by Susan Vaughan
Commercial fiction sells worry. Readers love to fret about fictional characters. They revel in seeing them suffer, struggle against impossible odds, and face hardships and danger. They love to feel the tension and fear of story characters as you the writer provide strife, danger, and opposition. A story needs conflict whether the struggle is emotional or physical or both.
Robert McKee (Story) says that the protagonist in a story enters a “world governed by the Law of Conflict. To wit: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” In other words, story is conflict. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) defines conflict as opposition. “It’s two forces striving to achieve mutually incompatible goals.” Jack Bickham (Scene and Structure) takes the definition a step further: “A story is a formed record of a character tested in conflict.”
Without conflict, you may have a beautifully detailed narrative with snappy dialogue and poetic descriptions, but you won’t have a story people want to read. If your character never struggles, the story is boring. If your character isn’t tested through conflict in order to emerge changed in some way, the story goes nowhere.
So what is conflict anyway? Let’s begin with what conflict is not. Conflict is not adversity or bad luck. It’s not just anger or disasters or arguments. Conflict is not, except in a comedy of errors, a misunderstanding that can be cleared up if only the hero and heroine discussed it. The “did not”-“did too” sort of circular bickering is not the type of conflict that propels a plot forward.
Debra Dixon (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) defines conflict variously as “a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt,” or “conflict is two dogs and one bone,” or “conflict is friction, tension, opposition.” Alicia Rasley in her pamphlet Conflict Without Combat says that conflict is about resolution. “Conflict is, simply, the force that causes change within your plot. And fiction = change.” In a romance novel, conflict serves an additional role, that of providing a reason the hero and heroine believe they can’t or won’t be together.
Conflict can occur at multiple levels. A romance may have conflict on two or three levels that are intertwined or braided, acting on each other to fuel the forward motion of the plot.
External conflict can be extra-personal or interactional. Extra-personal conflict involves an outside threat or force or goal. A timid novelist must rescue her sister from kidnappers (Romancing the Stone). A notorious rake must find the mother of an abandoned infant (Too Wicked to Love, Barbara Dawson Smith). A single mother must find a way to pay her mortgage (Stranger in a Small Town, Ann Roth). As you can see, external conflict doesn’t have to mean murder and mayhem.
A variation on this is interactional or personal conflict. This is conflict between two people. Here is the two-dogs-and-one-bone setup. The hero and heroine in a romance novel may have opposing goals. She wants to use the treasure map to rescue her sister; he wants the map to find the gemstone (Romancing the Stone). Or the external conflict may pit the hero or heroine against a villain such as a scheming ex-wife or an antagonist such as the hero’s matchmaking mother (Too Wicked to Love) or a greedy banker (Stranger in a Small Town). As Debra Dixon says, “Make sure the GMCs of multiple characters collide. The collision creates conflict.”
Internal or inner conflict is within the individual. It’s an inner need, desire, belief, turmoil, or quality. Internal conflict adds meaning and complexity to the external conflict, and the external conflict forces internal choices and changes. When the hero of Stranger in a Small Town, a rolling stone who lost his family in a fire, helps the heroine repair her house, he struggles against involvement with her or her small daughter, with the town, and with emotions he has kept buried. As the wicked Earl in Too Wicked to Love begins to believe the heroine loves him, he begins to believe in himself as someone worthy of her love. A strong internal conflict can make a good story great.
Perhaps the hero is in the way of what the heroine believes is her goal. Sylvie Kurtz (Alyssa Again, The Gift of Christmas, Remembering Red Thunder) describes this as the relationship conflict, which stems from “the conflict of personality and the conflict of circumstances.” Her lover is the obstacle--and a distraction--to attaining her goal. Or does the hero have a competing goal? On the other hand, a deeply held value or belief can be threatened by the heroine’s feelings for the hero. What if loving this man endangers her peace of mind, her sense of safety, even her morality?
In The Thomas Crown Affair, the heroine, a crack insurance investigator, falls in love with her quarry, an unrepentant thief. Can she run away with him without totally abandoning all she believes in? In the original movie, the answer is no. No change, no compromise allows for no happy ending. In the more recent version, the charming thief returns the stolen paintings, and thus the heroine’s morality is not compromised.
Dramatic structure defines five points in a plot where major developments and big scenes turn the conflicts in a new direction. As Syd Field explains in The Screenwriter’s Workbook, this paradigm comes from the screenwriting arena, but applies to novels as well. The first of these points is the beginning or hook. It involves the setup, including the inciting incident, introduction of the characters, and establishment of the goal, motivation, and conflict. The first plot point, or turning point, occurs about a quarter of the way through a manuscript.
A plot point is an incident, episode, or event that spins the action in a new direction. These are followed by the midpoint, another turning point, and the climax leading to the resolution. In her December 2000 RWR article, Gaelen Foley states that these turning points can make each “successive complication arise from the solution to the previous problem. Conflict gives birth to new conflict as each successive solution produces a new, unforeseen problem in the developing love relationship.”
Conflict then is both the impediment and the way to resolution. It is the propellant of plot action, the seed of change. The various conflicts in a romance should be related, with change and lasting love as the resolution. The hero’s, heroine’s, and even the villain’s conflicts should be braided together throughout the progress of the story.
Strong conflict should be defined and clear to the reader. Too many conflicts can overwhelm and confuse the reader, as well as the characters. A clear understanding of your conflicts allows you to focus on creating scenes that advance the plot, that convey the characters’ emotions, and that create tension and drama because you know what’s at stake.
Debra Dixon says it succinctly: “The strength of your book is your conflict.”
So as you revise, here are some questions to ask yourself as you examine your plot, your characters, and their goals, motivation, and conflict.
- Have I introduced the hero, heroine, antagonist or villain and the problem in a clear and forceful way? Does the story open with conflict, action, or a situation that will grab the reader?
- Is the conflict strong enough to sustain an entire novel? Or is the story problem merely a misunderstanding?
- Are the stakes high enough to maintain reader interest? Do I know what is at stake and what might be lost or gained?
- Do I have multiple conflicts? Internal, external, relationship? Are the conflicts inextricably tied together so that external developments impact internal ones and vice versa?
- Are the conflicts clearly defined? Or have I thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the characters in order to cover weak conflict?
- Does each scene contain conflict that will cause the viewpoint character to take action or make a decision?
- Do the conflicts evolve and escalate throughout the story? Have I developed and paced the conflict by using turning points?
- Does the central character resolve the main conflict stated at the beginning of the story?
- Has my central character been tested through the conflict so that he or she has changed and grown in some way? In scenes with action and dialogue, have I used viewpoint to illuminate that growth?