Making Sure There is Conflict to Begin with
I know, this subheading might appear ridiculous; however, I see this all the time. Writers manage to write stories without inserting a clear main conflict. So, before you read on, do you have a main conflict? A good way to spot this is to ask yourself if you have created a crucible for your story and goal-oriented characters.
A story’s crucible is that element of the story that makes conflict unavoidable. In Harry Potter it was Voldemort; in The Hunger Games it was the hunger games. Think about your story; what makes the main conflict inevitable? War? An impending wedding? A killer hunting your main character? All good conflicts are inescapable; there is nowhere to go but forward.
In addition to a crucible, you should have characters with plot-driven goals. It may be as simple as staying alive, solving a mystery, or exacting revenge. What’s important is that your characters stay goal-driven. Why? Goals reinforce the plot; they emphasize what your characters want and what stands between them and that goal.
In addition, make sure that both your protagonist and your antagonist each have opposing goals that they are working towards. Writers often forget about the bad guy. Make sure he or she isn’t just wreaking havoc for no reason. Antagonists have to have goals as well.
Evenly Matched Opponents
Great conflict requires an antagonist and protagonist who are evenly matched. Having an antagonist who is too powerful for the protagonist can make your story appear unbelievable if the protagonist then defeats such an impossible foe. And having a protagonist who is too powerful can make the conflict and conclusion feel underwhelming and predictable.
Now, the former—having an antagonist who is too powerful—is a nuanced area of storytelling because you can still have a human pitted against a larger-than-life antagonist and win. Odysseus is the perfect example of an individual who took down a seemingly all-powerful enemy. The nuance lies in the fact that while the protagonist and antagonist seem unevenly matched, they are evenly matched. But writer be warned—you need to be as crafty as Odysseus to pull this one off without seeming too far-fetched.
Complex characters can indirectly lead to fantastic main conflicts. Why? Because believable, deep characters touch readers on a human level. The growth that complex characters go through, their inner demons, and their limitations make them more real to us. So we sweat through challenging scenes and the book’s climax because we’ve developed a close bond with these characters, and the prospect of losing them scares us.
Conversely, cliché characters—the good guy who is too moral, and the bad guy is too evil—can weaken your book’s conflicts. Not only is it harder to empathize with a character that is never petty or a character who is never kind, but it’s too predictable. Fairytales exploited that niche centuries ago.
Make sure you have all the necessary ingredients to a powerful conflict: a crucible, evenly matched opponents, and complex, goal-driven characters. Doing so will ratchet up the conflict and tighten your novel.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services