Posted On May 5, 2017 by Print This Post

An Easy Way to Create Conflict in Your Novel by Janice Hardy

Author and blogger Janice Hardy has an inimitable way of explaining things. Today, she tackles the role of conflict in a story. Read on.

One of the first posts I ever wrote for RU (way back in 2013), was on seven ways to create conflict. I thought it might be fun to expand on one of those ways, so today, let’s agree to disagree.

A common misconception with conflict is that is has to be antagonistic. Characters should fight, argue, and plot against each other in the worst ways, but this is just one of the many ways in which you can create trouble in your novel. It’s also one of the least interesting, because with most antagonistic fights, there’s one right side and one wrong side. Usually, the protagonist is on the right side, so all we’re really doing is writing an argument readers already agree with–which might work for reality TV, but it’s not as much fun in a novel.

But friendly disagreements can also create conflict, especially between people who love each other dearly. The disagreement you have with your spouse affects you much more strongly than the one you have with a co-worker you barely know. Having characters disagree on what to do or how to behave offers layers of both external plot conflict and internal emotional conflict.

Conflicts that occur between friends and allies are more interesting because:

The conflict is between characters readers like: When readers like a character, they’re more invested in that character, so the stakes are higher. They care about what these characters think and how disagreeing with their friends is going to affect them and their goals for the novel. They also don’t want to see these characters hurt, and if the protagonist chooses to ignore them, that could cause resentment and bad feelings.

It allows the protagonist to be wrong without the antagonist winning: Having a protagonist who always does the right thing and never steps into the dark side misses an opportunity to show her flaws and weaknesses–but being wrong might have greater consequences than you want for your story. A disagreement with an ally that explores the protagonist’s bad judgment or belief lets you to show the human side of that character. This is especially helpful in stories with strong character arcs rooted in the protagonist’s emotional growth–letting her be wrong shows where and how much she needs to grow.

It keeps characters from being yes-men to your protagonist: If every character agrees and supports the protagonist all the time, they end up feeling two-dimensional without lives or opinions of their own. Remember, even when people agree on what has to be done, they don’t always agree on how or even why. Disagreements let your characters act like real people who can affect the outcome of the plot.

There is often no “right” side, just a difference in opinion: This is my favorite aspect of a disagreement between allies. The ethical gray area encourages readers to imagine what they might do in the same situation. It also lets you examine multiple sides of a problem and show there is no clear path to resolving the issue–which not only makes it more interesting, but keeps the plot unpredictable.

It creates uncertainty in the reader: Voicing different concerns and ideas allows you to plant seeds of what might happen in the story, keeping readers guessing and making them wonder how events will unfold. It’s also a fun way to drop red herrings and distract readers from what’s really going on.

Let’s look at some ways in which characters might disagree and create conflict in a scene:

  1. Choosing the right course of action

This is by far the easiest way to cause trouble between friends, as few problems have just one solution. Let allies disagree on how to resolve a problem or how to deal with a difficult situation. Maybe one wants to take the easiest path, while another recommends the safest, and still another thinks the most expedient is the way to go. Give each choice benefits and risks to keep the plot unpredictable and the tensions high.

  1. How to behave

Character-driven novels can have a lot of fun with this one. Improper behavior could land a protagonist in serious trouble and lose the respect or support of friends and allies. It also gives you a chance to show the difference in ethical or moral beliefs without being didactic.

  1. Deciding what something means

Remember back in school when you’d sit with your friends and analyze what the slightest gesture from your crush meant? Characters can get over-analytical, too. Let the protagonist be sure a clue means one thing while her ally insists it means something completely different. And before you decide who’s right–brainstorm both options and see which leads to a better story (even if neither one turns out to be right).

  1. Opinions of other people

Anyone who’s ever made a bad judgment call about a person knows the pain this can cause. Just because the protagonist is sure the hottie who helped her out is a good guy and worth trusting doesn’t mean her best friend has to agree. This is especially useful when you need a plausible reason not to trust another character (or need to trust them), but none exists. A friend with a bad feeling or an existing prejudice can convince the protagonist to ignore her own feelings.

  1. The seriousness of a situation

Some characters think everything is life or death, while others don’t take a single situation seriously. Allies who think the protagonist is overreacting (or not reacting enough) can sway how she decides to solve the problem she’s facing. Trusting the wrong advice might lead to terrible consequences, which in turn can lead to even more conflict down the road when the protagonist is leery about any advice from that character.

