Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Conflict: Finding the Correct Balance

It’s strange that conflict, so divisive in the real world, is absolutely essential to your novel. Rather than tearing the story apart, it pulls it nicely together. However, problems can arise when writers insert too little or too much conflict.

Too Little Conflict
Too little conflict makes for a lackluster book. Not surprisingly, few of these books get all the way to the bookshelf, although some do. However, even if you haven’t read those sickly sweet novels, where the main character gets along with everyone and nothing much happens, you might’ve written such a story.

What’s wrong with people getting along? Nothing—and that’s the problem. The entire structure of a story is built around solving at least one main problem. That’s what draws us to stories in the first place. The main character doesn’t have to be a mean person, but they must face conflict throughout your story.

Something else you might have noticed if you’ve read my blog before this: Those sweet scenes I mentioned? They’re filler. So baking with Mom is only a scene if say, the book is about how a daughter deals with her mother’s cancer, and during this pleasant baking scene, Mom breaks the news. And chatting with coworkers is only a scene if your main character finds out from the conversation that his job is going to soon be eliminated.

What these examples demonstrate is that something problematic needs to happen. Otherwise, there is too little conflict, and your readers may lose interest.

Adding in a Subplot
Writers can easily fix a problem of too little conflict by adding in a subplot. Perhaps if the novel is about how that daughter deals with her mother’s cancer, the author might insert a subplot that focuses on the trouble the daughter’s having with her work life. There is now a whole new dimension that this story can cover, and it can add depth to your novel while also solidly engaging with your readers.

If you are at a loss on how to insert more conflict into your story, adding a subplot is a great idea, and it often tightens a book further.

Too Much Conflict
Yes, you can have too much conflict, although this is much more preferable than having too little conflict.

Too Much Emotional Conflict
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that have too much emotional conflict. This is also a subject that dips into strong and weak characters, since weak characters tend to be overemotional. These are stories where the character’s mood is constantly fluctuating, taking the reader on an exhausting rollercoaster. Most often this occurs in romance novels, where the main character feels hot and cold about the relationship throughout the story.

Ironically enough, excessive emotional conflict usually stems from too little external conflict. If nothing is happening to the character, then the conflict must occur within the character. This almost always backfires on the writer, since readers don’t have much patience for these types of characters. And readers are entitled to feel this way, since many times the tumultuous relationship stagnates—it can’t progress when one (or both) of the individuals won’t let it.

The solution is to add in more external conflict. If your main character has to focus on staying alive, or graduating from law school, then they will have something else to focus their attention on, and as a result, the emotional highs and lows should die down a bit.

Too Much External Conflict
Like having too much emotional conflict, there is such a thing as too much external conflict. Readers can be put off for one of two reasons. One, too much external conflict can make a book highly unbelievable. And two, too, lots of back-to-back external conflict can be just as exhausting as too much emotional conflict.

A great way to balance out too much external conflict is to add in more sequels. Sequels make sense of the previous scene(s). These are rest periods for the reader, places where they can regroup. You might want to look into writing a few of these if you pride yourself on how action-packed your story is.

Conflict is the essential ingredient in any story, and ultimately you’ll want to find that pleasant medium between too much and too little conflict. Once you do, you’ll have a solid foundation to work with.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. I disagree about too much conflict. I love emotional characters!

    1. Ha ha ha! Your comment had me chuckling! Thanks for posting!