This is one of the hardest things for an author to understand, yet it is a vital part of genre fiction. There has to be a problem for the hero and/or heroine to overcome and it has to be big enough that there is a distinct possibility for failure.
In a romance novel, conflict can be the difficulty that keeps the hero and heroine from getting together. In other genre fiction, it is the issue the hero or heroine fights against, whether internal or external.
Before I get into what conflict is, let’s look at what it is not:
- Conflict is not a disagreement or argument. People can – and do – argue all the time without it ever being about something important
- It is not a delay – just because there’s a flood or blizzard, unless the story is specifically about the flood or blizzard, there is not conflict.
- Failure to communicate – having the heroine not tell the hero how she feels is not conflict.
There are two different types of conflict – internal and external. The easiest of these to do is external conflict. When you create your characters, you have to give them a goal. Conflict comes when they can’t reach that goal. External conflicts are physical. Internal conflicts are emotional. The two should be related, but different. Conflict is the basis of your book. You need to put it into words before you type out the first word.
Conflict comes from characters. Plot comes from conflict. Once you know the problems your characters are up against, you’ll know what kinds of situations they have to face in order to overcome their conflicts. That is plot.
External conflict can be something as simple as wanting money to buy a house but not having a job. Internal conflict would be wanting a house because the character never had a stable home but putting down permanent roots scares her.
Plot points, also known as turning points, in your story happen because conflicts change. You character has a goal. She reaches that goal, but something happens to make things worse. This happens again, and again until you reach the climax, and the end. This is why you do character sketches and know your characters. What is it about their backgrounds that would lead to issues – either external or internal – that will cause problems in their lives? The worse the problem, or the harder to overcome, the better the conflict and the better the story.
Note: Conflict doesn’t have to be a life-or-death. Even small, seemingly unimportant conflicts can be fun. Think about an external conflict where two vain women are fighting over the last pair of shoes on sale. Or two men arguing the best fertilizers to use on their suburban lawns. Smaller conflicts arising from, or on a tangent to, larger ones can give readers a break from the angst of the larger ones.
A classic example of external conflict is one where the hero is a firefighter and the heroine is an arsonist. That’s conflict. Even more unusual would be where “she” is the firefighter and “he” is the arsonist. Why is s/he an arsonist? What is in his/her background that leads to this? For the perfect conflict, just remember, whatever one has to have has to be able to destroy the other. Both characters can’t get what they want.
Internal conflict is more complex. It’s what shapes your characters on the inside. It’s emotional, visceral, a need so deep they may not even know they need it. Internal conflict is personal and will most likely be different for each character (there may be similarities, but reasons will be different – or had better be!). It’s not enough to say that that your character is a loner. Why is s/he a loner? What is in his/her background that makes him/her untrusting of others?
Defining conflict is step one in writing the novel. External conflict shapes the plot. Internal conflict shapes the character’s actions and thoughts. Both together give you the story.
Go back to your character sketches and determine what is in your characters’ backgrounds that may lead to problems for them. Note these down and brainstorm story ideas from these issues.