The Blog of John Hewitt

Building Better Novels Through Conflict

Are your conflicts important and interesting?

It is no secret that conflict drives stories. The conflict may be clear and specific (a meteor is going to destroy the planet!) or understated and perhaps not even overtly discussed (Ed feels like a failure). Whatever the case, conflict is at the core of any story. Something should be or absolutely needs to be resolved, and dealing with that conflict is what the story is about. Because of the central conflict, a number of smaller conflicts emerge. Here are some central points to consider when approaching conflict in a story:

Why does it matter?

What about the conflict in the story makes it important, both to the characters and to the reader? When the meteor is approaching earth, there’s a pretty good reason to try to resolve the conflict. Death is on the line. A planet in peril is a major conflict.. But most story conflicts aren’t quite that easily identified with. For example, if you write about a forty-year old man who is committed to losing fifty pounds and running in a marathon, you have to come up with a reason why it is important to the man. Perhaps he has started to feel as if his life is routine and that he running out of time to accomplish something. That is the conflict. You also have to come up with a reason and why it is important to the reader. Should they like this guy? Do they think accomplishing the goal will be meaningful to him?

What can be gained or lost?

When you start out with a simple desire, such as the marathon, there has to be consequences and rewards. There are obvious benefits to the man getting in shape and running in the marathon. There is a sense of accomplishment to be had, and there are clear health benefits. There should also be consequences both for success and for failure. Clearly there is an emotional cost to failure. Not managing to accomplish this goal could mean that the man feels more like a failure than when he started on the journey. He may also risk physical injury. There is also the genuine risk that accomplishing his goal may not be as satisfying or life-changing as the man initially thought it would be.

What are the smaller conflicts that result from the central conflict?

When you have an overall conflict, such as self esteem issues and a lack of interest in life, which a person is trying to solve (by running in a marathon) there are going to be other conflicts that occur as a result of the central conflict. For example, the man’s wife might be overweight and resent the fact that he is trying to improve. She may be indignant or she may even try to sabotage his attempts by bringing home sugary or fatty foods or trying to find other ways to occupy his time. There may also be conflicts at work because the man isn’t working the overtime hours that he used to. There are also the aches and pains of running as well as the temptations of abandoning his goal in favor of an easier life.

How will the conflict be resolved?

The resolution of a central conflict can make or break a novel. There is, of course, the possibility of defeat. Not every conflict gets resolved favorably, even if the expected outcome arrives. We’ve already discussed the idea of consequences for victory as well. The man may complete the marathon but lose his wife or his job, for example. The resolution must matter to the reader. If the reader has stuck around for 50,000 words, only to meet up with a resolution that either doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel earned, the reader is going to be upset. If the conflict matters, than the resolution must feel logical and earned.

How Good is Your Bad Guy?

The Hero is Defined by the Villain

The NBC show Heroes has a lot of problems. It never quite lives up to its potential for a number of reasons. There is one thing I love about the show though. I love Sylar. Sylar is the bad guy. Occasionally you get the feeling that he would like to be a good guy, but deep down he is bad. His essential flaw is that he craves power. Specifically, he craves the superpowers of the other characters and he has a longing to take them, by force, generally leaving the other characters dead or at least deeply changed. Despite that, there is a certain glee to Sylar. He enjoys what he does, and he can readily explain why he does what he does. He’s also funny, and that always helps. I know many people absolutely hate Sylar. That’s fine too. Whatever the case, people care about the guy. People pay attention when he is on the screen.

The Villain Doesn’t Have to be Evil

Not all bad guys are quite as evil as Sylar. In some cases, they aren’t evil at all, they just have goals or intentions that run counter to the Hero. Watch a romantic comedy, and you will often see a good guy antagonist. For example Kevin is the ex-boyfriend of the Greg Focker’s fiance Pam. Kevin is as close to the perfect guy as you can imagine. He is kind and creative. He is handy with a hammer and he is never anything but nice. He is so perfect, in fact, that Stiller’s character feels immensely threatened by the guy and worries that he is going to lose his fiancé to him.

