You often hear writing advice that stipulates that you need conflict everywhere in a book. Writing gurus say you need it on every page, from start to finish, in every scene, nay, in every passage of dialogue, nay, in every word, nay, in every letter.
Pshaw, says I. Pshaw.
Sometimes a character just needs to stare at the ice floes and contemplate the meaning of life and other great imponderables, like how people serving coffee are called baristas and people serving alcohol are called bartenders, but what do you call them when they serve both coffee and alcohol? (I’ll give you a moment.)
Great novels have stretches where there’s not a hint of conflict and things are serene and beautifully written, and I’ll never urge a writer to rip these out to introduce a gun battle.
But make no mistake: conflict is essential. It’s a book’s oxygen. It gives it life.
Why you need conflict
In fact, let us count the ways that this conflict/oxygen metaphor is apropos:
- Your book needs conflict to survive. It doesn’t need it constantly, but a book without conflict is pretty much DOA. It’s not really a novel without conflict. It’s just some paper with words printed on it.
- If any stretch of your book goes too long without conflict, your reader will die of boredom.
- 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 but intense nonetheless. You can vary the degree of conflict within the same book to do the same thing.
With regard to this last point, some might say that thrillers and other genre novels tend to put a lot of conflict on the page, and the conflict comes fast and intense, whereas literary fiction tends to have less conflict.
As a very rough and general rule this may be so, but it’s not always the case. When you look at Ian McEwan’s books, especially Enduring Love, nearly every exchange and moment on the page is intensely filled with conflict. The characters are constantly in conflict with each other and with themselves, and it’s a very intense reading experience as a result.
And there are plenty of suspense novels where things build slowly and steadily and where the quiet moments contribute to the sense of dread.
The two types of conflict
There are two main types of conflict in a novel:
- There’s conflict that happens on the surface, demonstrated through the actions and thoughts of the characters.
- There’s conflict beneath the surface, which is implied and unsaid.
For instance, a gun battle or a hysterical argument happens on the surface, but a character who is freethinking in a 1984-style world, where thinking freely is highly hazardous to one’s personal safety, has conflict beneath the surface. Even when Winston Smith is not trying to avoid Big Brother, there is an implied conflict between his life and the rest of that world.
It is highly desirable to have both types of conflict present and accounted for.
Is there conflict that is acted out on the page? Is the protagonist somehow pitted against the world they inhabit, whether it’s a government, an office, or an entire society? Is there conflict between characters, which is expressed through actions and words, as well as hidden desires and thoughts that go unspoken? Does the character have competing interior desires and thus live in conflict with themselves?
(The correct answer to all these questions is “yes.”)
Keep up the conflict
It can sometimes feel a little icky to always be hitting the conflict button, but unless you are intentionally and specifically choosing to have a quiet moment, you should always look for ways to introduce some degree of conflict.
Why? Because a character totally at peace with their surroundings and the people they’re interacting with is completely boring. Sure, give them a quiet moment from time to time, but this moment should be a respite from conflict, or should set up a future conflict, rather than being a gaping void of conflict.
The best way to introduce conflict is to place obstacles in the way of your characters. Conflict happens when a character tries to surmount an obstacle (for instance, a character negotiating with a cop who has stopped and delayed them or an alcoholic trying to say no to a drink) or when two characters have conflicting motivations that create an obstacle (one character wants to break up and the other wants to stay together). Conflict is all about how characters try to overcome obstacles in order to get what they want.
Conflict and pacing
Conflict also impacts the flow of a novel. Much like music, novels have a rhythm. Once you hit the middle stretch of writing a novel, it can sometimes become difficult to keep the beat.
Whether they realize it or not, readers expect things to unfold at a certain speed. In the beginning of a novel, things can unfold slowly or quickly, but a basic rhythm is established at the outset. The reader internalizes this and sets their expectations based on how things unfold in the first fifty pages, with the expectation that the speed will gradually ramp up as you head for the end.
If you’re ever thinking to yourself, “Man, this is getting slow” or “Where is all this stuff coming from?” it probably means the author has lost the pace they had previously established.
If there is a very slow stretch in a novel, it’s often because there’s no conflict: things are just happening, the author is indulging in exposition that’s not woven into the plot, or events are transpiring that are unrelated to the big unanswered question that had been driving the action. When this happens, the reader isn’t sure why they should care.
If there are places where things feel like they’re starting to wander, think about how you can introduce conflict or tie things back to the main plot arcs. Or, if you’re too relentless with the action and you’re worried you’re exhausting the reader, find a way to have a quieter scene that fills an important role in the narrative but doesn’t represent all-out conflict.
Conflict is everything
Ultimately, conflict is the reason we read novels. It forces characters to make decisions. It tests their strengths and weaknesses. It reveals how they think, how they react to pressure, and what makes them tick. Readers want to see whether the conflicts will be resolved and how the conflicts will be resolved, and they want to see who gets what they want, who wins, and how they win.
Remember, a man contentedly walking down the street is not a story. It only becomes a story when he is captured by space monkeys that force him to slap himself in the face over and over and say “I’m hitting myself.”
Now that is conflict.
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Art: Sea fight by Niels Simonsen