When I said I was going to blog about conflict on Tuesday, I’m sure at least some people assumed that I was going to say that you need conflict everywhere in a book: on every page, from start to finish, in every scene, passage of dialogue, etc. etc. etc.
I don’t actually believe this! Sometimes a character needs to just stare at the water and contemplate the meaning of life and other great imponderables, like stock derivatives. Novels have quiet moments where there’s not a hint of conflict that are serene and beautifully written and I wouldn’t ever urge a writer to rip those out to introduce a gun battle.
But conflict is essential. I think of conflict sort of like a book’s oxygen:
1. Your book needs it to survive. It doesn’t need it constantly, but a book without conflict is pretty much DOA. It’s not even really a book without conflict. It’s just paper with words printed on it.
2. If any stretch your book goes too long without it it will also die (or rather, your reader will die of boredom).
3. You can use a lot of conflict to create a bright flame of a book that is relentless and charged, or you can create a slow burn that is more muted. You can also vary the degree of the conflict to do the same thing.
On this last point, some might also say that thrillers and other genre novels tend to put a lot of intense conflict on the page and the conflict comes fast and intense, whereas literary fiction tends to have less conflict. As a general rule this may be so, but it’s not always the case. When you look at Ian McEwan’s books, for instance, ENDURING LOVE in particular is a book where every word, exchange, moment… everything on the page is intensely filled with conflict. The characters are constantly in conflict with each other and with themselves, and it’s an extremely intense reading experience as a result.
Now, there are two types of conflict in novel. There’s conflict that happens above the surface, demonstrated through the actual actions and thoughts of the characters, and then there’s conflict beneath the surface, which is more implied and unsaid. By way of example, there’s the gun battle that happens above the surface, but there’s also the character who is, say, freethinking in a 1984-type world. Even when he’s not explicitly thinking about the world he lives in he’s in implied conflict with the rest of that world.
So. Does your novel have enough conflict?
I personally feel that unless you are intentionally and specifically choosing to have a quiet moment you should always look for ways to introduce some degree of conflict. A character at peace with their surroundings and the characters they’re interacting with is, well, completely boring.
A lot of times in novels it becomes necessary for things to happen that connect Plot Point A to Plot Point B, or to otherwise provide background information or motivation. Sometimes Character A just has to have a conversation with Character B where a certain thing happens so the rest of the book makes sense.
Too often though, writers focus on connecting the dots in a way that gives the reader the information they need to know without trying to tie the threads in a fully-realized scene that’s interesting and engaging. Almost always it’s best to try and introduce conflict to a scene in order to make it interesting and advance other aspects of the plot.
Ultimately, conflict is the reason we read novels. It forces characters to make decisions, it tests their strengths and weaknesses, it reveals what makes people tick. Conflict, ultimately is revealing.
A man serenely walking down the street is not a story. It only becomes a story when he is captured by space monkeys who try to force him to root for Duke. Now that’s conflict.