Posted On December 12, 2013 by Print This Post

7 Ways to Create Conflict in Your Novel by Janice Hardy

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 thatJanice_Hardy 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. 

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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.

 

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25 Responses to “7 Ways to Create Conflict in Your Novel by Janice Hardy”

  1. Hi Janice,

    I inflate the importance of a minor detail for one of the characters. The other is oblivious to it. My main conflict is money.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | December 12, 2013, 8:38 am
  2. Morning Janice!

    Great to have you back on RU!

    I have the worst time with conflict. =) i DO manage to give my H/H a bad day here and there, and some smaller conflicts, but the hard ones like #1 and #2 I struggle with.

    I’m hoping in my nano novel, I’ve actually managed to pull off #2….making an impossible choice. It didn’t quite come out in the first draft the way I wanted, but now after mulling it over, I think I can make it work.

    Thanks for a great post (again!)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | December 12, 2013, 8:53 am
    • Happy to be back, and thanks for having me again. Impossible choices are my favorites. I get all giddy when I can stick my poor protagonist between two terrible options. Hope you find the perfect impossibilities for your nano novel!

      Posted by Janice Hardy | December 12, 2013, 2:58 pm
  3. Hi Janice,

    I’m always asking myself if there’s enough conflict to sustain the story. I spend a lot of time mulling it over before I start writing. Also, I wonder if a H/H’s inner conflict, when resolved, has to be known to anyone else other than the character themselves and the reader. For instance, if A resolves her issues with her mother, does her love interest B need to know and vice versa?

    Thank you for the excellent examples you’ve presented. Great to have you back.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | December 12, 2013, 4:23 pm
    • I don’t think it has to be known. Sometimes, the character doesn’t even “know” in the self aware sense. They just realize that they’re happy because they did X or now have Y.

      Another character will probably notice the outside results of that inner peace, but if the character doesn’t want to share why, they don’t have to. Whatever works for the story.

      Posted by Janice Hardy | December 12, 2013, 4:36 pm
  4. This is great advice!! Conflict is SO important in scenes. When I go back through during my edits, I try to look where this is lacking.

    Posted by Traci Kenworth | December 14, 2013, 6:02 am
    • Glad it was helpful! It’s nice that conflict can be added during revisions, so no worries if it’s lacking on draft one. Sometimes it’s even easier to do it after the first draft is done where you can see how everything unfolds and where all the possibilities are.

      Posted by Janice Hardy | December 17, 2013, 7:37 am
  5. Thanks for this great post. I appreciate you sharing these tips, and I’ll be studying them as I go through my story.

    Thanks again!

    Posted by Jackie | December 15, 2013, 4:38 pm
    • My pleasure. Hope you find lots of great spots to add more conflicts!

      Posted by Janice Hardy | December 17, 2013, 7:38 am
      • Hello Janice,

        I am currently working on writing a novela called “Nature Walk.” Starts out by a married couple, Johnny and Sally preparing for a vacation, heading up to the green mountains and a nature resort in Vermont. I like writing nature scenes, but I discovered if I don’t create conflict in the nature scenes, the story may not sound as interesting to the readers, because of several pages containing descriptions on what the two characters saw in the resort, like a 1 page description of a magnolia garden, half page of a grove of mountain laurels along a ridgeside, etc. I was thinking the conflict will be the following:
        Once the two head up to the resort, Sally meets one of her friends from Vermont who works at a nursing home, therefore enjoys helping elderly people, while Sally has tender feelings and also likes helping people of that age group. But Sally’s husband, Johnny is against the idea. While on their nature walk, Sally notices an elderly lady who is disoriented and doesn’t have any way home. When she tries everything she could to help her, Sally’s husband Johnny doesn’t do anything but blow up at Sally, in particular. Just unsure on how I will be able to sustain this conflict throughout most of the novela? I was thinking maybe I can find a way to incorporate scenes for the elderly person alone. This elderly character is lonely which is why she went for her nature walk, got lost, then that’s when Sally jumps in to try to help. Let me know your thoughts.

        Posted by Daniel Price | August 4, 2015, 6:54 pm
        • While that will work for the scene, it probably won’t hold up for the entire novella. It’s more an obstacle than a true conflict.

