Everything, my friends. Conflict is everything.
Don’t believe me? That’s ok. I’ll break it down for you, starting with the most basic definition of a novel I could think of: something happens to someone.
Who is this someone? Your main character. What is this something? That my friends, is plot. And what is plot? Conflict.
Think about it this way. You have this totally amazing premise, about this futuristic, dystopian world where the entire population has been divided into these things called “factions” that emphasize a certain characteristic of human nature. You also have your main character, a girl named Beatrice Prior, who lives with her family in the most peaceful of the factions.
“Sounds cool,” says your friend, as you excitedly explain your brand new novel idea to her. “What happens to her?”
If you recognize the premise that I’m talking about, your mind is most likely way ahead of that ignorant little friend of yours. What happens to her? More like what doesn’t happen to her? She leaves her family behind to join the faction of her dreams only to figure out that it has the most intense initiation program of all. She battles bullies, evil instructors, and her own physical limitations to make it past the first cut only to be attacked and almost killed by one of her best friends. She makes it to the second round and starts to excel only to learn that her success is going to give away her most precious secret to the very people who would kill her for it. She finally manages to hide her divergence, passes initiation (with flying colors, I might add), and becomes a full fledged member only to have the entire faction taken over and turned into mindless soldiers who begin mowing down her old home. She fights them off, gets back her boyfriend, and stops the horrible simulation only to have her parents killed and her home destroyed in the process.
And that’s only the first book.
Bingo people. That’s what keeps readers up past midnight mumbling about one more chapter or bumping into trees because they can’t put the-stinking-book down. That’s plot. That’s conflict.
Conflict is the obstacles that your characters face, whether they be emotional (internal conflict) or physical (external conflict), as they go about trying to achieve their goal.
Conflict is what drives your story forward. It quickens your pace, forces your characters to act in new ways, drives your story and change arcs through the dark tunnel of plot to that wonderful light of The End. Most novels, most good ones at least, have multiple forms of conflict. From the so called main conflict (Tris vs. Jeanine for example) to many smaller conflicts (Tris vs. Eric, Tobias vs. Marcus, Tris vs. Caleb), to the inner conflict (Tris vs. her guilt, Tobias vs. his anger) it’s important to pepper your story with lots and lots of it.
How do I do this? Well, you most likely have some of your conflict already figured out. Most story concepts have an inborn major conflict, this would be your basic “Jack fights the bad dude and wins” type thing. While figuring that out is extremely important, I’m going to assume that you have already decided upon your major conflict and looking to add more. Here’s a few practical tips that will help you do that:
Analyzing your character’s goals for conflict: An easy way to flush out more conflict is figure out what your character wants and keep it from them. Does your character want, more than anything, to make it through her faction’s initiation? Put horrible tests and evil instructors in her way. Does she want her family to stay together? Make her brother betray her. Does she really, really want to get a glass of water? Make her trip.
Conflicting Wants: As a general rule, your character should want more than one thing and those wants should be in opposition to each other. For example, at the beginning of Divergent, Tris wants nothing more than to strike out on her own and join the Dauntless, but she just can’t stand the idea of leaving her family behind. Her wants are in conflict with one another, and it is this inner conflict that propels us through the first portion of the book.
Expect the Unexpected: Another way to come up with conflict (and to help you figure out where you should put it) is to figure out what your character expects to happen, and then change it. So your character decides to run off and visit her brother over in the Erudite complex. She’s not quite sure what she expects to happen, but she’s hoping to get some encouragement from seeing him. Is this what she gets? No, she gets a harsh reality check when he badmouths their family and turns his back on her, then an even bigger knock when she gets cornered by the Erudite leader, Jeanine. That was definitely not what she was hoping for.
What’s the worst thing that could happen to your character right now?: This question is another way of thinking about the last point. For every scene you should find out what the worst possible thing that could happen to your character is - then do it. Tris has just survived the Dauntless initiation. She’s ready to join and start her life as a full fledged member. What’s the worst thing that could happen to her? Well, Dauntless could be destroyed, taken over by the Erudite and made into mindless killing machines who begin mowing down her old home.
I hope you found this post informative and that it will help you power through your next (or current) draft. Just remember - when in doubt, add more conflict, you kind of really need it.