When I started the McDaniel program over a year ago, I came in without any formal (or informal, for that matter) instruction about writing fiction. I’d neither taken a creative writing class, nor studied the basic elements of good fiction. In other words, I was a blank slate, which is great in some respects because there weren’t any bad habits/knowledge I had to purge from my brain. But it’s bad when my instructor tells me to identify the goal, motivation, and conflict for my protag and antag…I was left saying, “Huh?”
Of all the things we covered at McDaniel, conflict was one of the topics that tripped me up the most. (Well, okay, so did goals and motivation, which go hand-in-hand with conflict.) I thought I knew what conflict was. I mean, I read romance novels, right? Those books are chock-a-block full of men and women arguing about something or other. So okay, identify the arguments between my characters and I’m set.
That initial conflict assignment was a wake-up call to me. First, it told me I didn’t know shit about fiction writing. Second, I didn’t know shit about conflict.
Before discussing what conflict is and isn’t, it’s important to know the two ingredients required for conflict: goals and motivations. What does each character want? Why? Your characters’ pursuit of their goals will drive the conflict. But that’s another blog post for another day.
So, what is conflict?
It’s when one character’s actions to achieve their goals interferes with another character’s actions to achieve theirs.
Here’s what it isn’t:
An argument or some such discussion that could be resolved if the two characters stopped being so obtuse.
I’ve read plenty of books where two characters go in circles about some stupid and inane topic simply because one of them isn’t cutting off the other with, “Wait, stop. This is silly. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: _____. What is it that you’re saying?”
Conflict should also not be confused with trouble. Trouble is when something happens to your character that wasn’t done by your antagonist. Cinderella getting a tear in her dress is trouble. But her stepmother slashing her dress so she can’t go to the ball? That’s conflict.
Here’s an example from my current WIP (a Regency historical) of some of the conflict between Susannah, the protag, and her uncle, the antag:
- Uncle tells Susannah she’s to marry the man of his choice (his action based on his goal, which is to get rich from her large dowry that he’ll split with the man she’s marrying)
- Susannah puts herself on the marriage mart to find her own husband and marry in name only (her action to circumvent her uncle’s action and to keep her goal — to the best of her ability — of not getting married [a marriage in name only is her only way around this because of other factors])
- Uncle finds out she’s courting other men and forces her to stay house-bound with no visitors (his action to circumvent her action; uncle figures she can’t court any men if she’s unable to be social)
- She manages to get out of the house and heads for Dover, intent on sailing for France (her action to circumvent his; if she can’t find someone to marry, she’ll leave England…for her, this is a last-ditch effort to avoid marriage to her uncle’s choice of suitor)
Sometimes the conflict comes from two directions. For example, my protag, Susannah, has conflict with both her uncle and the man investigating her uncle for treason. Both men take actions that prevent her from achieving her goal, and she must take action against both of them to achieve hers.
Another thing to know about conflict: it can’t be against something that can’t fight back, like time (although time can be a constraint on conflict), or a thing/situation (such as a lack of carriages going to Dover that day). It has to be against something that can respond in kind. Anything else is just a difficulty.
So what’s the problem with not having conflict in your book? Without conflict, you have no rising tension, no crisis point, no point of no return…nothing. You have two people with perfectly uninteresting lives, just going about their day with no issues, and that’s boring. Even two characters arguing through the whole book is boring. There’s no action. What makes a book so engaging and difficult to put down is each character trying to circumvent the other to get what is their heart’s desire.
To that end, conflict should be in every scene. I struggled with this a lot in my current WIP. If there’s no conflict, then why is the scene there? Are you writing infodump? Backstory? Things You Think The Reader Must Know? That’s not what scenes are meant to do. Each scene is a step up the mountain towards the climax, and conflict serves to escalate the tension as the characters reach the peak. It doesn’t mean that each scene has to have super-intense conflict or major, life-threatening actions (although those can be good), but there needs to be a battle, however minor, of two characters’ goals and their resulting actions, which create conflict.
- Conflict is when one character’s action blocks another character’s goal
- Trouble is not conflict. Did she simply get a tear in her dress (trouble), or did someone else tear it to prevent her from going to the ball (conflict)?
- Conflict is not an argument or misunderstanding. It’s not something that can be resolved if two people stopped being obtuse and talked it out.
- Conflict cannot be against something that can’t react (time, a thing, a situation).
- Conflict must be in every scene. It must escalate throughout your book.
I highly suggest you check out Deborah Dixon’s book GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. It’s excellent and has some great exercises for helping you identify your characters’ GMC.
So, resolve in 2014 to put conflict front and center in your writing. You will be one step closer to writing a novel your readers won’t want to put down.