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.

9 ways to brainstorm story ideas

story ideasMany authors are teeming with story ideas, so they just need to pluck one and develop it into a novel. But newbies and even a few veteran authors sometimes falter when finding a story to write.

Here are nine ways to help you think of an idea for your next story.

1.) Observe other people – Go to the mall or the park and people watch. You can pretend to make up stories for the people you see, or perhaps you will overhear a conversation that would be perfect as part of a story.

2.) Sit down and brainstorm – Often the best ideas come from the act of writing itself. Sit at the computer or even with just a pad of paper and let your creativity flow and remember to not pause to criticize what you have written down.

3.) Let your mind wander – This is a variation of brainstorming where while doing a chore like washing the dishes or driving to the store, you simply let your mind wander. Being away from the computer and the stress of trying to come up with ideas might just help you generate ideas or nurture the story line you are considering.

4.) Start with plot – Decide what you want to write about such as a murder, a romance or even vampires and build from there. Or perhaps you can imagine a great fantasy world. Use those thoughts as your building blocks for your story.

5.) Start with character – Imagine an interesting character and then decide what type of adventure you can thrust them into. What type of challenge would be interesting and provide good conflict?

6.) Write what you know – If you are good at swimming or knitting, start with what you know. The main character may have those same interests or perhaps those activities start the adventure. (A woman is murdered with her own knitting needle perhaps?)

7.) Develop an action scene – If you are having trouble coming up with characters or even a story line, try developing an action scene. One good scene to kick off your book can get the rest flowing. Develop the characters and story line around that scene.

8.) Come up with a problem to solve. Is your main character the class clown or the brainiest kid in school? What type of problem would your character face in his or her normal life? Write your story around the problem and a unique way of solving it.

9.) Random drawing of ideas – Pull ideas for setting, plot, and characters from the newspaper, a magazine or even other books. Write each one down on a separate card. Pick one card from each pile at random and then try to create a story from them. While this may not be the story to publish, it is a great exercise to get you thinking.

Hopefully, these suggestions can help you think of your next storyline. The key is to be ready when inspiration strikes. Ideas for stories, dialogue, characters, and plot development can hit anytime, and it’s amazing how quickly they can be forgotten. The easiest solution is to carry a pad and pen with you. Don’t forget to put one on the bedside table in case you wake from a dream with some great ideas.

Remember that the creation of a solid story idea is not an event but rather a process. It takes a lot to take a simple story idea like the one generated with these ideas and turn it into a full, rich story. But every story must start somewhere.

This is the first in a three-part series. Next week: making sure your story idea is solid enough to become a novel.

Staying away from the typical plot or character clichés

As you write, you want your work to be original, but it sometimes is hard not to fall into the old cliches. You have an elderly man as your sorcerer. The witch is an old hag with a wart on her nose. The hero is dashing. The damsel is in distress. You know the routine.

createA cliché is anything that is overdone and overused. These pop up all the time in movies and books. Your best option is to try to avoid these cliches or at least put a new twist on them.

Plot Clichés

Plot clichés are the hardest to avoid as there are only so many things that can happen during a story. The mark of a good writer is to turn that same old plot device into something special.

Some plot clichés: a man/woman loses their memory; tycoon’s son must prove himself; a young girl grows up among horrible family members; the ugly duckling story-line and of course, the love story between two people from the opposite sides of the track.  In romance novels, you have the tough rancher who meets the sophisticated woman from the city, the guy with a past meets the innocent virgin and so many more I don’t want to take the time to list them here.

One of the oldest clichés in fantasy writing is having a prophecy that must be fulfilled. Often this is the driving force that sets the story in motion, and your main character is the “chosen one” who is the only person who can save the world. Legend and prophecy that always come true are not realistic even in the real world (or the world would have ended by now.)

The key to avoiding a plot cliche is to fill your story with fresh, compelling characters and make the story your own.

Character Clichés

Of course you have to be wary of falling into the typical character clichés. The villain has piercing dark eyes, and the hero is a dashing and likeable. The young stable boy is mentored by a wizard or wise old man, the police detective has a broken marriage, and the private investigator has a drinking problem are just a few examples.

Knowing that these things are overdone, doesn’t mean you can’t use them. It just means you need to be more creative. Turn them into something new. Take something people are expecting and change it around. The orphan isn’t the savior but perhaps the love interest. Instead of having your villain either be handsome and charming or dark and menacing, aim for a plain person who no one would even offer a second glance.  No longer do you need to make the heroine a modern-day Barbie doll. Instead instill her with average looks and a truer to life personality.

Remember that your characters should be complex. They need a history, problems, dreams and more. They need to feel real. If your character acts normal and dresses normal, they become just another stock, cardboard character and turn into nothing more than a plot device. Surprise readers by giving them something they don’t expect. The key is to make your characters believable.

Create characters with unique, disarming, funny, or strange traits. Remember they are not made from a cookie cutter. They need real traits and attributes. Go against the norm and make these characters and plots your own.

Testing your plot with a one-sentence summary

elevatorEvery story needs a compelling plot. One good test to make sure you have one is if to sum up your story in just one sentence. This is often called a one line hook, a one-sentence pitch or an elevator pitch. Basically, pretend you are in the elevator with someone (editor, agent or potential reader) and you had only one sentence to get them interested in reading your book. What would you say?

I know that one sentence sounds hard but in the age of Twitter with its 140 character limit, we should be used to reducing down our message whether it is what we are doing or a sales pitch. You can even tell a “story” in just 140 characters. I did that for my local newspaper at Halloween when they asked for “spooky” submissions that were just 128 characters (when you excluded the hashtag).

Here are 2 of mine…

Tap, drag, tap, drag. The harried breathing gets louder as it nears. A zombie? A ghoul? What can it be? Oh, it is just Grandpa.

His fangs lock on the zombie’s neck. Growling, he thrashes his head as he saves me. Never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

I loved the challenge of this assignment and the newspaper published I think three out of the four I submitted. Just last month in an interview I was asked to sum up my story Destiny in just 20 words. It took a few tries but I did it. Here is is…

As the instrument of prophecy, Lina strives to save the Lands while battling the woman determined to take her magic.

Not sure I am using that as my hook but it just shows that it can be done. Remember that your one-sentence summary (pitch) is not the theme of your book. An example of a theme is “This book looks at the thin line between right and wrong.” Your pitch is about what happens.

When writing your pitch you should include:

  • A character or two
  • Their choice, conflict or goal
  • What’s at stake
  • Action needed to reach goal
  • Only mention setting if it is important to the story

Remember to keep it short and only focus on the main conflict. You don’t even need to name your characters. Focus on using strong nouns, verbs and adjectives.

Examples

Summoned – A young woman is drawn from her home into a danger-filled journey that forces her to use her innate magic to save herself and her friends.

From Writer’s Digest:

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone – In order to protect the wizarding world that he has so recently inherited, Harry must prevent the sorcerer’s stone from falling into the wrong hands.

From Rachelle Gardner:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

In the south in the 1960s, three women cross racial boundaries to begin a movement that will forever change their town and the way women view one another.

Now do all stories have to be able to be boiled down to just one sentence – No. There are pieces of work – epic tales – that cannot be shortened into one sentence because there are too many protagonists and stories to be told. But for most authors, their stories can be shortened and this is certainly a good way to verify that you have a complete, compelling story to tell.