How the heck do I write a novel in 30 days???
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Conflict. Everyone says that it’s key to a story’s success and we’re sure you’ll agree that the very best of novels have large amounts of conflict. But how, beyond practice, does one ensure that a story contains sufficient amounts of it?
Of course, we’re sure you know that there’s more to conflict than simple violence or physical altercations. No, conflict in a novel must be more than that in order to engage a reader for the length of an entire book.
It helps, perhaps, that there is several kinds of conflict to consider. There’s the internal conflict, which leads to character growth. There’s the external conflict, which can come in many forms, but should ultimately lead back, somehow, into the internal conflict – external events acting on the character(s) should make them want or need to change. Conflict can come in a series of obstacles that your protagonist needs to overcome before reaching the ultimate end of the story. Conflict can be overt, but it can also be present in subtext too. And finally, and perhaps most effectively, conflict can be found in dialogue
The classic types of external conflict are as follows (and our apologies if you zone out or have horrible flashbacks to english class like we did writing this): Man versus Man (conflict between two or more characters, often via dialogue or violence), Man versus Nature (conflict that pits the character against nature, such as in a survival story), Man versus Supernatural (conflict between a character and elements outside of the natural realm), Man versus Technology, and Man versus Destiny (a character struggles to break free of a predetermined path to their life).
One start (only a start, mind you) to consider when adding conflict to your novel is what genre you are writing in. For example, mysteries require an external conflict where a crime must be solved, but this can also include internal conflicts in the form of personal relationships. Romance novels often involve two people struggling to reconcile a romantic relationship when various internal and external forces are trying to pull them apart.
Thriller novels need high stakes conflicts – the risk of harm or death to the protagonist or his/her loved ones. Science fiction an fantasy can have many kinds of conflict from sword fights to questions about the morality of creating artificial life. Finally, literary stories often revolve primarily around internal conflict.
Conflict should be found in every part of your novel. It should start with the novel, where the story starts at or just before a moment of crisis. Opening conflict should generate consequences for the protagonist(s), which lead to more conflict as they try to overcome them. Some conflicts run through the book unresolved until the end. That’s okay, and even a requirement in some cases.
One example we read about pacing went something like this: a character, let’s call him John, finds that his computer is failing on him. Rather than replace it, he buys a new one. However, a hacker find’s John’s old computer and repairs it, then steals his identity from the old hard drive. Now, John finds himself in a lot of trouble: he is in debt, he loses his job, maybe even ends up in jail. With no job, he can’t afford rent and soon finds himself homeless. Although this is tragic, of course it can’t end here: he meets a woman we’ll call Sue, who is also homeless, perhaps a widow or the victim of abuse, and is also pregnant. John finds that he cares deeply for Sue and attempts to help her and her unborn child, but she has different ideas on how best to survive while homeless. Will they end up together or be pushed apart by circumstance?
Of course, none of the above really matters if you don’t care about either John or Sue. Making your characters someone that the reader feels sympathy or empathy for is key, because it’s a lot more fun to read about characters we care for in horrible situations that they somehow struggle out of. Good drama is made up of things that matter and affect a wide range of people.
So how should you add conflict to your story? Find your protagonist’s achilles heel and stomp on it. Find out what makes them tick, what their greatest weakness is, and exploit it. Keep putting them into situation after situation, until it seems impossible that they can get out, and then let them grow to a point where they can. After all that, your reader is sure to be rooting for them… And for you.
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