(Sorry to be not here for awhile. I’ve been away…but now I’m back!)
Today I want to talk about CONFLICT and how it affects the story. We all know that without conflict in a story there really is no story. But how much conflict is enough or too much?
The right amount of conflict sifted throughout the story is what keeps a reader from being bored and what adds the spice to the soup, so to speak.
Why do we need conflict? Let’s say you are all packed up and you are going on a trip, so you have loaded up your car and you are excited to get going. You settle in the driver’s seat and turn on the engine, but nothing happens. You try again and maybe again, because you are hoping that if you try multiple times the engine will turn over. But it doesn’t, so you get out of the car, after you realize that you are out of gas, and your trip is postponed until you can get juice for your car.
This is much the same as a reader starting a new book. They look forward to the journey, they are excited, they settle down in a quiet corner and open the book. They begin to read, but after a few pages they are starting to feel like they have been let down. They try again and maybe again, a few more pages, a couple more chapters, hoping that sooner or later, the book will take off. When it doesn’t, they disappointingly close the book. The journey had never begun.
So what is the similarity here? The book had no gas? Exactly. The driving force which we all know as CONFLICT was not there.
So what is conflict? Tension and suspense. Tension and suspense should begin in the very first paragraph, better still in the very first line. That of course is called the hook. Conflict can be anything that grabs the reader’s attention, makes the reader want to read further, creates an interest, pushes a reader’s eyes farther along, line by line, page by page, with interest.
You surely have heard of many people saying, they started a book and read into the night, into the wee hours of the morning simply because they could not put that book down. Or if they had willpower enough to close the book and go to sleep, they waited anxiously the next day, or whenever they could, to get back to the book. This is a book with gas to fuel the reader onward.
There are many different kinds of conflict. The book might be about war, about violence, or it might be about peace, or just about a character’s inner turmoil or feelings. Conflict does not have to be violent but it has to be driven, or in better words, it has to be the driving aspect behind the words.
Usually there is an external conflict that is fueled by internal conflicts, all very much like a hurricane or tornado. And the person who has created this conflict is of course the writer. But unless the writer finds readers, then the story goes no further. It might be stashed away in a drawer, under a bed, or in a cupboard. So once a reader has started reading, then all the conflict that the writer has planted in the story is reaped by the reader. The reader does this, by asking questions in his/her head.
Let’s take an example of a beginning conflict from my soon to be published novel Death and Deceit.
He rose because he could not sleep, a nightly venture, nothing new. It was hard to sleep when memories invaded every dream. Either Julia was hiding somewhere or his mother was crying. He hated the looks of his mother. There was always something…a black eye, a bruised arm, a sore leg, a broken tooth. But she still found smiles for Julia and him. She seemed to have them tucked away behind the swollen cheek or the battered, swollen nose.
Okay, in the first line a reader might immediately wonder, why can’t this character sleep? And because it’s a nightly venture and really nothing new, the reader knows right off that it is not just this night that the character can’t sleep.
Now we hear a bit about why he cannot sleep. It’s his memories that are keeping him awake. So a reader might wonder now, what are those memories? In this first para, a reader is not left long without an answer. It’s Julia and his mother. By reading further a reader can figure out that his mother has been treated badly, but still stays strong for her children. Let’s read on.
Because of those smiles he managed to go on, day by day. But Julia was sullen, defiant, and he trembled in the other cot across from her bed many nights, while their father entered the room and made her cry. He was glad that his father had neglected him.
Now the reader knows that not only was the mother abused but Julia was as well, and maybe the character (her brother) was feeling guilty because of this. Let’s read on.
He was happy when his father went away and never returned. He was not happy when Julia did the same. That left just him and his mother. She was so proud of him and he did things to make her proud. He wanted to see her smile again. He wanted to make her happy but the dream that reoccurred more than any other was not a happy one, it was a dream of horror. For on his happiest occasion, she left him and from then on he wandered through his life looking for someone to protect, in order to end the dreams.
So now we know how the character feels about his father. But what about that dream of horror? This is not just about abuse now, it is about something more. The writer is stirring the pot, adding more conflict, more tension and suspense. Now the reader wants to know about the terrible dream, the one that keeps him awake more than any other. How did his mother leave him? And why did she? And why does it haunt him so? Let’s read on.
Today was no different…His life in Harbourside took him to bad places and good places. He helped many, and he tried to leave behind as many smiles as he could, remembering his mother. He vowed to avenge the helpless, and aid the oppressed; to him his name was Diego.
Who or what has this man become? His dreams are of the past, but his memories continue into the present and probably the future. His life is wound around the memories and the constant reminder that he did not help Julia, and he could not help his mother. The reader might wonder if he is now living a life of helping people who are helpless, it certainly sounds like that. But this man is tortured. It seems that no matter how many good deeds he does, it will never avenge his sister or mother.
I call this a beginning conflict because this part of the conflict or this particular conflict is only the beginning. Readers bore easily so a writer knows he/she must add more conflict to the pot and stir in more suspense and tension in order to keep the reader’s attention.
In Death and Deceit, this is just the beginning of conflict, tension and suspense. After the initial introduction of this character, we do not hear from him for awhile. Readers might even begin to wonder what he has to do with the main storyline. And even when he is introduced into the story once again, readers might not recognize him. It takes many chapters before we realize the answers to this beginning part of the first chapter. And along the way conflict of many other kinds is added to the story, tension builds in others' lives and suspense of another kind creeps into the story as well. All fuel for the fire of story telling.
Now that we’ve talked about conflict, we should address the earlier question, how much is enough or too much? I would think or hope by now that I have explained how too little conflict can affect a story. It simply slows the story down to a crawl and eventually dies out, when the reader stops reading.
But how much conflict is too much? I don’t think this will take much time to explain because most people will relate to it easily.
Ever watch a soap? Or these days perhaps a reality show? Usually the conflict is overbearing. This can happen in a novel as well. If the writer believes that inserting conflict on top of conflict is going to hold the reader’s attention then that writer has gone overboard and will likely crash and burn.
What I mean to say is if you add too much conflict so that every time the reader turns a page some new conflict arises, before long the reader is not going to be bored as with too little conflict but will more than likely become irritated and maybe a bit confused.
This can turn a reader off just as quickly as too little conflict. So keep the conflict even and balanced. It’s tricky to do, but worth the time it takes.
Happy Reading and Writing everyone! Please don’t hesitate to jump in and comment on how you feel about conflict in a story.Also if you want to read more on Death and Deceit, read this excerpt from Twimagination