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Narrative 101: Strengthening Conflict in Your Novel

Conflict plays a vital role in storytelling. It is what shapes your protagonist and forces them to change or come to some kind of epiphany. While we may not wish to wallow in the unpleasant, we can all agree that to be human means equal measures of both pain and pleasure. This arc is what defines our experiences and dictates our perceptions of our world and the people in it. These emotions are what make your story worth reading. To make the most out of your story, you want to make sure that your conflicts are strong enough to carry your character through their narrative. Check out these 6 tips to strengthen conflict in your novel.

Raising The Stakes

  • Material: In The Luxe by Anna Godbersen, Lina Broud, a maid-turned-socialite yearns to share the lifestyle that the rich family she works for has. Born to the lower class, her struggle to elevate her own social status from poverty to wealth embodies the struggle for the material. Another example of this is in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Crusoe is determined to make a name for himself outside of his middle class family. He chooses to become a sailor and merchant, and through a series of events winds up stranded on an island where he has to fight to stay alive. In both of these stories the stakes are high. It is a matter of basic survival. For Lina it's about being able to support herself and maintain the lies she has to tell to get what she wants. For Crusoe it is about surviving in a harsh and foreign wilderness. You can easily see that while the circumstances in which these two stories occur are very different, the underlying conflict is still the same. Both characters are fighting for the resources they need to survive.

  • Emotional: Romance naturally consists of highs and lows. It is this emotional authenticity that captures reader's interest because it pulls at one's heartstrings. In Jane Eyre, we see two jaded individuals of differing classes fall in love despite the earthly constraints that wish to keep them apart. In a series of preventable misunderstandings, both Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester make mistakes and must strive to overcome the consequences in order to be reunited. Without the constant questioning of whether or not these two can make things work, there would be no emotional suspense within the story. Likewise, in Romeo and Juliet, the tension runs incredibly high due to the stress brought on by feuding families and trying to make forbidden love work. It all ends badly, as we know, but even though the ending is tragic it works because it gives us as the emotional satisfaction of a dramatic demise.

  • Psychological: It's common for characters to struggle with self-esteem, personal worth, and mental illness. It is often that these internal conflicts are far more compelling than tangible ones, making for truly riveting stories. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, socially awkward teen Charlie struggles to overcome issues of self-esteem and depression. These hold him back from making friends until two outgoing classmates save him from being a social outcast. There are so many questions that result from this plotline. Will Charlie be able to keep his friends, find love, and enjoy his time in high school? Or will he be destined to be the awkward loner forever? It's stories like these that everyone can relate to, and that is the appeal.

  • Intellectual or Cultural: In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe's story begins with his childhood and adolescent years. As a young orphan, Kvothe is motivated by his intense yearning for knowledge, culture, and magic all of which he feels he needs in order to avenge his murdered family. He has a strong desire to prove himself and to raise himself up despite his tragic past and battles with survival and poverty. The stakes not only become whether Kvothe is able to find himself and accomplish his goals, but whether those goals are truly what will help him succeed in his overarching quest, or if they are the result of a monstrous ego.

  • Social: In The Gossip Girl series, social standing means everything. In the ever-shifting alliances, romances, and betrayals, these Upper East Side socialites battle for supremacy. Here the stakes are based upon reputation. Another example is Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Edna struggles with the restrictions placed upon Victorian Era women. Hers is a struggle of societal versus personal freedom. These stories are compelling because they apply to life as we know it today. Our reputations and personal behavior are what define us and when that's placed in jeopardy it can be very powerful.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

After establishing your protagonist's motives, it's time to examine your protagonist/antagonist relationship. In order to make your manuscript stand out, you need to establish a dynamic relationship between these two characters. Your antagonist can be one person, a group, or a whole system. Depending on which you choose, the story will have to adjust accordingly.

While typically we think of our protagonist as "the hero" and the antagonist as "the villain", it's important to broaden our view of human nature and ensure that our characters aren't so easily defined. Today we see a lot of middle ground characters, "anti-heroes", who are neither all good nor all bad but somewhere in between. These characters are great because of their intricacy. With some many lines being crossed and re-crossed, it opens the door to lots of intriguing plotlines.

Also be on the look out for cardboard-characters. When you use templates or stereotypes to build your antagonists, you need to be wary. Using a character who is weak, cliche, or underdeveloped can cause your conflict to deflate, which means that your novel will fall flat because it's not strong enough to hold it's own in a competitive market. The best way to avoid this, is by spending the same amount of development time on your antagonist as you do your protagonist. By deepening the scope of their character, the more opportunity there is for readers to understand them and be intrigued. While they don't need to be sympathetic figures, they do need to spark enough empathy in your readers so that they want to see whether or not they succeed in defeating the protagonist.

Building Your Conflict

Conflict can come in many forms. It can be disguised as something good, or be a complication that isn't monumentally bad. What matters is how your character perceives it. He must feel passionate about it in order to make it worthwhile for readers to care too. It also must appear in the story early enough to have an appropriate incubation period. It must slowly grow and evolve into the full-blown conflict that will reach a climax by the end.

