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

Starting a novel…

So you have decided to write a novel. Before you sits a blank screen. For some that brings excitement at the unlimited possibilities but for others it can be intimidating. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand.

I decided to post on this topic as I just published my latest work – The Heir to Alexandria – last month, and now I too am at this point. I am ready to begin my next novel.

Cartoon Characters uid 950048Now before you start typing your novel, you will need to do some planning. I am not saying you need to figure everything out but without a plan, your characters will just meander around.

You need a direction. Your characters need a direction.

Without a goal in mind, a plot becomes just a haphazard series of events with no meaning or purpose – one that will leave the reader wondering, “What was the point of that story?” (Or perhaps you will spend additional hours editing and cutting out all those scenes that didn’t actually add to your story.)

Before you begin to write even one word, I suggest you consider working on these three topics at a minimum.

Conflict/Plot – Basically, you will need to decide what your story is about. Conflict is what drives your story. You should be able to write down the conflict in just one sentence. (For more on conflict, check out my post on the seven types of conflict.) You also need to consider whether your plot idea has what it takes to last through the length of a whole novel. Not every idea will be worthy of a full-length novel or even a short story.

Setting/World – You need to know where this story is going to take place. If it takes place in the past, you will need to research not only the location but customs and styles of that time. If it takes place in a fictional world, you will need to spend some time developing this world. Even if you are writing a story that takes place in your hometown, you need to make sure you have planned out where everything will take place and know all the details of those locations. It is knowledge of these details, whether they make it into your story or not, that will allow you to bring the reader into your character’s world.

Characters – Don’t just give your characters a name and start writing. You need to get to know them. You need to know their history, their personality quirks, you need to know what motivates them. This is a must for your main characters, but you should develop at least some basic knowledge for the supporting cast too. Again, this development of characters will show in your writing.

As I said, I am currently starting my next novel. I am working on the overall plot/conflict right now. I want a strong storyline before I develop my world or continue developing the characters I already have begun. (Right now I just have the basics of two main characters.)

All of this may seem like a lot of work. And it can be a daunting task to start a new novel. But with planning – the laying down of a foundation – you will have a better chance of following through with writing a publishable novel.

Conflict drives your story

People uid 792345Every story needs some form of conflict. Without conflict there would be nothing to drive the characters and plot forward. It is the character overcoming obstacles that supply the drama, the suspense, the tension in the story.

There are 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. You 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. 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 goes 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 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 poltergeist, 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.

The need for conflict in your story

fightingA story without conflict is…well, boring. You cannot have a story without some sort of conflict.

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

Conflict in fiction is easy. Conflict is opposing desires, mismatches, uncertainty, deadlines, pressures, incompatible goals, uneasiness, tension. Your character wants something and other events, circumstances or people intervene to make achieving that goal difficult. The conflict could be obvious such as a dragon attacking a village or subtle such a boy struggling to grow up in an abusive home.

Just remember that without conflict, noting happens in your story. 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.

There are two types of conflict – internal or external.

Internal

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. An internal 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

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.

A good story will have both big (an innocent man facing prison) and little (an argument between a couple on where to have breakfast) conflicts as well as external and internal conflicts.

Dramatic Action

As your hero strives for their goal, many obstacles may get in their way but not all of these are conflicts. You don’t want to confuse dramatic action with conflict. If your main character walks down the street and is confronted by a rabid dog, that is not conflict. Unless the dog prevented that character from achieving a specific goal, then the situation is merely dramatic.

And while you want to instill emotion, tension and conflict throughout your novel, every scene in your novel doesn’t need to be dramatic. Someone who faces major life decisions in every chapter becomes unrealistic and tiresome.  Each conflict should drive the story forward and not be included because it is thrilling or suspenseful.  Too many plot complications can ruin a story.

So as you write, concentrate on the struggle in your story. Your character needs choices to make and the chance to evolve. Without these, your story isn’t going anywhere.