Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Value of Conflict

Today I'd like to discuss conflict.

My dictionary defines conflict as the collision of interests or ideas. More than that, however, conflict is the fuel that powers a novel.

By now, you realize that, as a writer, you must make certain all your characters have clearly identified goals and motivations. Conflict occurs when these various interests clash.

You are likely to have both internal and external conflicts. Internal conflicts happen when a character struggles against his own conscience or judgment. External conflicts happen when the character clashes with other characters or with obstacles in his path.

Usually the more conflict, the more exciting the story. Think about the opening minutes of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones' immediate goal is to obtain a statue of a golden idol. Each impediment he meets is a form of conflict. In less than five minutes, he encounters booby traps, a rolling boulder, and a screaming horde of natives intent on killing him. The viewer barely has time to recover from one incident when another occurs.

A common error among newbie romance writers is to mistake arguments between the hero and heroine as conflict. Screaming, throwing things and slamming doors does not constitute conflict. For there to be a real conflict between characters, there must be a clash of either goals or belief systems. Noise does not equal conflict.

I was in a critique group once with a writer who could not understand why her manuscripts kept getting rejected. No matter how often her CPs told her that her stories lacked conflict, she refused to accept the critiques. She would repeatedly say, "There's conflict on every page."

Unfortunately, there wasn't. There were arguments based on misunderstandings and bad temper, but no REAL conflict. Even introduction of internal conflict--fear of intimacy, unwillingness to trust because of past pain, reluctance to be disloyal to a friend by becoming involved with his ex--would have made a difference. However, she refused to listen. I don't know if she ever sold a manuscript.

Having an antagonist whose interests are directly opposed to your protagonist's can create a large conflict that will run the course of the manuscript. However, short-term conflicts can help with pacing. Remember Indiana Jones? You can use that model to speed up your pacing. Keep throwing obstacles in the path of your protagonist. As s/he resolves one, throw another out there. Doing so will keep your reader involved and keep the plot moving along.

Have fun!

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