Revenge or hatred, fear or greed, whatever the catalyst, conflict is at the heart of any story. It is a necessary ingredient to drive your story forward. Take, for example, seeking revenge over a great whale that took part of Ahab’s leg, or the frustration a detective feels as a serial killer gets his hands on another victim. The secrets to writing conflict involve understanding where conflict arises and to build a level of suspense that ultimately resolves the conflict.
But great conflict is broader than the tussle between heroes and villains. Ahab’s real fight is with his inner torment, and in The Grapes of Wrath, it is the environment and society in the form of drought and poverty that is in constant conflict with the families of the depression years.
When anger rises, think of the consequences – Confucius
Conflict cannot happen without your participation – unknown
“You’ve Gotta Ask Yourself a Question. Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
There are important questions to think about: where is the conflict–with whom, and where in the book? How to build conflict? And how do you resolve conflict?
What type of conflict fits your story:
- Character versus:
The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph
A character can be in conflict with themselves and with any number of larger or smaller conflicts. Think of a whistleblower and the myriad of conflicts they have to deal with; the inner struggle of values (questioning the person toll of exposing a truth), the conflict with society (consequences of breaking any laws), friends and work colleagues (being ostracized). By layering various points of conflicts at strategic parts in your story you create dimensional characters that help to reveal who they are–what they’re made of. This layering also adds to the suspense and leaves your reader questioning that likely sustains their interest to the last page.
At specific points in your story introduce a new conflict to test your character. It provides an opportunity for failure. Failure is important. It is important your character suffers; the triumph is all the more glorious. It might sound counterintuitive to say your protagonist has to fail before they succeed. But it’s true, them the rules.
Front loaded for maximum impact
With action, crime and thriller fiction genres, conflict happens quickly, mostly on the first page. The writing tends to be fast and conflict builds with the story and crescendos near the end. To say it’s formulaic misses the point because every story follows the same format.
- Exposition (background information on characters and current situation)
- Rising action
- Falling action
Suspense genre stories build conflict slowly. There might be some dramatic action at the start to engage the reader, but as the name suggests, this is suspense, so conflict follows the plot.
Rock, Scissors, Paper
The emotional resolution is proportional to the level of conflict. Winning a hard-fought baseball game has a different consequence than an epic struggle. The difference might be a milkshake and a pat on the head, versus saving the life of a loved one, or the death of your protagonist. Ask yourself what you want the reader to be left with. I think a good book leaves some conflicts partially unresolved. To me, it has a realistic feel, that the character or storyline lives beyond the last page. However, your storyline needs resolution.
Also published on Medium.