NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: conflict

NaNoWriMo Boot Camp: Literary Conflict. Essential Novel Prep. #thewritersaurus #amwriting #nanowrimo

Click here to see all the previous posts in the NaNoWriMo Boot Camp series.

This post is an expansion on my theory of things you need to have planned out before you sit down to write your novel. Please read that master post before reading this one. Today, we’re talking about conflict.

Conflict is in every story. It’s what drives the plot. Yet it’s easy for casual readers to miss the importance of conflict. In fact, they might not even be aware of its presence at all. This can be a sign of masterful storytelling. This ignorance can also cause problems for beginning writers.

As a new writer, I faced this problem. All my attempts at writing novels petered out after twenty-five pages or so. Looking back, I had interesting story ideas and well-developed characters, but they lacked conflict. I would write a few scenes establishing the world and my characters’ personalities, but there was nothing to force them to change or act differently. My stories all petered out before the end of the first act.

Why? Because while I had all the other things you need to write a novel, I didn’t have conflict. Below are some tips to help you learn fro my mistakes.

What is conflict? defines literary conflict as follows” …A literary device used for expressing a resistance the protagonist of the story finds in achieving his aims or dreams. The conflict is a discord that can have external aggressors or can even arise from within the self. It can occur when the subject is battling his inner discord, at odds with his surroundings or it may be pitted against others in the story.”

So remember what I said about goals in the last post on character development? That’s right–your protagonist needs a goal.

Why does the protagonist need a goal?

If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal, then they do what we all do when we think we have everything we want: stay home and binge Game of Thrones. Or what the in-world equivalent is. If you as the author try to force them into unmotivated action, it will seem unrealistic and out of character to the reader.

But if you give them a goal, they’ll start doing things to achieve that goal. Which means you have a story.

It’s not enough to have an antagonist …

… your antagonist also needs to have a goal. And it can’t be simply to be villainous for villainy’s sake. See the previous NaNoWriMo Boot Camp post on character development for more info.

Your villain must have a goal, and it must be mutually exclusive with your protagonist’s goal. This means that if one person achieves their goal, the other fails. Otherwise, why is the villain targeting the protagonist? If there’s a way for both of them to ‘win,’ why aren’t they working together to make it happen?

An example of a mutually exclusive goal set is a homeowner who wants to continue living in their family home, and a real-estate magistrate who wants to tear down their house to build a mall. If one person wins, the other loses.

You must keep the conflict going

There’s two ways to do this.  One, make sure the protagonist doesn’t accomplish their goal; two, replace that goal with a new goal. Think The Davinci Code. Every time they find a clue, it tells them the location of the next one, which becomes their new goal.

In review

when planning your conflict, remember these points:

  • Your protagonist and antagonist must have mutually exclusive goals.
  • If your conflict resolves before the end of the story, you must replace it with a new conflict.

How do you develop your story’s conflict? Let us know in the comments! 

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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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