Antagonists Represent Obstacles

Antagonists come in many forms. They may be as evil and ruthless as Darth Vader or they may be as commonplace as an overbearing boss, a flirtatious ex-girlfriend or an annoying little sister. The main role of the antagonist is to provide obstacles for the protagonist. The antagonist’s needs and desires in some way interfere with the needs and desires of the protagonist. The boss makes the protagonist work late when he should be with his wife. The flirtatious ex-girlfriend makes the protagonist doubt his commitment to the wife. The annoying little sister asks exactly the wrong questions just when they can cause the most trouble.

Every Character has a Story

When you are writing your novel, keep in mind that the antagonists have their own goals, their own needs, and their own hopes and desires. You may not agree with their world view, but you should respect that it is important to them. The antagonists are, in their own minds, the protagonist of their own stories. Respect and understand their needs, and you will create antagonists that people want to read about.

Plotting by Elimination

Master the Possibilities

When you start a novel, the options are virtually limitless. A character can go in almost any direction. As the story progresses though, all of those options should fall away until the only option left is the conclusion. Think of your story as a tree. In the beginning, a tree is just a seed, and it can grow in many directions, both up and down. As you move along a tree though, you eliminate options. If you move up, you have left the roots behind. If you move past a branch, that branch is now behind you and can no longer be chosen. When you choose a branch, you eliminate everything but that branch. As you follow that branch along, you move by other branches until make another choice. At that point your choices are narrow. You are running out of branches until eventually you reach the end, where you have nowhere else to go but to embrace that final leaf or bud or whatever form your conclusion takes.

Decisions Define both Characters and Stories

The choices in a novel run along those same lines. Every word, every paragraph goes toward defining your characters, your plot and your themes. Each choice your characters make eliminates the other choices that could have been made. As each choice comes up, it further defines the character and it eliminates the choices that they could have made. The character might make dramatic changes as the story moves forward, but those changes must be the result of their earlier choices. Eventually, the character runs out of choices. They arrive at the ending knowing that it is now the only ending that remained possible.

As the Plot Progresses, Even the Same Decision is Different

Keep track of the choices that your characters make. In the beginning, your protagonist may be a high school graduate who must choose between college and work. If he chooses college, then he must choose a major. If he chooses a major, he has to choose from a specific set of classes. If he goes to the class he must take a seat. If he takes a seat between two people, he may choose to talk to one of them, none of them or both of them. If he talks to one of them, that person may turn out to be a friend or an enemy. If that person is a friend, they will go places together. If they spend too much time doing things other than classes, the student fails out of college.

At that point the student once again must choose, college or work, but he is not at the same point as he was in the beginning, even if he is making a similar choice. Getting back into college will be hard this time. He may have to choose a lesser school, foe example. If he goes to work it will be as a college dropout or perhaps as a part-time student who must hold a job as well. Either way, his choices revolve around college or work, because those are the branches of the tree that follows. If he fails at college again, the chances are very slim that he will have a third chance. Meanwhile, he has acquired a friend along the way, and that friend would not have appeared if he had made different choices.

Sometimes, Decisions are Made for You

Sometimes, in a novel, outside forces determine some of the branches. For example, his parents may have been paying for college, but then they lose a significant amount of money when the stock market crashes, and they can no longer afford to help him out. He must now make his choices based on the new situation. Be careful with outside forces though. It is usually better for a story if the characters’ own choices determine their fate as much as possible. The outside world may act to eliminate some options, but for the most part, rely on your characters to determine their paths; otherwise the conclusion will feel unearned.

What to Do Once the Crisis is Settled

Is this the End?

Every story has to end. The most important thing that has to happen before a story ends is that the central conflict of the story has to be settled. The protagonist wins. The protagonist loses. The protagonist realizes that she has both won and lost. Whatever the case, the crisis is settled. What then?

Say a Little or Say a Lot?

