The shape of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.
Internal: I’ve already talked a bit about this (see Part I). What makes things personal for your protagonist? Whatever drives the character and invests him or her in the outcome will invest the reader as well. Maybe there’s a killer after your hero or heroine. Maybe the killer is after someone they love. Maybe they’ve been accused of a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, something has to make the hero or heroine cares very deeply about events so that when we experience the story through their lens, we care as well.
External conflict: What is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.
So, what internal and external conflicts are driving your plot? What’s keeping those pages turning? Where’s your sense of urgency?
Whether you’re writing a romance and the primary tension is whether the hero and heroine will get together or a science fiction epic about the overthrow of an evil empire, a good novel needs three things. The reader must:
- fear that the protagonists might fail
- understand the very real danger of that failure
- care deeply about the outcome
In order for the reader to do any of these things, of course, the author must plot out:
- what’s at stake
- what form their adversity will take
- what face evil will wear
There’s rarely a one-word answer for what’s at stake, since there will need to be tension throughout the book, and a single note will start falling on deaf ears. Let’s take a pretty straightforward plot for example—a hostage story. The main goal will be to get the hostages out alive. The consequences of that failure are obvious, and if the author makes the readers care about the characters, they’re emotional invested in the outcome. However, things need to happen during the story to make us believe in this danger—not just “If not this, then that,” as in “If we don’t get the money, we start killing.” Obstacles need to be thrown in the way of the this which threaten to precipitate the that. For example, legalities will prohibit actually giving the hostage-takers what they want. So people will try to go about things another way. They’ll call a negotiator. Maybe that negotiator is having a bad day, and personal issues threaten the negotiation. Maybe he or she doesn’t make it to the scene or the baddies refuse to communicate or they’re all really just playing for time. Maybe the negotiation is going well, but one of the hostage takers is less stable than the others. Or maybe one of the hostages is a hotshot and wants to play hero (or maybe =is= the hero). The important thing is that things go wrong.
If everything goes well, according to plan, there’s not much tension, there’s no suspense and the ending is a foregone conclusion. And what about the victims? Is one in need of medication? In danger of doing something stupid that might get the others killed? In league with the baddies? Any of these wrinkles will add character to the face of adversity. You don’t want to end up with a featureless, forgettable face, but one with character, stamped with tragedy and triumphs.
Because you must also have triumphs. Just as things have to go wrong, sometimes things have to go right. A piece of the puzzle falls into place or a battle is won on the way to winning the war. Things have to go more and more wrong, tensions have to rise, but not so continuously that there’s no relief. Just as we have to believe that the good guys could fail, we need to have hope that they will win. They must have the means to fight back, otherwise the inequality of power will make any end triumph unconvincing.
Okay, so you’ve got your characters and conflicts and you’ve written the most amazing novel. Now you’re ready for the publishing process, which I’ll post tomorrow as Part III.