One of the first things you learn in writing fiction is that you have to have conflict. Lots and lots of conflict. Without conflict, in fact, you don’t have a story at all.
But there’s a difference between just-any-old-conflict and effective conflict. Effective conflict ramps up the tension and stakes. It moves the story forward and keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Ineffective conflict, on the other hand, leaves readers unmoved.
If you’ve ever sat bored during a car chase or a shootout scene in a movie, you know what I mean. Why were you bored? Probably because you knew the director wasn’t going to kill off the protagonist halfway through the film. True enough. But probably also because the conflict, spectacular though it may have been (cars hurtling through the air! flames shooting all directions!), didn’t impact the story in any new or significant way. The bad guys wanted to kill the good guy…but you already knew that. The good guy didn’t want to get killed…but you knew that, too. In terms of the story, nothing was happening. The only things truly at stake were the poor movie props. That kind of action leaves the viewer with a bad case of the “so-whats”.
In our novels, “so what” isn’t exactly the reader experience we’re going for. But to build effective conflict, first we need to know what purpose conflict serves in our stories. For that, lets look at a definition of story from Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron:
A story is about how the things that happen affect the protagonist.
The “things that happen” are the events that make up the plot. But notice something really important: The plot is not the story. Rather, the purpose of plot is to cause the protagonist to grow and change in such a way that he can never go back to the person he was before. How and why the protagonist changes—that’s what your story is really about.
So what does this have to do with conflict?
Let me ask you this: How easy is it for people to examine their beliefs and habits, their actions and attitudes, and realize: “Wow—all this time I’ve been wrong, and I need to change!” Happens all the time, right?
Hahaha! Of course it doesn’t. Most of us have to be backed into a corner with no way out before it dawns on us that maybe we’re wrong. And even then, we often resist making actual changes in how we think or what we do. Change—genuine internal change—doesn’t happen spontaneously. Not in real life, and not in fiction.
- Hit your protagonist where he lives. If it doesn’t touch on what he wants and/or what he fears, then it won’t mean much to him. And if the conflict doesn’t mean anything to the protagonist, it won’t mean anything to the reader, either. It’s just noise on the page.
- Have a consequence that matters. Consequences can be either positive (something the protagonist needs or wants), or negative (something the protagonist fears.) Whatever it is, it has to be something your protagonist cares deeply about.
So for every conflict, no matter how small, ask yourself: what’s at stake here for my protagonist? What does she stand to lose…or gain? Will the outcome get her closer to her goal? Or set her back so impossibly far, she’ll never succeed? Does the conflict force him in some way to confront the fears and flaws that are holding him back? Most of all, why does it matter to your protagonist? What does it mean to him emotionally?
For example, say your protagonist’s goal is to be chosen for the school math team, even though she hates math. In order to be considered, she has to pass a qualifying test. If she fails the test, the consequence is that she’s out of the running. Why does it matter to her? Because if she fails, she’ll disappoint her mathematician father, whose approval she desperately craves. If she can’t get on that team, he’ll think she’s even more of a nobody than he does already.
To understand what a conflict means to your protagonist, don’t be afraid to explore deep. Conflicts and their consequences don’t have to be life-and-death. But in order to do their job—to cause your protagonist to grow and change—they have to directly impact her goals, fears, and/or flaws. And they have to matter so much to your protagonist that they matter to the reader, too. Because the bottom line is this: No matter how big, well written or cleverly plotted the conflict is, we won’t care unless we can connect emotionally with what’s at stake. Make us care, and we’ll be on the edge of our seats rooting for your protagonist from first page to last.
- The job of conflict in your plot is to bring your protagonist face-to-face with the need to grow and change.
- To do this, conflict has to directly impact the protagonist’s goals, fears, and/or flaws.
- The reader needs to know why the conflict and its outcome matter so much to the protagonist—because then, and only then, will the reader care too.
Christine is giving away a signed hardcover copy of her historical YA Ten Cents A Dance. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
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