In movies, you frequently see them end the story at the moment, the very moment, when the central conflict has been settled. Sports movies are famous for this. The Karate Kid ends just after Daniel has defeated his nemesis Johnny to win the karate championship. He is literally still standing there with his arms in the air as his instructor Miyagi looks on with pride. There is no denouement whatsoever. It ends at the moment of triumph.

On the other end of the scale you have the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (both the books and the movies). It can be argued that half the final book (and movie) are denouement. We see how the conflict has changed each of the central characters and we follow them as they return to their former lives or find that they cannot return to their former lives. The World According to Garp (the book, I never saw the movie) actually takes the time to follow each of their characters all the way to their various eventual deaths. It tells you how their lives played out in the aftermath of the central crisis.

All of these choices are valid, but there are definitely consequences to each choice. A brief, or nonexistent, denouement runs the risk of the reader not really feeling that the central conflict had a significant effect on the characters. They may end up feeling as if their time has been wasted or feel that the characters haven’t really changed. An especially long denouement, by contrast, runs the risk of leaving the reader bored. Once the tension of the crisis has been released, the reader knows that the conclusion is coming. The longer you take with the denouement, the longer you will have to keep the reader’s attention without having the tension of the conflict to keep them invested.

Be Fair to your Readers

One of the most controversial denouements is the end of the Harry Potter series of books. Because the series lasted seven books, the readers were invested in many, many characters. People wanted to know how all of these characters turned out. What readers got was a twenty page denouement, set years later, that answered very few of the lingering questions. This upset most readers — quite understandably. When you spend several thousand pages discussing the lives of a set of characters, you should expect that the readers will be invested in the outcomes for each of these characters that they have grown to love over the years.

My simple advice is that a denouement should last long enough for the reader to feel satisfied, but no so long that the reader gets bored. Make sure that the central themes of your novel get at least a moment of reflection in the denouement and that your readers are clear about how the novel has changed your characters.

How Setting Influences Story

reception, the bridesmaid reveals that she and the best man had drunken fling the night before the wedding. As they head off on their honeymoon together, the bride and the groom must work through this crisis or their marriage will end before it has truly even begun.

This is a story that could happen virtually anywhere, and at almost any time in history. It could be a comedy, melodrama or tragedy. All of the elements are there for any sort of story you can imagine. The overt crisis (though not the underlying conflict) is clear and the stakes are equally clear. Consider though, the effect that setting would have on this story.

Setting #1: 2008. The wedding took place at a posh hotel in Chicago, The bride and groom now face a long plane ride to Hawaii, where they have secured a small villa right on the beach. While they are in Hawaii they are scheduled to attend a luau, an island tour and snorkeling in a private lagoon.

Setting #2: 1988. The couple were married at a Las Vegas chapel by an Elvis impersonator. The reception was held at the Circus Circus hotel buffet, which is the hotel they will be staying at, surrounded by their family and friends, for the next several days. They have tickets to see Rich Little and have booked a helicopter tour of the Las Vegas Strip.

Setting #3: 1954. Rural Virginia. The couple were married in a large church wedding with the reception at the Elk’s Lodge. For their honeymoon they are driving down to a small motel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Their car is a ten-year old Cadillac.

Obviously these are rudimentary setting details, but I think you can get an idea that the three different settings lend themselves to dramatically different effects. A posh villa in Hawaii will influence the characters much differently than a garish casino or a small-town motel. The morals and general atmosphere of the 1950s, the 1980s and the 2000s are very different. The economics of the three settings are also dramatically different. The feeling of being surrounded by family or being isolated during a crisis has influences the characters.

The setting can either have a weak or a strong influence on the plot and the themes of a story, depending on how the writer uses it. Here are a few ideas for choosing your settings:

  • Choose settings that matter to the characters
  • Choose settings that can influence the action
  • Choose settings that you know enough about to describe comfortably
  • Choose settings that will be of interest to the readers
  • Take the time to describe the settings in enough detail for the readers to have a clear idea of where the characters are