10 BEST TIPS FOR WRITING CONFLICT
Today we're talking about the one thing that literally every novel thrives on, conflict! Conflict is the crux of storytelling and plotting. It is the root of every TV show, movie, comic book, book—whatever. This basically means that if you can't write conflict, you can't write a story. No pressure . . .
A lot of writers feel intimidated at the prospect of writing conflict, which is kind of weird. We experience conflict in our everyday lives. We are surrounded by chaos and turmoil. Or is that just me?
The point is, conflict isn't difficult to master, at least when you understand it's basic parts. So today, I am breaking down the ten best tips for writing conflict. I'm telling you how to break it down to its key parts, how to make it last throughout your novel, and how to use it to surprise your readers. If you want to nail storytelling and craft a conflict that absolutely hooks your readers, stick around. These tips are pivotal to crafting a compelling story and you definitely need them in your arsenal.
This video is sponsored by Milanote. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Number 1: It's Mandatory
Conflict is the basis of plot. Without conflict, you don't have a story, period.
“But Jennaaa, my book is light-hearted and fluffy!”
Big fucking deal! Conflict simply means a struggle, disagreement, or incompatibility that lasts for a long period of time. A conflict can be as serious as the end of the world, or as frivolous as which teen queen is gonna rule the school. Examine books, TV shows, and movies from completely different genres. No matter if it's romance, sci-fi, or horror, you will notice one common denominator: conflict!
The basis of storytelling revolves around one or more conflicts that the characters have to overcome. So basically, there's no getting around this. You don't need life-or-death stakes, but your book's gotta feature some kind of struggle.
Number 2: What Does Your Character Care About?
If you're struggling to pin down a conflict, take a look at your main characters and ask yourself, “What do they care about most?”
At the start of The Savior's Champion, Tobias cares about his family's well-being. At the start of The Savior’s Sister, Leila cares about her sisters, as well as the protection of her realm. Thus, it makes sense for their conflicts to revolve around these elements. If the characters care deeply about something, any issue involving those things is going to matter a lot to them. They'll be invested in resolving this conflict, and so will the reader because they're following this character's experience, thoughts, and emotions.
It's also important to note that what your characters care about can change throughout the story. This is especially relevant if there are relationships, whether they're romantic, familial, or platonic that develop throughout the course of the story. The more complicated the plot becomes the more avenues for care and conflict you can explore.
Number 3: Give Your Goal an Obstacle
This is the easiest way to create conflict. Take the thing your character cares about and put an obstacle in front of it. They care about getting into Harvard, but a handful of their peers are standing in the way. Two characters care about one another, but their communities come from rival gangs. They care about supporting their family, but they have to enter a deadly tournament in order to do so. Take a look at what your character cares about, or what their goal is, and put an obstacle in front of it that makes it hard to achieve. It's that simple.
Take a look at what your character cares about, or what their goal is, and put an obstacle in front of it that makes it hard to achieve. It's that simple.
Number 4: Genre Matters
You already know that conflict is mandatory in all genres, but not all genres treat conflict the same way. In certain genres, conflict needs to be life and death. But in other genres, the conflict needs to be light or even funny. This is why it's important to understand your genre. Especially if you're writing a multi-genre story or a story that fits into a subgenre.
Say you're writing a murder mystery. Obviously, in this case, the stakes need to be life and death. But if you're writing a romantic comedy, the stakes need to be much lighter because your goal is to make the reader laugh. A lot of romantic comedies include stakes like losing your job or getting a crush to like you. Sure, these are very real stakes, but they're not the end of the world. Compare this to sci-fi, which often boasts stakes that are literally the end of the world. Creating a conflict that fits your genre will help ensure that you're meeting your target audience's expectations.
Number 5: Every Chapter Matters
Each chapter needs to move the conflict forward in some way. It doesn't have to be huge, like a plot twist or a cliffhanger. It can be the tiniest inch forward. So long as the conflict is evolving, you're on the right track.
This is a problem that's often overlooked. Writers will devote an entire chapter to nothing but character development, or a tiny funny moment that totally deviates from the plot.
"But gosh darn it, isn't it cute?"
It really isn’t. . . The conflict, whatever it is, needs to remain relevant from chapter to chapter.
Number 6: For Every Answer, Create a Question
This is one of the easiest ways to see if your conflict is relevant from chapter to chapter. Conflicts usually create questions. Will they survive? Was her SAT score good enough? Who's the father?