It's ideal to establish your conflict as soon as possible. There should at least be a hint of it by the end of the first chapter or sooner. While it doesn't have to be serious now, there needs to be an understanding that it will grow and become more of an issue later on. Readers should be hooked enough that they want to know what happens when things do get serious.

Conflict must also be present throughout your story. If it is not consciously part of the story chapter-by-chapter, it needs to be felt hovering ominously in the background, a relentless feeling of impending doom that can't be ignored. It can be quick and out in the open, such as Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or long and drawn out like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

While conflicts between two people are a tumultuous balance-of-power shown through dialogue and actions, internal conflicts manifest as inner thoughts or monologues. These can be useful, but you want to make sure they aren't melodramatic or too long. You should avoid long paragraphs of exposition unless they are absolutely necessary. The only exception would be if you're writing a play, as this form is designated for theater where monologues are part of the natural equation.

Dramatic action is key to heightening conflict. This allows characters to act and react. You can determine what your scene requires based on what the necessary reaction to your conflict is. Not all stories require uproars or explosive showdowns. Quieter stories often rely on emotional impact to accomplish the same goal.

As important as it is to highlight your conflict, keep in mind that every so often the focus of the narrative must also shift away from it. This provides a break for the reader, allows conflicts to build suspense, and gives subplots a chance to shine. A great example of when to utilize this technique is during scenes where characters are not speaking to each other, or when they are not acting out of concern for the main conflict. This is the ideal time to bring in a distracting subplot because naturally your character would be looking for something else to distract them during this time. This is also useful because most people don't address conflicts head-on, but rather pick a smaller, less important issue to squabble over. Characters might even approach the major conflicts and then withdraw. These major conflicts are typically painful and frustrating to confront. However you work it, you are either advancing your conflict or one of your subplots.

Another useful tool is foreshadowing. You can hint at events to come by using flashbacks, dropping clues, teasing, and creating more suspense. Characters can begin speaking of it and then drop it, or a character can make a veiled reference to it. You can also use the echo technique: Where characters are reminded, or remind others, of past developments. In areas where you want to create an emphasis, repetition is a powerful tool.

Use A Gentle, Intricate Touch

Try to stay away from overt or aggressive methods when it comes to demonstrating your conflict. Doing so will lessen the the impact of your story. A better approach is subtlety, where you suggest things rather than state them outright. Problems in real life are rarely explicitly explained, outlined, or identified. By using this approach in your novel, you mimic reality and make your story more perplexing overall.

Think about what makes something disturbing. Is it a remark and what is said? Is it the way it is phrased? Is it the underlying meaning or innuendo that is upsetting? Some conflicts are straightforward like robbery. But in most cases the reasons behind conflicts are messy and complicated. For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams uses a variety of conflicts, some apparent and some underlying. The main character Blanche, arrives on the doorstep of her sister, Stella after falling into financial ruin. As a former wealthy socialite, she sneers at her sister's menial lifestyle and low-class husband, Stanley while hiding the truth of her own circumstances. On the surface Blanche and Stanley clash over class differences and upbringings. Blanche thinks her sister is too good for Stanley and Stanley is suspicious that Blanche has cheated Stella out of her inheritance. Beneath the surface is Blanche's drinking problem, her deteriorating mental state, her lack of finances, and her fixation on her waning beauty. Williams eludes to and layers these problems so that when combined we get a complete understanding of the complicated, flawed person Blanche truly is.

By layering your conflict with subtleties, you increase the interest level for your readers. If you leave things too simple you run the risk of losing your reader's attention due to it being too obvious. Think of it like a puzzle. Give the readers pieces to work with, then let them put it all together.

Make The Abstract Tangible

As a rule of thumb, the larger the conflict is, the smaller it should be demonstrated. For large-scale conflicts such as war, poverty, salvation, etc. it is much more impactful to take a focused piece of said conflict and write about that rather than try to encompass the span of the whole thing. If your work happens to work with ideas and themes, solidify them by using dramatic events and intensity.

For example: I once read that in order to write about war, you shouldn't write about battles. You should write about the abandoned shoe of a child on a battle torn street. If you want to talk about death, don't talk about the woman who died. Show us the coffin of the husband who committed suicide in order to be with her again. Don't tell us the impacts of a pandemic, show us the empty halls and play yards of schools now haunted by ghosts.

Be Realistic

Wrap up your conflicts realistically. When conflict resolutions feel rushed or too complete it is often disappointing. Why? Because it's too easy. There's no satisfaction in watching things wrapped perfectly in a happy-go-lucky perfect ending when it looked like it wouldn't end so well for the protagonist at the peak of the story. It's almost like slapping a band-aid over an open wound. We all know that life doesn't work that way, and when stories try to sell us this approach, we feel cheated.

The best thing you can give your reader is an ending that suites your story. If your story calls for an unhappy ending, so be it. An unhappy ending on a tale of misery is leagues better than one that brushes off all of the still open conflicts. There are also some stories where the most satisfying endings are the ones where not every conflict is put to rest. It all depends on your story. When your ending provides closure, but doesn't explain away all of your conflicts, that's usually your best bet.

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