Before you put pen to page or hands to keyboard, there is one thing absolutely every novel needs:
A weak conflict–or none at all–is usually why a reader loses interest early in a novel or halfway through.
The Cardinal Rule
If you’ve ever watched a soap opera, daytime or otherwise, you know the cardinal rule. It applies to any drama or comedy, but it’s most obvious in serial television shows. Once a character reaches a moment of happiness, that character disappears until things go wrong again.
If everyone’s happy or at least content, the reader or watcher isn’t interested. Without conflict, there’s no story. There’s no suspense, no question that keeps the reader turning pages in the hope of an answer, and no one to root for or against. This is true whether you’re writing a novel, telling a ghost story around a campfire, or improvising a skit at your local comedy club.
The best way to have a strong conflict is for your main character to want something hard to achieve.
If you haven't read or watched Gone With The Wind, Beware – Spoliers below
For example, throughout almost all of Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is madly in love with Ashley Wilkes and wants him to love and marry her. There are many obstacles, some present from Day One, others that develop. Here are just a few:
- He and Scarlett are unsuited to one another (she’s driven, ambitious, outspoken, high-spirited, and has little interest in book learning; he prefers a quiet and scholarly life, is reserved, refined, and has little interest in starting a business or earning money)
- Ashley gets engaged to his cousin, Melanie, which is a family tradition
- Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother on the rebound and is quickly widowed, limiting her social interactions, and bonding her to Melanie
- The Civil War begins, and Ashley leaves to fight in it, perhaps never to return
As Scarlett's experiences show, life should be hard for your main character. As you plot your novel, resist the temptation to allow your protagonist smooth sailing or to make things easy. Instead, think about how things can get worse. This is one time negative thinking is a plus!
Your First Page
There needs to be conflict from the first page of your novel. There’s a saying that your protagonist must want something on page one, even if it’s only a glass of water. The reason behind that saying is that if your protagonist wants nothing, there's no conflict.
So although there’s nothing about Ashley on the first page of Gone With The Wind, nor about the upcoming Civil War, we learn in the second paragraph of the book that Scarlett’s internal nature—willful, outspoken, and “lusty with life” is “distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor” and the strictures Southern society places on women. Because there’s immediate conflict, the reader is willing to wait a while as the larger conflicts, both personal and societal, unfold.
Further, seeds are sown about the Civil War in the very first scene. Margaret Mitchell doesn’t do that by simply telling us war is on the horizon or by giving us a history lesson. Instead, she frames the prospect of war in a very personal way to our protagonist. Scarlett is talking to twin brothers who both carry a torch for her. She wants to hear about them being thrown out of school (yet another conflict), and they want to talk about war, a subject that bores her. She becomes impatient and insists there won’t be any war.
Finally, in that very first scene, Scarlett becomes upset, but hides it, when the twins tell her Ashley is getting engaged to his cousin Melanie. This is yet another conflict that will feed into the larger story arcs.
What does this mean for you?
If you're searching for ideas for a novel, are in the midst of writing one and are stuck, or your feel your scenes are dragging, you are likely missing conflict. Look again at your main character. What does that person want and why? What obstacles are in the way? That's where you'll find your conflict and your story.
L. M. Lilly
P.S. Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel provides a clear, quick way to figure out a plan for your novel. It includes questions to walk you through the process, examples from well-known stories such as Gone With The Wind, and tips for when you are stuck. It's free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers (reg. $0.99 for Kindle, $4.99 paperback).