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How to Create Conflict in Your Novel

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 3 29 2021 How to Create Conflict in Your N

Conflict is the most important element in any story. Without conflict, everyone is happy, and who wants to read about that? Your readers want to follow a story with characters who are tormented by internal or external sources of conflict. How your characters respond to conflict is what makes for a gripping read.

It’s the push and pull, the “will they” or “won’t they,” that cause your readers to stick with your story until the end. If the story becomes predictable or has no conflict, there’s no reason to continue reading it.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to create and effectively use conflict in your novel.

What is Conflict?

Conflict in your novel

Conflict occurs when a character can’t have what they want. It boils down to this:

Goal meets complication, and then conflict is born.

You cannot have conflict if you don’t have two elements that resist each other. It’s the clash of these elements that creates the conflict.

An opposing force is good for your characters because it squeezes them and gives them a reason to act. This opposing force could be an internal battle or an external one. It’s even better if you can explore how an internal conflict bleeds into other aspects of your story, or how external conflict can impact your protagonist’s psyche.

Conflict adds interest and uncertainty to your story. Sometimes, conflict can be used to provoke your character to act.

Conflict is crucial because it gives purpose to your story. Otherwise, there’s no need to tell it. Readers relate to stories that are packed with conflict. While conflict is, by its nature, uncomfortable for your characters and your readers, it’s also a useful tool for exploring the human condition. Plus, you can tie your conflict directly to your story’s theme. (Learn how to choose a theme for your story here.)

We can find plenty of conflict in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, but the driving conflict is found with Frodo and his assignment to destroy the ring in Mount Doom. The journey seems simple enough at the onset, but obstacle after obstacle prevents Frodo from meeting his goal. Frodo’s main conflict is internal, where he struggles to resist the ring’s control.

As you see, conflict aids characterization and creates interest. Without conflict, your story is dead, and not even limping.

Conflict aids characterization and creates interest. Without conflict, your story is dead, and not even limping.

The Types of Conflict

Conflict in your novel

Here are 7 types of conflict you can use within your story to put the squeeze on your characters:

  1. Character Against Self - In this conflict, the character faces an internal struggle. Perhaps, the character is fighting their fears, insecurities, or inner demons.

  2. Character Against Character - In this conflict, two or more characters are fighting against each other. They may not physically fight and they may never even be in the same space, but their wants are diametrically opposed to each other, which creates conflict because both cannot happen. Conflicts can also arise from a personality clash, with disagreements leading to palpable tension.

  3. Character Against Society - In this conflict, a character rails against a societal structure or institution. Think The Hunger Games where Katniss Everdeen is fighting for her life in a game but is also fighting against an oppressive system.

  4. Character Against Nature - In this conflict, the character fights against their environment or natural circumstances. It can include weather, animals, sickness, or disease.

  5. Character Against Supernatural - In this conflict, your character fights against otherworldly beings, such as monsters, aliens, ghosts, or unicorns. This enters into vampire territory and covers everything paranormal or hard to believe.

  6. Character Against Technology - This type of conflict is otherwise known as man against machine. Stories, like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, explore conflicts with man-made creations, such as robots, computers, or elixirs.

  7. Character Against Fate - In this conflict, the character struggles with their destiny. Will they be forced down one path that they probably don’t want to take, or are they able to control their own fate?

You can include multiple types of conflict in your novel, but it’s often best to include some element of character against self. This makes for richer characterization.

How to Add Conflict to Your Novel

Now let's get to the nitty-gritty of how to add conflict to your novel. Here are 12 tips:

1. Figure Out What Your Character Cares About

You can add conflict by threatening something that your character loves, such as a family member or an idea.

2. Put an Obstacle Between Your Character and Their Goal

Explore what your character wants and then put obstacles in the character’s way. If the protagonist is in love with someone, find a way to stop them from being together. Perhaps insert another person or give the love interest a reason to move away.

3. Force the Protagonist to Betray Themselves

Put your protagonist in an impossible position where they must betray their moral code. You can then record how your protagonist deals with the decision.

4. Create an Antagonist

An antagonist can be another person, or it can be a force of nature. Clearly define your antagonist and their goal(s).

5. Push The Protagonist and Antagonist Together

Give your protagonist and antagonist a reason to collide. They should be on the same path, just going in opposite directions.

6. Raise the Stakes

Let the reader know what will happen if the protagonist doesn't accomplish their goal. Will the world be overtaken by evil? Will a loved one die? Will they not get that internship?

7. Make It Tense

While the goal should be clear, the path to it shouldn’t be easy or straightforward. There must be constant tension between characters, the environment, or the protagonist’s own self.

8. Pace the Conflict

The conflict should gradually rise until you’ve hit the climax of your story. The climax is tense and represents the point of no return. But the climax is also the beginning of the end, where you identify a solution to the conflict and set off on the path towards that resolution.

9. Don't Protect Your Protagonist

This one’s difficult because your natural tendency as a decent human being is to want to protect those you love, including your main character. However, you can’t prevent bad things from happening to them. If your character makes a bad choice, let them deal with the consequences. Otherwise, by protecting your protagonist, you’ll make your narrative feel unrealistic or forced.

So, allow your protagonist to fail without a safety net. No one can win them all. Failure can make your characters more human.

Remember that characters need conflict to grow and to show themselves (and the reader) what they’re made of.

10. Give Them a Tough Choice

Give them an impossible choice (like choosing between two children). Not only is it an external conflict but it’s also an internal conflict. Tough choices give you a lot to explore.

11. Insert Misunderstandings

Allow your protagonist to misunderstand another character or the mission, but make sure that the reader knows about it. This adds a level of tension between the reader and the protagonist because the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. (This is also a great way to create a more engaging read.)

12. Use Their Fears

What scares your protagonist? What keeps them up at night? Make their worst fears happen, and explore how they deal with it as it’s happening.

Final Thoughts

Conflict is crucial for every novel. It’s what makes the reader invest in your characters and their lives. Use the above tips to create engaging conflicts in your stories.

Before you go, check out these related posts:

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