Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Conflict

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Conflict

 

Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Conflict

In Part 3 of our Gross Anatomy series we turn our attention to the element of conflict.

  1. First, let’s define “conflict.” Conflict arises from character–it is the thing that stands between your character and what they want. To know your conflict, you have to know your characters. Here are some things to keep in mind:
    1. Janet Burroway says, “Conflict is the fundamental element of fiction, fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting. It takes trouble to turn the great themes of life into a story: birth, love, work, and death.”
    2. Tension works with conflict. If conflict is the obstacle which must be overcome for a character to prevail or to attain their desires, then tension is the feeling that, at any moment, something horrible might happen.
  2. There are several types of conflict:
    1. External
      1. Man v. Man (say, a boxing match or a fight or a romantic rivalry, man v. enemies)
      2. Man v. Nature (surviving the perfect storm, To Build a Fire, The Castaway)
      3. Man v. Technology (Terminator, iRobot, etc.)
      4. Man v. Society (The Crucible, legal thrillers)
      5. Man v. God/Supernatural (The Odyssey, supernatural thrillers, monster stories, etc.)
      6. Man v. government/authority
      7. Domestic. Husband v. Wife
      8. Man v. Work (Rod Serling’s  “Patterns.”) [Almost anything by Rod Serling fits in the section.]
      9. Man v. The Unknown
    2. Internal
      1. Man v. Himself
        1. Overcoming fear(s)
        2. Letting go of fear
        3. Overcoming past
        4. Letting go of past
        5. Overcoming his nature (Jekyll and Hyde or, if you prefer, The Hulk)
  3. Things to Remember:
    1. Use multiple types of conflict. Good novels mix internal and external conflicts. The best weave multiple conflicts together throughout the work. Just remember, whatever conflict you establish, you must also resolve.
    2. Mystery:  Explain just enough to tease readers. Never give everything away.
    3. Empowerment:  Give both sides options. [Think Rocky against an armed third-grader.]
      1. The antagonist, whether human or nature or organization, must be stronger than the protagonist.
      2. The nobility of the protagonist is measured by the power of the antagonist.
    4. Progression:  Keep intensifying the number and type of obstacles the protagonist faces.
      1. Escalate tension.
      2. Escalate action. (Need not always be physical action. Romance, cozy mysteries, etc all have escalating action.
      3. But do it in a believable fashion. Don’t escalate just for the sake of escalation.
      4. Also, give your readers a chance to catch their breath between action. You don’t want pure adrenaline like a NASCAR race crash, but you also don’t want them falling asleep on page 38.
    5. Causality:  Characters who make mistakes frequently pay, and commendable folks often reap rewards.
    6. Surprise:  Provide sufficient complexity to prevent readers predicting events too far in advance.
    7. Empathy:  Encourage reader identification with characters and scenarios that resonate with their dreams or nightmares.
    8. Universality:  Present a struggle that readers find meaningful, even if that struggle reflects a unique place and time.  
      1. Give the reader a reason to cheer the hero on.
      2. Give the reader a reason to care.
    9. High Stakes:  Convince readers that the outcome matters because someone they care about could lose something precious.
  4. Conflict culminates in crisis—the “do or die” moment.
    1. Jerome Stern says, “May be a recognition, a decision, or a resolution. The character understands what hasn’t been seen before, or realizes what must be done, or finally decides to do it. Timing is crucial. If the crisis occurs too early, readers will expect still another turning point. If it occurs too late, readers will get impatient–the character will seem rather thick.”
    2. The crisis must be presented in a scene.
  5. All characters should have conflict
    1. Your protagonist is the one readers will care about the most, but your secondary protagonists, just as real life acquaintances, will have their own escalating conflicts. They should not be as significant as your main protagonist (you don’t want them to steal the show), but their personal conflicts can help create tension in the overall storyline; such as when one character is too distracted to pay attention to the matter at hand.
    2. As well, your antagonist should have some modicum of of conflict and struggle. Rarely is a person purely evil. It’s possible in your story the reader may not pick up on the innuendo of what has shaped your antagonist, but some of the behaviors should still be there. Near the end of Steven James’s The Pawn, we discover why The Illusionist is as sick and twisted as he is. It doesn’t have to be threaded throughout the story, but it should satisfy some part of the reader’s empathy.


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