The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

This post is the seventh in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

In my series, I recently listed three aspects of your story that you need to develop before writing – characters, setting and plot. I have already covered characters (and a second post on characters) and setting. Today, I want to focus on the plot.

I touched on plot in my earlier post in this series called “Developing your story idea and making sure it is “good enough.”

So, what is a plot? It is a sequence of linked events that revolve around an attempt to solve a problem or attain a goal.

Basically, this means your protagonist (main character) wants something. She wants to fall in love. She wants to stop a war. He wants to escape an abusive relationship, or he needs to survive after his plane crashes in the mountains.

If whatever they want is easy to achieve, then there is no story. You cannot have a story without some sort of conflict. Your characters should not lead carefree, happy lives. They should face problems. They should search for something they cannot reach; they should strive for a goal but be prevented from reaching it.

Conflict is what compels the reader to keep reading to find out what happens next. Whether everything comes out right in the end or not, it is the chance things can go wrong that spurs readers to keep reading.

Since conflict is so essential to your plot, we are going to discuss first internal vs external conflict and then the five types of conflict.

Internal Conflict

An internal struggle is the part of the protagonist’s personality that prevents him from achieving whatever goal he is after. If he wishes to reconcile with his estranged father but feel his father should make the first move, his pride is the internal conflict. This type of conflict can reveal a lot about a character. Do they give up easily? Strive for what they want? How do they react when met with opposition?

External Conflict

An external conflict is something physical that gets in your protagonist’s way of reaching their goal. It could be the antagonist or an avalanche. When creating your antagonist, develop someone with just enough strength to present a solid challenge for your protagonist. Your hero might eventually figure out the bad guy’s flaws, but he is going to have to work to put all the pieces together. It is these plan disruptions that create the conflict in your story.

You don’t have to choose one or the other. There can be both internal and external conflict in your story.

Five Types of Conflict

Character struggles against another character

This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. man, is the most obvious form of conflict. This is when a character struggles against another character in the story. This type of conflict can come in the form of arguments, conflicting desires, or opposing goals. The classic “good guy” vs. “bad guy” scenario is an excellent example of this type of conflict.

Character struggles internally

Sometimes you don’t need an outside force to provide the drama and tension in your story. Your character can struggle internally with their choices. This is also known as man vs. self. This is where your character faces moral dilemmas and emotional challenges. They can be facing a fear or deciding between an impossible set of choices. This could be a moral conflict of having to choose between honoring family verses ones own desires. It is an internal conflict with your character’s conscience.

Character struggles against nature

Sometimes there isn’t a bad guy in the story. Sometimes the struggle is to overcome nature. This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. nature, is all about dealing things outside our control, whether it is the weather or a virus threatening to wipe people out. Stories about the triumph of human spirit over adversity never go out of fashion.

Examples of this could be your character is stuck in a desolate place (mountainside with no shelter, deserted island) or being attacked by wild dogs, birds or insects. They could be dealing with a plague, famine or virus outbreak. This is anything where your character struggles to survive.

Character struggles against society

When someone’s beliefs go against the societal norms, there will be conflict. It could be discrimination or being repressed by societal pressure. In this type of conflict, known as man vs. society, a character or a group of characters fight against the society in which they live. Examples of this could be fighting for your freedom or rights, which are being denied by society. It could be a struggle with poverty, political revolution, or social convention.

Character struggles against the supernatural

This one is usually found in certain genres such as fantasy, horror and science fiction. This is where the character struggles against poltergeists, robots, aliens, magic, or supernatural villains. The main character must have the strength (either internal or external) to defeat the fantastic enemy confronting him or her. Included in this area would be man vs. technology (such as computers or machines) and man vs. fate (fighting against destiny).

Now your story can have more than one type of conflict in it. Your main character may have an internal conflict on whether they should fight against their adversary. Just remember you need some type of conflict to move the story forward and to give tension to the plot. With no conflict, there is no story.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

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