How to write a novel (#3) – managing conflict

If you’re reading up on how to write, you’ll have been sieged, bombarded, pelted and shelled all in the name of conflict. It comes up in every “how to do” and you’ll be told and told to the point of haemorrhage itself that there’s no story without conflict – or at the very least there’s no interest without conflict, nothing to resolve and no tale to be told. Conflict it would seem is the first word in what narrative is. For one thing to progress to another with a chain of cause and effect is fine, but it’s not a story until there’s conflict, and if you’ve not got conflict then you’ve got nothing worth a reader’s while.

This is always another one of those sharp-suck-of-breath moments in the creative writing class. Conflict! What! You just try and make me deal with conflict! Cue demands for money back and what do universities think they’re playing at… how dare structures of violence be imposed on creative free-spirited souls et cetera…

So. When we say conflict we mean something subtle, perhaps. Something even the most gentle teller of super-subtle stories would deem suitable. Something that accounts for lonely youths patting their yellow wallpaper, or mountains built with peaceful citadel. Of course, when we start discussing conflict then we’re not necessarily talking blood-fest or suicidal angst.  There’s something quietly conflict-ridden about many of our lasting literary gems. Conflict takes many forms and, in the right hands, could be just a well observed process of choosing – that dilemma that craves unwelcome resolution.

Even so, it’s amazing how many scenes just seem to escape the first draft stage without any conflict at all – not because they’re subtle and cleverly unruffling but because they’re a dull chain of events that you’ve just put down on screen because you can type quickly enough and you wanted to take your beloved character for a walk. Recognise the tempatation?  My beloved-character needs to meet someone to love…so, well, they have to get ready…and I want to talk about how nice their shoe collection is… and then they can ponder for a bit about all the rejection they had back in a time that doesn’t really matter anymore because its all resolved… and then there’s the staring into space over a coffee at the independent on the corner that will be good to describe because I was in a coffee shop just the other day and its look and smell are still with me and should be with my reader for a bit ..  and… and ….   Hang on!  Beloved-character hasn’t been allowed off the lead yet and is already becoming tiresomely unchallenged.

If you’ve got a manuscript and you’re wondering where it’s flagging, check your scenes.  Go on, challenge yourself. Be tested. Dare to be found wanting. Do your scenes have a conflict and more importantly does that conflict develop in intensity?

If you’re just embarking on a story, then your conscious mind should be checking where the conflicts occur and make sure they keep stepping up and up.

If your current work’s a few drafts-old then check out each scene, who’s in confict? with whom? with what?   And then what kind of conflict, with what stakes and with what possible outcomes. 

So what is conflict for novelists?

Stories are largely about someone working through against a trouble of some sort or another even if that’s just a confusion as to why they’re sitting in a dustbin.

But a problem doesn’t necessarily mean conflict, does it?

A woman who is unsure what to buy her husband for his birthday has a problem but is not in conflict.  A woman who has to chose between a present for her lover or a present for her husband has a different kind of problem and one that is already more interesting. There are decisions with a range of outcomes in this situation and apart from the birthday there is an irreconcilable challenge for the protagonist’s principle affections. It is the irreconcilable nature of this that lies at the heart of our craving for conflict and its well managed and meaningful resolution.

So, this helps make us aware of what kind of conflict we’re dealing with as story writers. Our conflict may be quiet and may be wholly psychological, but it should suggest in the reader an incompatability between possible outcomes. The woman’s story above would not have meaningful conflict if she could afford a present for each of her loves and keep them both secret from each other. The solution has to imply problematic choice and one where something is necessarily relinquished – these are the stakes at the heart of meaningful conflict. If our plot’s conflict is a fight then it shouldn’t be a fight that could be walked away from, nor a friendly wrestle. It has to be a fight with potential for considerable loss.

There are some ground rules for the most satisfactory conflict too. Have you ever noticed how irritatingly pugnacious types – particularly in political spheres – will characterise their battles as one of beleaguered freedom fighters against a dangerously powerful foe? This tells us something about the appeal of certain kinds of myth-making and what an audience responds to.  Whether its Hamlet, Finding Nemo or the 1988 Cup Final, there’s a love of the underdog that we respond to in remarkable ways. Even if our hero is not actually characterised as underdog, we like the situation to be one that puts the odds heavily against them.

Not only that but if our plot’s conflict is a fight then the loss should be disproportionate to the gain. Risk of life for the lady’s kiss. Risk of permanent psychological destruction for the opportunity to challenge the authority figure to a game at chess. (BTW Re hero as underdog, check out Karl Iglesias who has three types of relationship of reader to protagonist depending on whether we see ourselves as equal, pitying or admiring – v v useful.)

As the marvellous Malcolm Gladwell writes: “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts [David and Goliath] because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” David and Goliath,  2013, p.6.

It should be easy. In your scenes, decide who wants what and who or what makes that goal incompatible with their own goals or existence. If what the character wants is necessary enough, with high enough stakes should they fail, then how they act in order to get it will allow interest to evolve in the reader together, hopefully, with the kind of greatness and beauty that the best stories abound in.

Can conflict be against fate or the facts, an endlessly mocked and hapless hero trying to get out of his dustbin – course it can, but where is this conflict going and how does it build? Only when his very frustration  (or his Mr Bean-esque ineptitude or his moral blindness) becomes an antagonising influence, only then do we start to feel that this is writerly conflict rather than a set of simple misfortunes. And, to repeat the lesson, there needs to be something to lose, something that’s irreconcilable with the success. The conflict isn’t just a person against fate, sympathy though we may have for his luckless plight. Satisfying conflict of a writerly kind has to have something else to engage us, something other than just an obstacle course of problems. Stories of this type tend to finish with some nod towards irony – the ladder that was in the corner all along – and maybe we feel the conflict is not the character against the environment but is a type of conflict that operates through the character, either as some kind of desperate gene that pits survival against annihilation, or as some cosmic battle between conflicting sides of human nature, the will to succeed pitted against the desire to relinquish all and go gently into that good night.

