Creating and Resolving Conflict in Your Novel

Conflict is at the heart of almost every great novel. Whether it’s external or internal, conflict provides a key driving force for the narrative and is often instrumental in giving a mystery or thriller it’s page-turning momentum. I raise the issue of conflict today because of some feedback a fellow author recently received on her draft manuscript citing the failure of the manuscript to take advantage of conflict opportunities and when those did arise, resolving that conflict too quickly. Here at TKZ we often talk about the need for dramatic tension when reviewing first pages, and Jim also blogged yesterday about the ‘certain something’ that each individual writer brings to the keyboard. To this I’d like to add that each of us as writers treat conflict very differently and yet we must all make sure we fully realized the potential for conflict in our novels, and resolve all those points of conflict to a reader’s satisfaction.

The way we accomplish this often reflects our individual talents, but conflict never arises in a vacuum and we must ensure that we have also created characters and situations which ensure our readers are invested in the conflict as well as its resolution. I was acutely reminded of this as I watched the movie Beckett on Netflix last night. Not only was the conflict scattered and confused but the lack of character development meant that I was never invested in the resolution of the conflict or the solution to the so called mystery surrounding why the protagonist was being pursued. I won’t say any more about the movie to avoid spoilers, but watching it made me think more about the nature of conflict in effective story-telling. Here are some of my main take aways (from both the movie and from the feedback given to my writer friend):

  • Don’t rush to set up conflict before the reader has time to feel invested in the character. No one will care if the character’s life is in danger or is internally conflicted over something unless we understand/identify with/care about the character. In the movie Beckett, I honestly didn’t feel any connection to the characters before the main conflict/point of dramatic tension arose and thus I didn’t feel invested in the main character’s plight.
  • Always take a step back from a scene to assess whether you’ve taken advantage of the potential for conflict within it. Often a scene may be dull or boring because it doesn’t take raise the stakes or use the opportunity to explore conflict (whether internally or externally driven). In a mystery for example, if it is too easy for a character to find a clue or pursue an investigation, then the plot can lose much of its momentum. Always think about conflict in your scene and whether you can raise the stakes even higher for your character.
  • If you do raise the stakes or take advantage of an opportunity for conflict, don’t squander it by resolving it too quickly. As a reader I don’t want to be eagerly turning the pages in suspense only to find the situation is over too easily or too quickly. This is where pacing is critical because obviously conflict has to be addressed – the key is not to lose momentum by making it too easily overcome or resolved.
  • Finally, though the conflict does have to be resolved in the end (maybe not all of it – especially if there is ongoing internal or character driven conflict) but a reader can’t be left hanging. A reader also can’t be holding their breath throughout the book only to have every point of conflict resolved in one big jumbled mess at the end (again, pacing is key).

Anyway, these are just some Monday thoughts on looking at conflict in your novel. TKZers, how do you approach the issue of conflict in your writing? What tips would you add in terms of maximizing the potential opportunity for conflict as well as pacing its resolution in your work…As always, I look forward to hearing your take/thoughts on this!

24 thoughts on “Creating and Resolving Conflict in Your Novel

  1. My first writing “lesson” was POV. My second was “Only trouble is interesting.” Good advice here, Clare. And something I think about in every scene. What can I do to mess with these characters now?

    • Love the ‘only trouble is interesting’ – and if that trouble only lasts a few pages and then everything is resolved easily and neatly, then that trouble wasn’t really trouble at all:) I love how you keep messing with your characters and look at conflict in every scene!

  2. Great post, Clare. Good points. Under point #1: Don’t rush to set up conflict… I try to introduce the conflict gradually, like pressing on the accelerator, only hinting at it as I’m introducing the protagonist, then gradually building the conflict, with the threat from the antagonist becoming more obvious, closer, and more of a threat. By the mirror moment, the conflict must be strong enough for the protagonist to have their epiphany, and then it blasts off toward the climax.

    Thanks for introducing this discussion. Have a good day!

    • Great approach Steve – and I was definitely reminded of this when watching the Netflix movie. The accelerator went hard but without caring for the characters I wasn’t invested or interested in the journey!

  3. Ha! When you talked about Beckett I assumed you were referring to the 1964 movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and I’m thinking, What? That movie is rife with conflict. Only that’s spelled Becket. So I searched and saw it’s a Netflix movie, and over at Rotten Tomatoes the consensus is that it “fails to consistently engage.” Obviously, you had the same reaction.

    You are right on about the need to be invested in a character or the resultant conflict will not matter to us. In my scheme of things, a Disturbance and Care Package accomplish this. Then you make sure there’s tension or outright conflict in every scene. Simple, eh?

    Also, a good reminder never to let good tension be resolved quickly. See my post on tension stretching.

  4. Excellent points, Clare. Raising the stakes always helps. The more a character has to lose, the harder s/he will fight.

