In the first installment of this series on conflict, we talked about why every story needs conflict, and lots of it.
In today’s post, I’m going to lay out the four types of conflict and talk about why you need each of them and how to layer them into your novels. In general, conflict is anything and everything that stands between your character and accomplishing her goals.
This is character-centric, and includes your character’s flaws and weakness, even those he’s not aware of. Internal conflict is everything that comes from within a character and stands between her and the accomplishment of her goals: addictions, fears, insecurities, mental health issues, demons, baggage, worldview, and many more. See Hank’s post for another discussion of internal conflict.
If you think about your characters’ flaws and weaknesses before ever typing Chapter One, you can set up a strong framework for conflict. It can wax and wane throughout the novel, or even a series. An alcoholic can almost drink himself to death in the first book of a series, be on the wagon (perhaps struggling to remain so) for books two and three, and then fall off it in the fourth book. You control the waxing and waning, depending on your story’s needs.
Chronic conflicts are those external situations in a character’s life that are an underlying, ongoing source of problems. If you’re working with a series, these conflicts will likely feature in your first book and your sixteenth. Examples of sources of chronic conflict include bad bosses, irritating or toxic relatives, financial worries, an unhappy marriage, health conditions that don’t get cured (such as diabetes, being confined to a wheelchair). I’m sure you can think of many more.
The important thing about chronic conflict, especially in the context of a series, is that it, like internal conflict, can wax and wane.
A rotten marriage can have vicious moments and a few tender ones. A bad boss can have good days and bad. Again, you control the degree of conflict.
We all experience this on a daily basis. These are the one-off, annoying things that pop up to complicate our day. Traffic, the DMV, bad weather, spilled beverages, broken shoelaces, running out of ammo, whatever. The beauty of transient conflict is that you can layer it in at will to make your protagonist’s goals even harder to reach.
Does she need to reach the airport to save the world from annihilation? Throw a flat tire, a traffic jam, a herd of sheep, or icy roads in her way. Is he headed for the interview that will land him his dream job? Let his alarm not go off, have him spill coffee on his only interview suit, or send him to the wrong room. The conflicts in this category are wonderfully varied—be creative.
Central story/plot conflict
This is the conflict at the heart of the book, the challenge that must be overcome. If you’re writing a series, this conflict is unique to one book. In a mystery, it’s figuring out whodunnit and bringing them to justice. In a romance, it’s building a relationship with that special someone. It can be stopping terrorists, colonizing a new planet, adopting a child, or starting a new career. It can be anything.
[NOTE: The latter three types of conflict are all subsets of external conflict. Read this article for tips on creating external conflict.]
Try to have two or three of these types of conflict in every scene.
Your turning point scenes, your climaxes, will probably have all four. If the middle of your novel is a slog, inject one or two more types of conflict into each scene and see if that gives the middle more pep. I’ll bet it does.