Novel writing: conflict
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 23:09
For the second installment of my foray into novel writing, I’ll address the topic of conflict. I consider it to be second in importance only to characters, and more or less synonymous with plot. Let me be clear: this article is not going to be a list of different basic plots, nor will it be a compilation of popular ones. Instead, I intend to talk about what makes a plot good or bad.
A great conflict begins and ends with, you guessed it, the characters. It doesn’t matter if the universe is at stake; if the people who are trying to save it aren’t fully committed to being interesting, the conflict won’t be engaging. Similarly, don’t let the enormity or complexity of the plot overshadow the awesomeness and/or complexity of your characters. I’ve already elaborated on what makes good characters, so I won’t harp more on it here, but always keep their importance in the back of your mind when writing a plot.
Depending on what you’re writing, there may be one major source of conflict in your novel, or several smaller “sub-plots” running throughout. With the former, make sure that the conflict is suitably earthshattering in your protagonist’s eyes; otherwise, your readers will definitely find better things to do. With the latter, ensure that the plots not only make sense, but are also not so hopelessly entangled as to confuse the reader. George R. R. Martin does an excellent job of this in his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, so if you need an example, go nuts on those books.
Additionally, a plot must be organized well. If it is not presented in chronological order, then the reason it’s not needs to make sense. Recall the structure we all learned in grade school: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. It is not necessary to stick strictly to guidelines, but they can help when your ideas are all jumbled in your head without a foundation to stand on.
One big killer of characters and conflict alike is cliché. Clichés detract from your writing for many reasons. For one, they’re not your writing – somebody else coined that phrase (probably Shakespeare), and it sounds out of place in your writing style. For another, using cliché, whether it is in the form of a phrase or an obvious knockoff of some other narrative, makes for predictability, which makes for boredom (see “The Hunger Games”).
Remember, you don’t have to have the entire plot planned out before you sit down to write. Having a general idea with some key plot points is more than enough. More important is getting the time and motivation to actually write. As you write, you gain valuable insight into the plot because you’re examining it with more detail than you could possibly do in the planning stages. From this information you can decide what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be elaborated on. In essence, my advice for good conflict is: write!