We talk about creating conflict in a novel, but we must be careful not to create conflict for conflict’s sake. We need to create fictional conflict that counts.
Our characters should not argue over insignificant matters. They should not waste our reading time with conflict that has nothing to do with the plot. That conflict is part of your backstory and part of what happens off the page. Remember that writing fiction is not reality television – we do not want to read about every irrelevant meal or listen to coma-inducing dialogue.
So how do we get the most out of the conflict in our novels?
Fictional conflict that counts should be:
Conflict must grow throughout your story. Once you’ve defined the conflict, engaged the reader, made sure that what causes the tension is pressing and personal for your characters, let it become more and more threatening. There is an art to building fictional conflict.
I am going to use The Hunger Games to show you how this works.
Katniss Everdeen volunteers as a tribute for The Hunger Games when her younger sister’s name is drawn. She has to survive and win the games to return to District 12 to look after her mother and sister who are almost starving. She has to accomplish this by killing teenagers in the game and outwitting The Capitol.
Ask these five questions about the conflict in your story:
- Is it specific? Yes. Katniss has to fight a physical enemy in the arena, the elements created by the game makers, an institution represented by President Snow in The Capitol, a television audience who want to be entertained, and herself. Katniss has to kill to win.
- Is it engaging? Yes. It is a bit like watching an accident. It is horrifying but you cannot look away. We like Katniss because of her selflessness, her resilience and her bravery. She loves her sister deeply. She hunts so that her family can eat. We care that she is going into the arena. We want her to win. When she shows her defiant nature and defies The Capitol, we want her to win even more.
- Is it serious? Yes. The whole book is about survival and conquering enemies on many levels. In every scene, Katniss is trying to survive. Whether she is asking her mentor for tips on how to stay alive in the arena, or asking Gale to look after her family, or killing another tribute, or defying The Capitol to save Peeta’s life, every scene is loaded with significant conflict.
- Is it urgent? Yes. The clock is ticking. The Capitol uses the games to control the districts. The tributes all want to win and have to kill to do so. The television audience is insatiable. We have a deadline.
- Is it personal? Yes. There is nothing more personal than having your life, or the life of someone you love, threatened. In this case, Katniss loves her sister, Primrose fiercely.
Any good book has conflict that answers these five questions. Why don’t you try it on your favourite novel?
© Amanda Patterson
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