One of the first tenets of successful novel writing is that without conflict, you’ve got no story. Conflict is what keeps the reader turning pages. Without it, your story comes to a halt while you clear your throat, meander around aimlessly, and stare at the wall. In his craft book Conflict and Suspense, author James Scott Bell defines conflict as the clash between at least two, perhaps more, incompatible forces. It can be internal, where a character wrestles with deciding between two antithetical positions. Conflict can be generated by a person (the antagonist) or a non-human challenge (a raging forest fire). It can be small and less consequential (finding money to buy a present for your girlfriend) or large and devastating (a child’s kidnapping). Regardless, experienced writers know conflict is the rocket fuel propelling their story forward and that without it, their characters have no reason to change. And change, as we know, is what underpins any narrative, be it a well-loved fairy tale, a romantic comedy, or a bone-chilling thriller.
So let’s examine how to use conflict to first attract, then engage, and ultimately satisfy your readers.
Identify the central conflict
The overarching conflict in your novel will flow smoothly from your central theme. It arises naturally from the opposing goals, values, or desires, either within your main protagonist (internal), between your POV characters and others (interpersonal) or between them and society or the environment at large (external). Oftentimes, the central conflict will involve all three, as in To Kill A Mockingbird where the main plot revolves around the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The individual conflict is the lawyer Atticus Finch’s struggle to uphold his code of ethics and defend Tom Robinson. The interpersonal conflict arises from the clash between his ideals and the racism of the townspeople and jurors. And finally, the external or societal conflict is the broader struggle in the entire country for civil rights and equality.
Develop the right characters
At the initial stage, when you are creating the characters who will populate your novel, be sure your people have core values that will clash when put into the crucible of your plot. Pinpoint their motivations and personalities, then plunge them into situations in which conflict will naturally occur. For example, you may be setting your story in a workplace, with people in power positions over others, people competing for clients, people who know secrets about higher-ups that give them power, people who are kind to others vs people who will do anything to get ahead. By thinking through these characters in the beginning, with their opposing value systems or status, conflicts will flow organically rather than needing to be forced.
Establish the stakes
Don’t leave your reader in the dark about what your character wants. We need to understand why and how an event affects your protagonist. And there can be more than one conflict in their lives—some may be life and death, others may be temporary but annoying. At first your protagonist may be irritated when a colleague takes credit for her idea; later, when her child needs an expensive operation, that promotion may be much more crucial. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Characters are less concerned with self-fulfillment if their more basic need of safety is threatened by a home invasion or a blackmail theft. And don’t forget that it isn’t just your protagonist who has a stake in the game—every character wants something and it’s when those wants come into conflict that your story comes alive.
Escalate the conflict
The goal should be to increase the stakes as the story goes along. You can achieve this by building on the initial conflict in increasingly serious ways. A fist fight on the playground may escalate to a medical emergency when one child has an asthma attack. You can also escalate conflict by adding a twist or revelation. A tame discussion between parents about sending their child to summer camp can escalate into a raging fight when the husband reveals they can’t afford it because he’s lost his job. Likewise, you can amp up the tension by adding in a new character—a long lost sibling returns to town and proceeds to reignite old jealousies within a family. By continually escalating the conflict you increase the pace of the narrative, creating a sense of momentum and urgency in the reader that keeps them turning the pages.
Show, don’t tell, the conflict
To truly engage the reader, illustrate the conflict on the page, rather than just describe it. This can be done through action (a shoot-out, a car chase, tearing apart a room, burning a letter), dialogue (anything from a mild disagreement to a hurtful argument to a down-and-dirty knife fight), or interiority (the famous devil on one shoulder, angel on the other as the person’s mind argues with itself). The level of conflict can also be subtle or obvious, loud or quiet, hidden behind closed doors or proclaimed to the world. Vary the way you show conflict for better reader engagement.
By adding layers to the conflict, you can make it more complex and interesting. Incorporate both external and internal conflict or add subplots that intertwine with the main conflict. One example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The main conflict centers around whether Gatsby can win back Daisy but during the course of the novel there are also conflicts between Daisy and her husband Tom, Tom and his mistress, and eventually a murder mystery.
As you write your initial draft, keep in mind the need to have conflict built into your narrative. If your beta readers complain about your muddy middles or put the book down half-way through, go back and examine where you can add more conflict or give the current conflict more pizzazz and higher stakes. And when in doubt, go back to the two central questions of any novel: What does your character want and what or who is standing in their way? Make sure that the opposing force is powerful enough and important enough that your POV character has to struggle to succeed. That’s where the conflict lives – and what your readers crave.