    Characters with opposing goals/missions build conflict. The struggle between protagonist and antagonist is obvious.

    But characters on the same side also offer opportunities for conflict. A friend or family member may want the same goal as the protagonist but attacks the story problem in a different way or even thwarts the protagonist’s plan.

    Conflict between allies raises tension and makes the overall goal (e.g. solving the mystery) more challenging.

    • Debbie – good point about the challenge when it comes to conflict between allies and this was definitely part of the issue raised re: my friend’s MS as this seemed to arise quickly and get resolved way too easily/quickly. I like how you approach this – and even allies can have quite different motivations even if they have the same goal (ripe for conflict!)

  5. Excellent points, Clare. The order of events is also important. If, say, a grizzly bear charges at our MC and we have him just take off, we’ve lost a golden opportunity to increase tension and conflict.
    But if we narrow in on the moment:
    A twig snaps, and the MC whirls around.
    A rank gamey aroma fills the MC’s senses. Bear!
    Fur emerges through gnarled branches.
    Adrenaline surges, heart races, etc., etc., etc.
    By focusing in on that moment, dragging out the tension by showing the external as well as internal, we force the reader to feel the conflict.
    ‘Course, none of that matters if the reader isn’t invested in the character.

    • Love this bear scenario, Sue, and the focus on the ‘moment’ to build tension and conflict. All too often these kind of moments can pass in a MS without the author maximizing the opportunity to raise the stakes and develop internal as well as external conflict that can propel the story (and deepen it).

    • Beware the bear!

      Years ago, when the INDIANA JONES movies were so wildly popular, a publisher created an action/adventure book series with the pace of the opening scene of the original INDIANA JONES where disaster builds upon disaster upon disaster with no real stopping for breath.

      I read the first book, and it was bloody awful because the action became boring and silly at such a lunatic pace, and there was so little personality to the main character or any of the other characters I didn’t give a damn one way or the other what happened.

      EXAMPLE: A bear chases the hero up a tree, he thinks the tree is safe, but it’s rotten, and the bear begins to shove it over, the tree lands in the river, but it’s infested with alligators, and there are bad guys on the other side of the river, and a bear on this side. He out swims the gators to a bridge and begins to climb up a vine growing up its side, but, ooops, there’s a large poisonous snake right above him, and….

      Needless to say, that series vanished without a trace after a few books. Conflict and ridiculous problems aren’t the same thing.

      • Speaking of ridiculous – the ending of Beckett had some of the most lunatic action scenes that were so unbelievable (not too mention frantic, like the pace of that Indiana Jones book by the sound of it) that I gave up caring about the character’s fate or the truth behind why he was being pursued in the first place!

      • That does sound ridiculous, Marilynn. I can see why you stopped reading. Without inner turmoil, external conflict falls flat. And too much external conflict gets melodramatic after a while.

  6. Great information, Clare. I need to pay more attention to #3 in your list. I have a natural tendency to resolve conflict quickly so my characters can return to safety. I need to work on keeping them off balance a while longer.

    Thanks for a good start to the week.

    • Kay – prolonging conflict can be tricky and the balance between resolution and tension can be hard to achieve. I love thinking about how when one point of conflict gets resolved, another one manages to step in and (as Terry would put it) messes with the characters:)

  7. I like the relationship in your post to movies. And, there are too many terrible movies out there that cannot engage with people. Thanks for the warning about Beckett. I’ll avoid that one.

    I often think about how my scenes will play out if it was live action. I think I’m doing okay but the pace of the scene is often a problem for me. Too slow. And I worry that I’m not engaging with conflict fast enough.

  8. You’ve raised probably the most important novel writing point, Clare – characterization and making readers quickly bond with the characters. I’ve read so many posts and pieces about character-driven/plot-driven/conflict/tension/action/action/action… they all circle back to something happening to the main character(s) who the reader identifies with and has some sort of sympathy/empathy with. My takeaway is you have to get the reader invested in the m/c(s) right off the story bat and then make sh*t happen to. Otherwise, who cares about the story like what happened to you in your movie Beckett.

    • Totally Garry – in the movie we are suddenly thrust into conflict but it’s both confusing and uninteresting because we don’t care about the characters. The initial exposition about the main character and his girlfriend was stilted and uninspiring so when everything startedto unravel I was just like ‘meh’…

  9. Wonderful post, Clare.
    My natural inclination is to avoid conflict in real-life, but as a writer, I need to be a trouble maker for my characters, and to keep throwing challenges at them. Instead of starting the actual conflict on page one, I like to start with tension, something isn’t right. Of course, every page should have some level of tension on it, as a reflection of the conflict once it gets going. But before you hit your characters and the reader with that conflict, tension will draw them in in its own right. That’s how you hook the reader initially.

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