Thou shalt have conflict on every page
Adding conflict to your story is just as important as tension and character development. It adds tension to a story by creating a level of uncertainty. The reader knows there are two opposing forces, and has no choice but to keep reading in order to find out who will succeed. Conflict keeps readers turning pages. Conflict can happen on many levels, and I’m not talking about fist fights and car chases. The kind we’re going to look at today is the conflict between two characters, also known as relationship conflict.
But what if I’m not writing a romance?
Whoa, back right up. Relationship conflict and romance are not mutually inclusive. Every story that has two or more characters will experience some degree of relationship conflict. This can be jealousy among friends, disagreements between partners, suspicion amongst allies, and of course, all out war between rivals. There are many degrees and styles of conflict which all lend themselves to different situations and outcomes.
Even best friends fight
No two people agree 100% of the time (and if they did, they’d be no fun). We are all different creatures, and so are our characters. No matter how tight knit your dynamic duo is, they will invariably find something to disagree about. In Harry Potter some of the greatest uncertainty comes not from the looming threat of Voldemort, but from the fight between Ron and Harry when Ron doubts Harry’s truthfulness and turns his back on him. The reader wants nothing more than to see the two best friends back together, and so has to keep reading to make sure things work out.
Something’s not right here
This kind of relationship conflict comes about when a known character’s behaviour takes a sudden turn, leaving their friends and loved ones blindsided. Sometimes the reader knows the cause of this conflict, sometimes not, in either case, they need to keep reading to find out what will happen. In TV’s The FlashBarry goes from confiding everything in his best friend Iris, to suddenly keeping secrets and shutting her out of parts of his life. This causes her to be suspicious of him and puts a strain on their relationship.
That uneasy feeling
The sudden arrival of an unknown character, or the turning of a previous foe into an ally can be a difficult transition. Depending on your character’s willingness to trust people, they may find it difficult to find a working rhythm with them. Even if your character does trust the newbie, you can drop hints to your reader that they shouldn’t, creating unease that can only be resolved by getting to the next chapter. InSupernatural the demon Ruby presents herself as an ally, and even goes to great lengths to prove it. But her inherent nature keeps the characters, and reader, uncertain as to her true motives.
But wait, there’s more
There are a myriad of other conflict types that can occur between characters, where they may have their beliefs and/or loyalties tested. Where secrets are revealed and sides chosen. Where the Good Guy and the Big Bad face off to decide the fate of the universe, and all of humanity hinges on the Good Guy and his best friend being a team again or else we’re all doomed!
As you can see, there’s a lot resting on the balance of relationships.
Conflict gone wrong
Quantity. The number one reason conflict goes wrong, is that there isn’t enough of it.
Pointless Conflict. If the reason for the conflict bears no impact on the progression of the plot, then your readers aren’t going to be worried by it. The impact doesn’t have to be direct, e.g. turmoil in the hero’s love life may cause him to lose focus in the big battle, therefore the conflict with his love interest is important. The conflict between his piano teacher and her milk delivery guy might not be so relevant.
Petty Conflict. Conflict should create tension by making your readers anxious for a resolution. It should not make your readers roll their eyes in exasperation and want to climb into the book and slap some sense into your characters.
This article was written for NaNoPlotMo
Image credit: Steve Ward