          What does Sally and Johnny want? What is the goal for them going to Vermont? That’s where your conflict will come from–someone or something in the way of them doing whatever it is they have to do on vacation.

          For example, if this trip is to relax, then maybe they keep running into issues that prevent that. Or if this is to reconnect as a couple, Sally being distracted by others causes a strain on their marriage.

          Whatever the “point” of the story is, the conflict will be what’s keeping that from happening, or making that harder to accomplish.

          Posted by Janice Hardy | August 6, 2015, 1:51 pm
          • Thanks for your post on creating conflict for my novela “Nature Walk.” Here’s a brief summary of what I decided so far:
            Funny enough after I posted my previous comment, I discovered that the more logical conflict would be Sally planning the vacation, promising Johnny time alone with the two of them, then she keeps getting distracted or wanting to bring other company along to all the nature tours that Sally and Johnny went on. Finally he flipped out at Sally for getting distracted the fifth time in a row, so she ends up calling him “ungreatful” and leaves him outside in the resort, while it was 90 degrees, at the same time Sally went off to help an elderly lady get home. Johnny skims the whole resort shouting out Sally’s name a million times (sarcasm) but doesn’t have luck finding her.

            Their daughter Jen came up to Connecticut to visit them, Sally later admits to her what she did to Johnny, Jen flipped out and went to rescue him, then decided to take him home with her, not concerned about what Sally was doing.

            He has a project to complete for his doctor job, so Jen offered him to use her computer, forgetting she didn’t have Internet. When he took a taxi home, Sally meanwhile is feeling sorry for herself in a cheap hotel in Connecticut. She left him a voicemail; he plays back the message of her soft voice, getting completely distracted from his work. She called back again, and basically gave her payback by shouting at her for what she did back during the nature tour. That’s about as far as I got; let me know your thoughts on the progress. Thank you

            Posted by Daniel Price | August 11, 2015, 4:33 pm
          • It sounds like you’re on the right track, though it’s always tough to tell with a quick synopsis.

            This strikes me as the beginning of the book, and what triggers the real problem between these two. What happens next with continue the story toward the resolution.

            Based on what’s here, I’d suspect the reason behind them wanting to get away together is to fix issues in their marriage. So the main conflict might be “can this marriage be saved?” and you explore the ways in which it can or cannot.

            Posted by Janice Hardy | August 12, 2015, 11:35 am
  6. Hi Janice,

    A mother abandons her 2-month old baby one night in front of a building. The building manager, a bachelor, was the first to arrive and takes the baby home and raises her. The baby grows up to be a successful woman. After 20 or some years, the mother is hired at the company the abandoned young woman now heads. How can I keep the story moving and keep it a secret, even to the readers, until the end and make it a surprise both to the protagonists and the readers?

    Posted by Work Kebede | November 30, 2014, 4:04 am
    • Ack, just saw I’d missed this comment. Did you still need an answer? (it’s been so long maybe not, but I’m happy to help if you’re still reading)

      Posted by Janice Hardy | August 6, 2015, 1:52 pm
  7. Hi!

    I’m writing a story that’s already got an established first part, but the bit I’m currently on has left me at a bit of a roadblock. The three characters, one of whom can read minds, are on their way to a place they’ve only heard about which they were told would be a safe haven after the events they’ve just been through – but so far, the journey itself has very few interesting moments. I want to come up with some conflict I can use in the scenes to both pad the book out and make it more interesting. Any ideas?

    Posted by Holly | October 14, 2015, 12:10 pm
    • It’s hard to say without knowing anything about the story, but I’d suggest looking at your subplots and/or character arcs. Is there anything there that might happen during this journey? Or you might see what plot events or conflicts happen later that might start here.

      If not, maybe just jump right to when they get where they’re going and not show the journey. If the only reason to add conflict is to pad out the story, odds are it’ll feel like it was stuck in and hurt the tale overall. You’d be better off finding another aspect already in the story to flesh out more if you need to make it longer.

