What is it about fiction that compels us to keep reading? What secret does the writer know, what secret weapon is at his disposal, to ensure we keep turning pages? Is it plot, character, or theme? No. Sure, those things are important, but they do not keep the pages turning.
As Steven V Thulon so aptly said, “Conflict builds character. Crisis defines it.”
Conflict is the key to good fiction, and comes in many forms, but it must exist for their to be a story. No one wants to read about someone who gets up, goes to work, succeeds, comes home and has sex with his runway model wife. There’s no tension, no conflict, and no crises. Boring, except maybe the sex with a model bit.
Think of your favorite book or movie. What happens to the character that forces them to act? What sinister plans are made that keep the protagonist from achieving his goals? What is the character struggling with internally? They all stem from the conflict you create in your story.
More often than not, there will be several levels of conflict. In nearly every story, there will be Inner Conflict and Outer Conflict. Outer Conflict will arise from the plot itself, either in the guise of an obstacle, or an antagonist whose goal is in opposition to the protagonist. There is inherent drama in the push and pull of the opposing nature of the protagonist and his antagonist.
Inner conflict is a bit more difficult to handle. It is the struggle the character has when deciding on his actions. The plot may put him in a position where he must decide to put a plan into action that puts him at odds with his beliefs. When this happens, a character will be a living paradox. Perhaps they want to fall in love, but are afraid to because of past abuses. Maybe the character wants to take revenge on those who killed his baby son, but he believes in the sanctity of life and nonviolence. These may seem like small conflicts, but added to the growing tapestry of outer conflict you create in your story, they will add texture and depth to both your character the story itself.
If there is no conflict, then the character remains in stasis. The only impetus for forward narrative movement would be the character’s ambition. But, as soon as they have an ambition, it is your job as the writer to put something in his way. And don’t hold back. Really let him have it. Stomp his dreams into dust.
Let’s clarify Thulon’s statement. Conflict reveals character. When we see how the character reacts to the obstacles placed before him, we learn more about him than we would through simple description, or dialog. Readers care about what characters say and do, not what they look like. Give your character obstacles. Create conflict. If you do that, you reader will want to know what happens next.
Next time, we will talk about how raising the stakes works within your story to amp up the conflict.