Here’s the next blog post in our series about manuscript rejection. We already blogged about four other common mistakes: telling instead of showing, violating point of view, writing an opening that doesn’t catch the reader’s attention, and dumping too much information on the reader.
Number five on our list of common problems in manuscripts is lack of conflict. To explain why that’s a problem, let’s back up a step.
What is conflict, and why do you need it in fiction?
Conflict is whatever keeps your main character from reaching his or her goal. For example, a detective’s goal in a mystery novel might be to catch the killer. The killer, of course, will try to cover his tracks. Additionally, a witness might make it harder to solve the case because she has her own reasons to lie to the detective.
Every story needs conflict. Conflict creates tension and suspense. Will the main character really reach her goal in the end? Readers will keep reading to find out the answer.
So how do I create conflict?
First, give your main character(s) a goal. Your characters have to want something. Then create obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. A character wandering from event to event with no goal will quickly bore readers to death and leave them wondering what the point of the story is.
You can read more about goals here.
There are three types of conflict:
1) External conflict: Outside forces keep the main character from reaching his or her goal. This can be a person, society, technology, or nature. If it’s a person who thwarts the main character’s goal, he or she doesn’t necessarily need to be a “bad guy” (or girl) with ill intentions. The two characters might simply have opposing goals or compete for the same thing. Example: The main character wants to get a promotion, but her co-worker wants it too.
2) Internal conflict: Internal conflict is caused by something inside of the character that stops her from achieving her goal. Her own fears, flaws, inabilities, misguided beliefs, and self-doubts get in her way. The main character’s flaws should be the biggest obstacle. Most of these flaws stem from the character’s backstory—her childhood or past relationships. Example: A main character who grew up in foster homes and learned only to rely on herself. But to achieve her goal, she needs to work with the second main character and trust her or him completely.
3) Romantic conflict: Romance novels also need a third type of conflict; otherwise, what would stop the two main characters from declaring their undying love and living happily ever after in chapter one? To make the romance satisfying for the reader, a believable conflict needs to keep the potential lovers apart. Each character needs a good reason for not wanting to fall in love with the other. If the conflict could be resolved by having the two characters sit down to talk honestly, instead of jumping to conclusions, it’s not a strong enough conflict.
How to combine and link the different types of conflict
The most powerful stories usually link the internal conflict with the external and romantic conflicts.
The plot is a series of external conflicts that forces the main character to confront her fears, her flaws, and the demons of the past. She needs to grow and change in order to achieve her external goal and a “happily ever after.” The character arc (inner conflict) and the plot (external conflict) should be inextricably entwined. The events of the plot force the character to change, and the character’s growth affects the outcome of the plot.
In a romance novel, combine internal conflict (e.g., a fear of loving again because she has lost everyone she loved so far) and external conflict to keep the potential lovers apart. Maybe the love interest is a soldier about to be sent into a war zone.
So make sure the protagonist has to overcome the internal conflict to achieve the external goal or gets a romantic happy end.
External conflict and romantic conflict can also be linked. At least one of the main characters hesitates to give in to her feelings because then she’d have to give up her external goal.
Here’s an example:
Let’s see how the three types of conflict work together in my novel Backwards to Oregon, which will be republished in a second, revised edition this year.
The two main characters, Luke and Nora, have one shared goal—making it to Oregon alive. External conflict is introduced by nature (raging rivers, snakes, stampedes, etc.) and by two enemies they make on the way west.
Luke also wants to make it to Oregon without having her identity (she’s a woman living as a man) discovered by anyone in the wagon train. To achieve that goal, she needs to keep her distance from Nora—even when she’s shot and nearly bleeding to death. So two of her goals, surviving and keeping her identity secret, create another type of internal conflict.
Nora’s goal is to set up a secure life for herself and her daughter. Since her life as a former prostitute taught her to rely on her physical attributes, her strategy to achieve that goal is to seduce Luke. That puts her goal in conflict with Luke’s goal to keep her distance.
Luke has to overcome her fear that no woman would ever love her after finding out who she really is. Nora has to overcome her belief that her worth depends on her skills in the bedroom.
Learning to trust each other will be the only way to survive the journey west and to get their happy end. Facing the external obstacles on the Oregon Trail together builds that kind of trust.
Please let us know if you have any questions or comments about conflict in fiction.