      Posted by Janice Hardy | October 14, 2015, 12:58 pm
  8. Good evening. I’m in the process of working on a novel titled “Garden Valley.” Garden Valley title was chosen as the name of a valley of an improvised public garden. I think I am in a bit of a bind and will need a little insite getting on track.
    Originally, the central conflict of the book is that Anthony, the main character, is struggling to maintain a connection with his paternal grandmother. The novel starts off with Dad promising to take Anthony to his grandmother’s house, but a conflict rose with an appliance breaking that Dad had to cancel the outing. Dad told Anthony to call the grandmother to cancel, grandmother chews out Anthony and says she’s tired of people lying to her and that she couldn’t stand Anthony being close or spending time with his Aunt Norma (the grandmother’s oldest sister.)
    Due to his grandmother’s stern words about spending too much time with Aunt Norma, she tells Dad how mad she is, so dad exempts him from seeing Aunt Norma in return.
    Anthony is a senior in high school; he plans to attnd graduation one weekend, but a series of conflicts rise with his ride running late and the driver getting lost. Anthony talks to Charlotte, a customer who is on the vehicle until the driver gets frustrated with finding Anthony’s graduation place. The driver takes him back home.
    Aunt Norma tries coming over to Anthony’s houst Anthony repeatedly hides his emotions. Aunt Norma sort of forces him to tell her what’s wrong, he tells her how Dad and his grandmother were exempting him from spending time with her (Aunt Norma.) Shes at rage she calls the police and says the father and grandmother were “abusing” Anthony. The cops open an investigation and first charge the grandmother for mistreatment of visually impaired child.
    Meanwhile Aunt Norma’s not concerned what the father or grandmother would say if Aunt Norma and Anthony spent time together, so she drives him to her house. All is well until Memorial Day when Auntn Aunt Norma was seemingly upset about something but doesn’t tell Anthony what it is. Anthony escapes back to his house to spend the night.
    The next day is Anthony’s birthday, a postman arrives to his house to drop off a package sent from Aunt Norma, postman is instructed to drop Anthony at her house for a surprise party.
    Aunt Norma ends up getting sick the next couple days due to driving home with a broken window (it was rainy and windy that night.) Anthony supports her by playing his guitar and offering her foods, he even gets her freezer motor fixed as it was malfunctioning.
    Anthony thought about playing his music at a senior center hoping they would appreciate it; the director at the senior center was very unprofessional that it didn’t materialize. Aunt Norma picks him up from the senior center on that Friday to take him on 4 surprise nature walks to implement old times (he and Aunt Norma were close since 98.)
    Anthony sees an old friend from elementary school, Kara, a volunteer who helped him with reading comprehension. Kara talks about how she volunteers at a senior center located in New Hampshire; Aunt Norma becomes furious when he tells Kara about how he supported her during her sickness that Aunt Norma drags him to the car and said “he had a big mouth.” Aunt Norma ignores him the rest of the evening, so Anthony escaped to a nature sight the next morning without Aunt Norma knowing.
    Anthony meets Leslie, a young, part time worker at the nature resort. She shows him around and develop a relationship, but her boss ends up firing her because she was getting too involved and not following instructions. Kara, the friend from school calls Anthony to tell him about her senior center closing for property development, Kara is sad about leaving her residents and that she wouldn’t be able to take Anthony to the senior center to play for them.

    I guess the question is, since the book is geared mostly around the character Aunt Norma, should the conflict be that he’s struggling to maintain connection with Aunt Norma due to family members disapproving, and because Aunt Norma gets touchy on specific subjects being brought up? Anthony’s coping skill is whenever Aunt Norma’s not herself or available, he’s trying to reach out to older residents roughly Aunt Norma’s age to repair those sad or lonely times. There are only two or three chapters where the grandmother’s mentioned, so she turns out to be more a flat character.
    This was a book I just started writing without much outlining, so I’m unsure what a good climax would be for this book to wrap it up. Let me know your thoughts, please. Thank you
    Daniel

    Posted by Daniel Price | May 13, 2016, 7:33 pm
    • Based on what’s here, it looks like this story is about Anthony being caught between warring family members. I see a lot of conflict and problems in your summary, but no mention really of what Anthony’s goal is or what he wants. That’s where the story’s core conflict (what it’s about) is going to come from.

      Anthony will have a goal and a need, and things in his life are keeping him from achieving those things. By experiencing the problems in the novel (family struggles, based on this summary), he’ll learn the skills he needs and figure out how to solve his problems and get his goal. It’s by going through these issues that he’s able to resolve his goal and problem.

      You’ll have to look at your story and decide what Anthony’s goal and problem is, and how his relationships with his family affect that goal. That’s where your plot will lie, and how all those different conflicts and problems will work together to let Anthony resolve his problem.