It's fine to answer questions throughout your story. In fact, you absolutely should. Otherwise, readers are gonna get bored or confused. But for every question you answer, try to create at least one new question. They don't have to be back-to-back or related to one another, but every chapter should end with some questions still lingering. Because if all the questions are answered, there's no reason to keep reading. And quite often, answering questions will automatically create new questions.
Number 7: Avoid Sagging Middle Syndrome
Sagging middle syndrome is when the middle of your novel meanders. The plot is abandoned, the stakes remain the same, and nothing important happens. Often sagging middle syndrome comes down to abandoning the conflict. The conflict has been put on the back burner while the author explores subplots or filler, for pages upon pages. Don't do this!
Remember what we just talked about. Every chapter needs to move the story forward, even a small bit. You can do this by intensifying the conflict, answering questions, and creating new questions. The point is the middle of your novel has to be engaging. You can't just abandon the conflict, because the readers will get bored and put the book down. I may or may not have an entire chapter about sagging middle syndrome in Shut Up and Write the Book. Just saying.
Number 8: Conflicts Can Change
A lot of writers overthink conflict. They're worried that they can't make it last throughout the entirety of the novel. The thing is, it's super common for conflicts to evolve over time. This happens across all genres. The conflict at the start of the novel doesn't have to be the same as the conflict at the end.
Take The Savior's Champion; the conflict at the start of the novel is that Tobias really needs to find a way to financially support his family. This conflict is resolved by chapter three. He enters The Sovereign’s Tournament, which guarantees his family income for life. But now we have a new conflict: Tobias is stuck in this tournament and his goal is to not die. Then he develops feelings for a woman he's not supposed to fall for, which puts his life in greater jeopardy. And then he learns that she doesn't wanna be associated with the tournament either, which creates a new goal–escape the tournament and take her with him.
This is the case for a lot of stories. I encourage you to examine TV shows, movies, books, comics—whatever else, and you will notice this happening a lot. Even if the goal remains the same, the obstacles may change, and that's a great way to keep your readers engaged.
Number 9: Raise the Stakes
In order to keep the story engaging, you need to make sure the conflict remains engaging. A conflict that stays the same isn't engaging. Thus, we have to constantly raise the stakes. You can do this in multiple ways.
As we already covered you can change the conflict itself. But you can also keep the goal the same and simply worsen the obstacle. Say the obstacle is an evil wizard, but now he has super deadly magic at his disposal. Instantly the stakes have been raised even if the conflict remains the same.
On the flip side, we can keep the obstacle the same, but intensify the goal. Maybe originally your character just wanted to save their family, but now they have to save the whole world. This is your job as a writer; as the story progresses, think of ways to make the conflict even more dire. This also applies to lighter stories. Sure, a job promotion isn't life or death stakes, but if new competition rolls in, that's clearly going to raise the stakes. Ask yourself, “What can I do to fuck over my character?” And do just that.
Number 10: Subvert Expectations
Certain conflicts are expected in certain stories, and that's fine. There's always going to be a murder in a murder mystery. There's always going to be a haunting in a ghost story. But subverting expectations is a great way to surprise the reader and put a spin on a particular conflict.
This doesn't mean you betray the genre. That is the last thing you wanna do. But provided you don't break genre rules, you can still put your own spin on certain tropes or cliches. For example, in the romance genre, miscommunication is a very common conflict. One character only hears part of a conversation and assumes the worst, or they witnessed something and misinterpret what happened. Miscommunication is a real thing that happens in real relationships, so it makes sense to include it in romance. But usually, this conflict lasts for the whole damn novel, which can really annoy readers. This is a perfect opportunity to subvert a common cliche and surprise your readers.
In The Savior's Champion, Tobias and Leila have a miscommunication that leaves Leila pissed off for no reason. Based on reader expectations, I could have allowed this miscommunication to continue for the entire book, but instead, I had it resolved in the very next chapter. They have an adult conversation, Leila listens to Tobias, and then she apologizes for overreacting. This is how subverting expectation works. You take a conflict that typically occurs in a certain way, and then you write it differently. It's a great way to move the overall conflict forward while still surprising the reader.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you’ve been having a hard time trying to figure out how to write a conflict that engages your readers, this post ought to get you moving in the right direction. Remember; don’t overthink it! Conflict can change as your characters change, and readers love a fantastic trope subversion. See how you can surprise them while maintaining genre rules, and you’ll have them turning those pages in no time.
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