When a writer pays attention to conflict, she charges her story with a powerful energy. I believe The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins rocked the world of publishing–and the world of movies–because she charged the novel with maximum conflict.
How can a writer maximize conflict in her story? First, give the protagonist a goal. Then put an obstacle in the way so the protagonist can’t reach the goal. Then put another obstacle. Then another. And another. And so on. This is a watered-down formula for creating conflict. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen has a goal to survive and win the 74th Hunger Games. She faced myriad obstacles: fighting against the environment rigged by the government; other competitors who wanted to kill her; committing murder herself; killing not just strangers, but people she cared about.
Do you know, really know, the goals of your characters?
These were external goals and obstacles. Creating conflict also includes the internal goals of the protagonist. For Katniss, that included the fate of her mother and sister. What would happen to them if she didn’t survive the Game? In the latter books of the series, she also struggled with her feelings on being a symbol of a rebellion. She feared for her safety and those she loved. Internal goals can also include the romantic. Two male characters, Peeta and Gale, competed for her heart. Whom would she end up loving?
Do your characters also have internal goals?
Using conflict wisely can pull the reader into the story, and you can do this by introducing conflict as soon as possible. Make sure the reader knows what the main struggle is going to be about sooner, rather than later. As you journey through the middle of the story, keep asking, “How can I keep things worse for my characters?” –out of the frying pan, into the fire, so to speak. Finally, one thing to ask yourself when it comes to the end of your story: how is the character affected by the resolution of the conflict? A big part of storytelling is how a character changes by the end of the tale.
Here are some articles I’ve pulled out of my archives on conflict:
- Conflict creation: the needs of your characters. Every character has needs, otherwise they’d be about as interesting as drying paint . . .
- Games people don’t play. Fiction is about characters in conflict. In this column, I’ve talked about many different kinds of conflict over the years, but there’s one kind that I don’t recall ever discussing . . .
- When arguments are a good thing: conflict in dialogue. Most authors and their readers will agree that nothing beats a good bout of dialogue . . .