      The climax will be the resolution of Anthony’s goal, whatever that is.

      Hope this helps!

      Posted by janice | May 16, 2016, 10:52 am
  9. Good afternoon,

    I’m doing another side project during my spare time, writing a novela while giving my bigger novel a little break, I wrote most of it but just thought of an ending, trying to work my way backwards to additional scenes:
    Clear Stream is a novela in which deals with the recovery of a character Genevieve Parker, an elderly neighbor formerly of the main character, Scott. I have an ending in mind already. The novela starts out by Scott and his father driving to a nature sight I named Clear Stream Park (most of the story takes place in or around the area.) Things are a bit shaky with Scott and Dad; they cannot seem to get along in conversation. Scott speaks his mind, father chriticises him.
    Eventually Genevieve, Scott’s former neighbor sees him with Dad; Genevieve has Scott seated while she tells him a sad story about a senior home closing, thus losing contact with her best friend Irene. Scott admits he grew up in a non simpethetic environment and tries to do his best with comforting her about the loss, Genevieve gets emotional and thinks Scott is being phoney by “saying a bunch of things just because they sound pretty.” Genevieve takes him to her house, shows him a garden project she started 5 years ago in which she adds plants every year. Due to hurting her hip she’s unable to bend over or plant flowers/shrubs in the garden.
    The next day Scott decides to purchase new plants that he would secretly plant in Genevieve’s garden, hoping that would make her day. He and Dad get over heated disagreement about reasons to help or not help Genevieve, Dad thinks she’s too grouchy while Scott is simpethetic toward her loss and hip problem.
    Scott stops at a nursery to buy plants, the worker of the nursery was cold toward him, but Erica, who turned out to be Genevieve’s most neglegent grand daughter assists him with the purchases, then when she finds out who he’s helping, she makes some dirty jokes and talks about how she was “tired” of hearing her grandmother’s rambling.
    Scott escapes and takes a ride to Genevieve’s house, she’s currently not home (Genevieve’s house is across from Clear Stream Park.) He plants the flowers and tried to find his way to Clear Stream Park himself. He gets lost and caught in a rainstorm; he tries to stop a taxi but one driver wouldn’t let him in with drenched clothes on. The cops call Scott to report that Dad couldn’t find him, but he tells the officer the truth about Dad being crytical then hangs up with them.
    Eventually Eleanor, a staff who works at the visitor center of the Clear Stream Park notices Scott’s all alone and offers him help. Her phone goes off; Eleanor who’s friends with Genevieve gets a call that Genevieve got sent to the hospital for hip surgery.
    Eleanor drives Scott to the hospital, they go in to see Genevieve together. Genevieve’s expression turned outrageous to Scott when Scott thought visiting her would make her day; Scott is unsure why her demeanor changed.
    Eleanor offers him rescue by letting Scott spend a night at her house, then they would go on a nature walk she and him. When they were about to leave, Eleanor unexpectedly sees a van arrive with 7 family members all related to her. While Eleanor’s under stress and Scott gets tired of the roudy children, he tries to find a way to escape.
    I would like this novela to end with Genevieve recovered and praising Scott for his thoughtfulness when she notices the garden, but I’m unsure how to work my way backwards from this climax to figure out how the novela could lead up to this climax. Any ideas would be helpful. Thank you.

    Posted by Daniel Price | May 20, 2016, 1:44 pm
    • You might try starting with the end you want and thinking about the steps Scott needs to take to reach that end. Keep working backward until you hit whatever act would put him on that path to end up at the garden.

      Posted by janice | May 24, 2016, 2:35 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] clear about your conflict: how the setting, other characters, or even local and global events slam into your character’s […]

  2. […] Further Reading:  Tips on Creating Conflict in Your Novel […]

  3. […] If we don’t know what a character wants, it’s hard to plot a novel about her getting it. A strong POV has goals and needs, and reasons she wants those goals and needs. This lets us know what that character will do in any given situation, because she’s not waiting for us to tell her what to do. She has opinions all her own on how to proceed and she’ll act on those opinions. Crawl into her head and look through her eyes and ask what she’d do. Then write how she does it. (Try my RU post on adding conflict for additional plotting tips) […]

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