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!