This morning, I had a question from a reader in my inbox. They said they struggled to know whether they were creating enough conflict in their novel-in-progress, and did I have any advice on this? This is what I replied:
Conflict is interesting
So, the thing about conflict is that it’s interesting. It engages the reader. Have you ever been in a public place – on a train or in a cafe – and overheard a couple arguing? You find that you tune into it … because it’s interesting, but also because any kind of conflict is a potential threat to us, which in itself makes us more alert.
This is why conflict is important in fiction: it automatically piques our interest.
Conflict doesn’t have to be big
Of course, conflict doesn’t have to be overblown. Conflict occurs when two or more things aren’t completely aligned.
Unless all of your characters are in exactly the same situation and have exactly the same thoughts and beliefs, there will be conflict. Characters also experience internal conflict, which can be really interesting. Your characters will have desires, and they are likely to want more than one thing; consider if any of things things are in opposition, or how their situation prevents them getting what they want. That’s conflict, too.
Situational conflict can be subtle. For example, your character is tired but they have to get out of bed. That creates conflict between what they want (to stay in bed and sleep) and what has to happen (they have to get their butt out of bed).
Consider the stakes
Keep in mind, though, that the higher the stakes, the more interesting the conflict. In the example above, it would be more interesting if the character had to get out of bed in order to get to the airport, to catch the last flight home so they could make amends with their dying father.
As you can see, conflict also moves the story forward. Conflict forces action (or reaction). And action is plot.
How can you tell if your novel has enough conflict?
It’s pretty tricky. But ask yourself two things about your manuscript:
- Is it interesting?
- Is the plot moving forward?
The first question might be difficult to answer. It might be useful to run your story past some writer friends or beta readers. After all, you want your story to be interesting to others – not just yourself. The second question should be easier to answer. Is stuff happening in your novel? Then something is driving it forward – most likely some form of conflict.
Make sure both of these questions can be answered with a resounding YES.