(Okay I have to start out by begging your pardon for the corn-tastic play on the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign. I couldn’t help myself. )
Today I’m talking about conflict in your story (once again referencing the fab Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict).
So just what is conflict?
Conflict is the reason a character cannot achieve her goal. It’s the thing that stands in her way. And it’s absolutely necessary in a story. A story without conflict is boring with a capital “B”. No one wants to read about characters who get everything they want. We want characters to have to work hard for their happy ending, just like we have to.
On the other hand, too much conflict can get overwhelming. The heroine’s mother dies, her dog gets run over by a truck, her son is kidnapped, the hero is wrongly accused of murder: at some point it may become too much for a reader to handle. That’s the point where the reader puts the book down and walks away. (And lest you say this never happens, just recently I put down a story without finishing because all the conflict was stressing me out. At a certain point it was no longer entertaining. My own life is stressful enough.)
So what kind of conflict should a story have?
- External conflict: there definitely needs to be some of this, whether it’s a bad guy or bad luck.
- Internal conflict: sometimes the heroine gets in her own way. There are emotional roadblocks that stop her from achieving her goal, and she will be forced to face her demons. Stories with a lot of internal conflict tend to be very deep and powerful.
Some hints for creating good conflict within a story:
- Petty squabbling between characters is not conflict. If there’s a real problem between the characters, that’s one thing. But if they’re just arguing for argument’s sake, that gets boring pretty quickly. It doesn’t take the story anywhere.
- A misunderstanding between characters (for example, the heroine sees her boyfriend leave his ex-girlfriend’s house early one morning and assumes he spent the night with her) is a weak conflict. Readers tend to become frustrated if it becomes the whole basis for the story. (Have you ever read a book where the characters have a simple misunderstanding that could be cured by honest communication? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Why can’t they just talk to each other?)
- You can use your setting to heighten conflict, such as a thriller written in a creepy old town.
Do you have a favorite novel that expertly combines internal and external conflict? If it’s one you wrote, please do share.
I really loved Larissa Ione’s Pleasure Unbound. Not only was the hero in the throes of a life-altering change (external conflict), but it was one that was sure to prevent him from running his demon hospital (his ultimate goal). Unfortunately the only way to prevent this change was to bind himself to someone, yet the woman he wanted was adamantly opposed to being claimed due to past circumstances, and he didn’t want to force her (internal conflict). That’s some strong internal and external conflict.