Conflicts seem pretty straightforward. As people, we encounter conflicts all the time so we feel like we’re pretty much experts on the topic. But often aspiring writers do not think about conflict in the right way.
If you aren’t defining conflict accurately, your novel is going to lack tension, suspense, and structure.
So what is the real definition of conflict?
Conflict is what happens when a character wants something and a person, group of people, creature, animal, event, injury, illness (or anything else!) stands in their way.
Note that conflict has two parts:
1. What the character wants.
2. What stands in the character’s way.
If a scenario has both pieces, then a conflict is present. But surprisingly often, writers leave out one of these two crucial pieces. Today I want to explain why this happens and how you can fix it.
Conflict is more than just a “bad thing”
It’s easy to view conflicts as simply “bad things” that happen. But not all bad things are conflicts. If you brainstorm some nasty things that might happen to your character, the majority of what you come up with will not be conflicts. For example:
- Getting stung by a bee.
- Falling in front of your classmates or coworkers.
- Having to go to the doctor.
- Getting in a traffic accident.
- Being late for work.
All of the above situations suck. They are bad things. But they are not conflicts. Why? Because they are not acting as obstacles. They are not preventing the character from achieving an established goal.
Getting stung by a bee hurts, but so what? People get stung by bees all the time. You’re not going to drum up sympathy for your character just because of a bee sting.
So how can we turn the above bad situations into conflicts? We have to put them in opposition of what the character wants. This means that knowing the character’s goals is vital. But what counts as a goal?
The Three types of Goals
There are essentially three possible goals you can throw obstacles in front of. These goals are:
1. The Story Goal.
This is the primary, direct objective. This is the goal your character spends the bulk of the story attempting to achieve.
Lisa: You should remember Lisa from our discussion about character development. Lisa’s story goal is to get into a good college and get out of poverty.
Possible Story Goal Obstacle: Her father will not co-sign on her student loans because he thinks she should work at his store instead.
2. Stepping Stones.
These are minor goals that help the character achieve the story goal.
Lisa: One of Lisa’s goals is to steal the test answers to her final exam so she can graduate at the top of her high school class. This is a “stepping stone” to the story goal because having the best grade will help her get into college.
Possible Stepping Stone Obstacle: Lisa is caught before she is able to steal the test scores.
3. The Character’s Desire to Avoid Their “Sore Spot.”
The sore spot is created when the character feels the opposite emotion as the one they want to feel (the opposite of their motivation).
Lisa: Lisa wants to feel secure and accepted. The opposite of secure and accepted is insecure and unaccepted so those are her “sore spots.”
Possible Obstacle: A boy won’t date Lisa because he thinks she is too poor for his family. This makes her feel unaccepted and insecure.
When Conflicts are just “bad things”
When a conflict doesn’t have both components (what the character wants and something standing in the way), the conflict becomes just a bad thing that happened, like getting stung by a bee. If this sounds like you’re novel, you are faced with some major structural problems.
But it is possible to turn many “bad things” into true obstacles during revisions. However this can only be done if you are able to first identify the three goals available for you to work with (note that there will be many “stepping stone” goals throughout the novel).
To practice, let’s look at a few of the bad situations we discussed early in this article and turn them into true obstacles for Lisa:
In itself, a traffic accident is not a true obstacle for Lisa, but we can change that:
True Obstacle: Lisa gets into a traffic accident and her car is totaled. If she gets a new car, she will no longer be able to pay the entrance fees for her college applications.
Let’s look at a couple more:
Bad Thing: Getting stung by a bee.
True Obstacle: Lisa is stung by a bee the morning of her final exam. She has an allergic reaction and has to go to the hospital. Without a good score on her final exam, her chances of getting into college are hurt.
Bad Thing: Falling in front of her classmates.
True Obstacle: Lisa falls in front of her classmates and the boy she likes makes a jab at her saying that she comes from bad stock and will never make anything out of herself. This makes her feel insecure and unaccepted.
Voila! Presto-Chango! Now we have some real conflicts on our hands!
When Conflicts Just Don’t Fit
Sometimes conflicts just don’t fit into your novel. Either they are too peripheral to be made relevant to the novel through the means demonstrated above or to do so would require such significant restructuring and rearranging that it’s not worth preserving.
If this happens to you, don’t despair! If you wrote your novel thinking about “bad things” instead of true obstacles, there’s a good chance your novel will need a major structural overhaul. This seems horrible and awful and discouraging, but remember, you want your novel to be the best it can be! You want to do a good job! You want a finished product you can be proud of!
So go forth and create true conflicts and discover what an amazing difference it makes in your novel.
Today I want you to look closely at the construction of your novel. This can be a scary thing to do because seeing big problems can be overwhelming, but it will be worth it, I promise.
First, identify the Story Goal and the Sore Spot. You might want to write these down and stick them somewhere you can see them often.
Now go through several scenes of your novel and determine whether you’ve got a genuine obstacle or just a “bad thing” that happened. Write down the following:
Fill in the blanks just as we did above for Lisa. If what you have right now does not fit into this formula (or if you have to lie and squint at it to make it fit), work on turning your bad thing into a genuine obstacle.
Do this with a few scenes and then reward yourself with something fun and relaxing. This can be a hard and stressful part of structural revision.
What is your character’s sore spot? Why?
This post is a part of Novel Boot Camp. If you don’t know what that is, click here.