Disagreements between characters is a wonderful way to add conflict to a scene without causing unnecessary (and unproductive) fighting. They can raise tension, further develop a character, and even help with world building by showing how people of that world think and feel.

What are some ways your characters disagree in your novel?

***

UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL

Do you struggle with show, don’t tell? You don’t have to. 

Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you deep into one of the most frustrating aspects of writing–showing, and not telling. She’ll help you understand what show, don’t tell means, teach you how to spot told prose in your writing, and reveal why common advice on how to fix it doesn’t always work.

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) looks at what affects told prose and when telling is the right thing to do. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

Her easy-to-understand examples will show you clear before and after text and demonstrate how telling words change the prose. You’ll learn how to find the right balance between description, narrative, and internalization for the strongest impact. These examples will also demonstrate why showing the wrong details can sound just as dull as telling.

This book will help you:

  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn’t apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

***

Janice Hardy is the author of the award-winning YA fantasy series, The Healing Wars, and the bestselling Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it). Her Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the “editor-in-a-book,” Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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12 Responses to “An Easy Way to Create Conflict in Your Novel by Janice Hardy”

  1. Delighted to be back at RU! Thanks for having me again.

    Posted by janice | May 5, 2017, 7:00 am
  2. Janice – Thanks for breaking down these points so clearly. Conflict is one of those things I struggle with (*sigh* There are so many!) I bookmarked this for future reference. Thank you!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 5, 2017, 10:36 am
    • Most welcome. It’s a tough aspect sometimes, because there are so many layers to it. I’m actually in the final drafting stages of a book on conflict now, and that ought to be out in the summer.

      Posted by janice | May 6, 2017, 7:44 am
  3. Janice, thanks for posting with us again! We love having you!

    I, like Becke, struggle with conflict, how much is too much, at what point does it just make them look mean, and at what point would a simple conversation clear up the whole mess.

    Thanks for a great list of possible conflicts, now I’m going to see which I can apply to my latest WIP and see if it works better than what I’ve got! (And I’m sure it will!)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | May 5, 2017, 2:59 pm
  4. Enjoyed your post, I struggle with the show don’t tell but am learning more and more as I go.

    Posted by Barbara | May 6, 2017, 1:00 am
    • Thanks! At the risk of sounding too promote-y, I do recommend my Show Don’t Tell book if you’re having trouble there. I dig in deep to explain it and provide a LOT of examples and options on to use it in your writing. It will probably help you. At the very least, I have quite a few posts on it on my blog, so you can start there and see if that helps make things click for you.

      Posted by janice | May 6, 2017, 7:48 am
  5. Thanks, Janice.

    A writer can even add conflict with a single protagonist in an isolated setting. The MC’s opinion and actions could waver with changes in weather, food supply, predators, and other non-human external factors.

    Posted by Kathy Steinemann | May 6, 2017, 10:32 am
  6. Hi Janice,

    I have trouble deciding whether there’s enough conflict in a story or if the conflict is plausible. Too much conflict also means there may be too many loose ends to tie up at toward the end of the story.

    Best friends, in addition to being a vehicle for character development, are great secondary characters for the MC to seek advice from. But sometimes, as in real life, those we hold close don’t always want the best us. Look! An opportunity for more conflict!

    I had to laugh about characters being over analytical because I have the same problem.

    Loved your Show Don’t Tell book, especially the ‘progressive’ examples that showed how to tighten a scene and make it stronger. A definite keeper.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 8, 2017, 5:58 pm
    • Thanks! My conflict book is that series will be out in July 🙂 It’s been a lot of fun digging into the topic.

      A conflict isn’t the same as a goal, so you can have a ton of conflict without loose ends. A conflict is just what’s making it harder for the protagonist to do whatever it is that needs doing. External conflicts for the physical tasks, internal conflicts for the emotional decisions.

      Posted by janice | May 12, 2017, 11:40 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] You’ll also want to develop your characters. Luckily, you can start to do this by creating conflict. For example, identify a scenario that your character would hate to be in and make it happen. Remember, though, that conflicts don’t always have to occur between enemies – in fact, raising the tension between two allies can be even more effective, as bestselling author Janice Hardy explains. […]

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