There are  successful stories where the conflict is not always easy to define. There are however very few successful stories with no succession of well-managed conflict.  We’ll leave aside those poetic descriptive tracts that can claim to be literature without ever actually being stories as such, but even great descriptive chunks, at their best, have their conflicts woven cleverly into the scene.

Yes, if you have major scenes without conflict (and there are good commentators who point to their being other kinds of scenes and breathing space required from the major turns so use your judgement of course – more on this in  a few paragraphs’ time, bear with me), if you have major scenes without conflict, do ask yourself who would get this far through your text and feel aggrieved if you took the book away.

I do understand the groans from the class of aspirant novelists though. For the novelist, there’s always a sense that things aren’t as straightforward as for screenwriters, and there’s always that lurking question of what else there is instead of wham! bam! conflict, or why does conflict have to be talked about this way when we’re trying to write literature or produce art.

Types of conflict in stories

So, can you articulate where the conflict is in your scene? Is the conflict perhaps hidden in the depth of the writing –  Conflict of perception –  Conflict of tone  – Conflict of imagery  – Conflict of senses – Conflict of ideas… the clever oxymoron or the devilish litotes.

Here’s some ways you might judge your conflict if, as many teachers and mentors would recommend, you are going through your scenes patiently checking for their readerly value.

Person v person:  This is an easy one to get right. What does each person want? Are the two things incompatible? How will each person deal with the need to get their way over the other?  Dig into the characters –  passive aggressive, cunning, ignorant, tenacious, devious, forthright or just plain aggressive – are they expressing the conflict openly or is it something the reader gets through the tension in the atmosphere – are they in conflict right now in the scene or is it something simmering – are  both characters conscious of the conflict, or just one of them, or neither of them, with just the reader’s knowledge allowing them to recognise what is about to explode (plenty of comedy uses this kind of conflict to great effect).

Person v self: Again, the consciousness the character themselves has can often make this type of conflict more interesting.  Engaging characters often have one goal they are conscious of, making their surface-level conflict a battle to get a clear something; what they really want however – love, power, peace – is something they’re unaware of, and, perhaps, the reader knows this all along, or gradually learns of this thing with them, or just ahead of them.

Person v inanimate objects: Sideshow Bob’s rakes spring to mind or something with Harold Lloyd… anyone lost in an environment alone – although this kind of conflict can be going on alongside other types with people involved. The trick is to make the thing become a character. If it looks as though the inanimate object is mysteriously trying to upset the main character, challenge them and defeat them, this will yield more for the reader than a simple tripping up over stuff.

Person v the ineffable: pride, appearances, destiny. If your character seems to be up against “IT” then maybe their conflict is just something in the ether. It could be psychological troubles, cosmic intervention, divine testing, self-ignorance, hubris, an inability to love or to commit. Often there’ll be something of this in a character arc anyway because this is what novels are particularly good at. But maybe you also have a scene-level conflict of person versus… something.  Rather than scratch your head wondering what your character is in conflict with at this moment (again, assuming you want to go patiently through scene by scene and ask yourself where the conflict lies) perhaps you look to what is preventing their peace of mind – if this is where the conflict lies then perhaps you have a chance to expand and heighten it.

And to close this section, it’s in this type of conflict, the person vs the ineffable, that you find that curiously passive protagonist that film-makers hate and novelists are usually much more patient with. Conflicts that are thrown at human beings for their patient withstanding, hapless heroes struggling to keep their dignity – there are many successful examples of the inactive protagonist, one who seems not to take arms against their seas of troubles. On the whole you’ll be recommended not to do this. Readers at heart want to see an active protagonist, one who is matching up to the conflict in a way that demonstrates their worthiness to be followed as the central character in a story.  Spare a thought though for other kinds of conflict. Again there are plenty of worthy literary examples where the reader’s pity for the character’s struggle against constant subjection to forces beyond their control is at the heart of the reading experience. 

Transition scenes in fiction

To go back momentarily to the idea, popular in a number of writers’ guides,  that there are different kind of scenes and only the major turns need to have conflict.  This method allows for a sort of trans-scenic downtime. Now, a cleverly paced book will have those quieter moments and it is these that give context to the major conflicts. Conflict scenes must rise, there must be a change in intensity or we risk anticlimactic dissapointment in the reader. Clever pacing might be mapped out as a steady hike up and drop back, each hillock and dip being slightly higher than the last, the hills gradually rising towards the mountains, a breather before the next climb and so on.

Be careful however that the troughs are just as well thought through as the peaks.

Your trans-scenic downtime isn’t then just an excuse to lie back with a foot off the pedal. There’s no cruise control in a well crafted piece of writing. If you’re going to deal with a scene between two points of major conflict, that transition still needs something to hold the reader’s attention. Often the transition scenes are an excuse to give something the reader hasn’t been made to want: backstory, musing, description, philosophical asides. Good books do have these things, but again, find some of the great examples and examine them closely. It’s likely that the characters aren’t actually in a limbo or a conflict-free happy land. It’s likely that there’s something waiting for them or some likelihood for problems. It’s more engaging to read a description of eating a plum if you know that its a stolen fruit from the icebox of a lover – it’s more engaging to read backstory that’s being forced out of someone who has yet to confront their own past.

As far as conflict goes, use it wisely and subtly, make it a conflict against self or the ineffable, make it a wholly psychological confrontation, just make sure it’s there. Or else.