How do you engage the reader and keep the pages turning? Conflict. We welcome back author and blogger Janice Hardy who shares her tips on creating the most important element of a story.
Great to have you back, Janice!
Conflict is at the core of every novel–so much so that the plot revolves around the “core” conflict. Without conflict to drive a plot, scenes fall flat, fail to hook readers, and go nowhere.
But conflict isn’t always about fighting or putting the protagonist face to face with the antagonist. It’s just two things that happen to be at odds with each other. You want to go swimming, but you don’t want to get wet. You want to tell your best friend a secret, but you know she’s a terrible gossip. You want that new car, but you need to pay rent. Something is in the way of what you want and that issue has to be resolved before you can have it.
Because of the variety of conflicts available, creating conflict in your novel is easier than it looks. Simply put an obstacle in the way of what your protagonist wants to accomplish, either on a physical or an emotional level.
Here are seven ways to create conflict in your novel:
1. Force a character to face a fear
The woman terrified of heights is not going to want to crawl out on a ledge for anything. Putting the thing she needs most out on that ledge forces her to do just that or she fails. Consider what your protagonist is afraid of and what she might never, ever, think of doing if it involved that fear. Then look for ways to make her do it.
2. Offer an impossible choice
Choices move the plot, but impossible choices make the protagonist work for it. When there’s no clear answer, and both choices have terrible consequences, readers know something about the story is going to change and the stakes are going up–two solid ways to keep readers hooked. How might you force your protagonist to make an impossible choice?
3. Make someone go against their beliefs
We all have lines we swear we’ll never cross, but what happens when we have no other choice? The pacifist who has to resort to violence to get what she needs, or the mother who puts her children at risk for personal gain. Look for places where you can test your protagonist’s beliefs, and where they might fail those beliefs.
4. Keep secrets
Distrust and uncertainty can make a character second guess everything she does, which can lead to mistakes and bad judgment. Even more fun, is a character who has a secret and is actively working against the protagonist–even if no one but the author knows it. Think about what your protagonist doesn’t know or who might be holding back valuable information.
5. Have bad days
Ever had one of those days when you swore the universe was against you? Characters can have those days, too. Red lights when the protagonist is in a hurry, small annoyances that pile up, little things that cause big blowups later. The small problems aren’t always what causes the conflict, but they affect the protagonist’s emotional state and that makes this work. Being in a bad mood or at the end of your patience means an impaired decision-making process. Look for way to heap small annoyances onto your protagonist so when she needs a clear head to make a critical decision, she doesn’t have one.
6. Allow disagreements
A best friend who thinks the protagonist’s plan is a bad idea provides just as much conflict as a showdown with the antagonist (more actually, because this one is more personal). Conflict can come from friends as well as enemies, because not everyone will blindly agree to what your protagonist wants to do. Give your secondary characters their own strong opinions and let them butt heads with the protagonist.
7. Get emotional
The more personal something is, the harder it can be to walk away and let it go. Hitting a character’s emotional hot buttons can turn a mild debate into a marriage-ending fight. An extra bonus, the more personal the obstacle in the protagonist’s way, the more likely the reader will care about the outcome of that struggle. Consider how you might deepen any personal connection your protagonist has to the goals and obstacles in your scenes.
Conflicts keeps your plot moving, and the more varied you make them, the more unpredictable the story will become–and an unpredictable plot will keep readers guessing, eager to know what happens next.
What’s your process on maintaining conflict in your story?
On Friday, December 13th, we welcome author Pamela Mingle.
Bio: Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, BLUE FIRE, and DARKFALL. Her first book on writing, PLANNING YOUR NOVEL: IDEAS AND STRUCTURE, comes out in January 2014. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
- Are Your Stakes High Enough? with Janice Hardy
- How to Save Your Story from Slumping in the Middle by the Writer’s Relief Staff
- Janice Hardy presents: Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware
- C.J. Redwine – How to Escalate Conflict in Your Novel
- 10 Ways to Create Vivid, Compelling Characters, by C.J. Redwine