in their home valley, They are convinced this will spoil the landscape and may make earth tremors more likely. The antagonist, who wants fracking to proceed, might be their father-in-law, or friend, or enemy or any other person who can block their progress toward their goal.
The conflict can be an internal too. Perhaps the heroine has some character flaw, such as too much trust, or a tendency to overconfidence, that leads her to make mistakes, resulting in internal conflicts that have to be resolved in order to move her forward towards resolution.
Suppose your heroine faces a moral dilemma: for example, should she act as a whistleblower when she finds out that her husband is cooking the books at the bank where he’s employed? If she doesn’t do anything, what will happen to all those pensioners whose life savings might be threatened? How would she live with her guilt if this outcome were to happen, when she could have done something to prevent it? Yet, if she does do something, how will she and her marriage suffer as a consequence? This is especially tough because she adores her husband, who has financed a lifestyle she is reluctant to abandon, and she would hate to jeopardise her marriage.
So, when you’re high on the joys of stringing words together to make beautiful images, dialogue, etc., don’t forget the importance of introducing conflict into your work. Every single scene in your book needs to contain some form of conflict, internal and or external, in order to maintain readers’ interest.
For a richer novel, it’s great if you can have internal and external conflict. The characters will be more interesting as a result. Don’t forget that all the conflicts need to be brought to compelling resolutions once the main characters have confronted the obstacles you’ve flung at them along the way. The scene log or matrix helps here, as I discussed in an earlier article.
Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net
Writing Novels in Australia