In a continuation of the Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013 series (Post 1: Basics of Plotting, Post 2: Creating a Character) I want to talk about one of the most important things found in a gripping, engaging novel: Conflict.
Conflict is something every great book has. Usually in spades. It is the reason characters do things, it is the source of why characters think outside of the box. Conflict is the source of problems, tensions, and motivators for characters. Characters need conflict in order to grow. It is a little like air; without it, we flounder about, twitch, and eventually die.
However, conflicts aren't just necessarily problems needing solved. Problems can be conflicts. However, there is a difference between a conflict and a character having to fix an out lightbulb. A character can just replace a lightbulb. A conflict is when something comes between the character and his or her desire to replace the lightbulb.
Bob has a lightbulb he needs to replace. He picks up a new bulb and replaces the burnt-out one.
Problem is resolved.
There is no conflict here.
There are two burnt-out bulbs. Bob only has one lightbulb. Bob must choose which bulb to replace.
At this point, there is no complete resolution. Bob has to make a choice. Which bulb does he replace?
A conflict almost always involves forcing a character to make a choice. He can't (usually) do both things. Bob has one spare lightbulb, but two burnt-out bulbs. Which choice will he make? Why will he make it?
Conflict is the creation of situations where two opposing forces meet, and the characters have to deal with it. In the case of this example, it is the conflict between two burnt-out lightbulbs.
One gets fixed. The other does not.
In a novel, a conflict should be more severe than lightbulbs, of course, and the opposing forces should be other characters. In a romance novel, a source of conflict might be the lady worrying the man is cheating on her. Is the man actually cheating? Is there a second woman? Doubt, regardless of whether or not the situation is real, can create conflict. Conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, from large, book-encompassing conflicts to small, micro conflicts.
Novels should have many different conflicts. During NaNoWriMo, conflicts are your friend. They can get your characters into trouble and out of trouble. They enhance the pacing. They force people to do things they otherwise would not do.
In short, if you're ignoring a chance to add conflict, you're ignoring a chance to enhance your book. NaNoWriMo is a month to play, to explore writing, to make characters go that extra length. It is a chance to spit out as many words as you can. conflicts add a lot of words.
Before you start randomly adding conflicts to your book, however, you need to understand what conflict is, and the things that are needed to make a conflict realistic. (I know, I'm using that realism word when dealing with NaNoWriMo. Sorry, bad habit.)
A conflict is made of several parts. There is the source of the conflict. Who started it? Why did they start it? What was their goal when they started it, if applicable? Justified conflicts are so much more delicious than random events. Some days, we all want to type, “Rocks fall. Everybody dies.” Realistically? Justification can make conflicts so much stronger.
Now that you've thought about the whodunit and whydunit, think about who they're doing it to. How would this individual react to the new conflict? This can cause conflict, too. Because people do react to things in different ways. Someone who is told their girlfriend is cheating on them might get snappy with their best friend.
Especially if their best friend is the person they think their girl is cheating with — even if that isn't the truth of the matter.
Conflict is followed by consequences of the conflict's existence. Who is hurt? Who is helped? Why are they hurt? Why is someone helped by the existence of the conflict? how does the existence of the conflict move your story forward?
Yes, character development can be a good reason for a conflict to exist. But, consider this: All things happen for a reason.
Conflicts should be the same way.
So, in literary terms, conflicts create a rise of action. A build up of tension, leading to a moment of truth. This moment of truth is when the character decides what to do about an existing conflict. In Lord of the Rings, the moment of truth was when Frodo was standing on Mount Doom, deciding whether or not to keep the One Ring.
He decided to keep the ring. The moment of truth was over.
The resolution phase began. However, someone, one little twisted, corrupted hobbit, reacted to the change in conflict, the resolution with that unhappy ending for all, and created another conflict: The theft of the One Ring.
A new moment of truth was born. What would this twisty little precious-stealing hobbitsy do with the One Ring?
Why, jump into Mount Doom with it, if you must know. The moment of truth has come and it has gone, and the resolution of the conflict has begun: The Ring was destroyed.
The resolution is a fancy word for consequence of action. For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and no good deed goes unpunished. I mean, no conflict can be concluded without someone facing some sort of consequence for it, be it a good one or a bad one.
As you plot through October, think about your conflicts. Think about the consequences of what your characters say and do.
This is really where the heart of your novel is. Give yourself a chance to make as many conflicts as possible. If you write yourself into a corner, think about how the consequences of actions can provide a way out for your character. Did your character piss off someone important? Grudges often cause people to do strange things. After all, if someone hates someone enough, a quick death is unacceptable. They might help someone out long enough to keep them alive so they can really torture them in the future.
Vindictive people think in the long term. Really vindictive people can be downright terrifying, and serve as excellent tools for creating evils for your character.
Just remember, there are many more people in your novel than your main character, and the things these people do can — and should — impact your character. You want your character to face the consequences of their actions, but you can also have them become the victim of consequence as well. It's also important that others should face the consequences for the actions of the main character, as well.
It's a lot to track, but, it can really make a novel so much more vibrant if you're forcing people to deal with real problems, and deeper conflicts, as the book progresses.
Not all conflicts need to be huge and encompass long arcs. After all, the dilemma of having two out lightbulbs and only one bulb can be very interesting… especially if they're vampire repellent bulbs, and you don't have enough light to save everyone present.
This leads me to my next point: Your conflicts should have stakes. Consequences. If they screw up, someone should get hurt on some level. Even if they succeed at what they're doing, keep holding onto the idea that someone can get hurt. I really recommend that you make a list of all of the people who have faced problems due to your character's actions. It can help create more conflict down the road, and make the story feel richer and deeper as a result.
Good luck, novelist.