Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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What is conflict?

Beginners are always told to have conflict in every scene. Keep that story moving! But what is conflict?

Too often it is taken to mean an "Odd Couple's" squabbling. That's an easy and obvious conflict. For instance, she's an urban animal, into cappuccino and corporate power games, he works a small ranch and loves the land; they are thrown together when her company decides to develop land next to his; they meet as enemies, but sparks fly.... Many an amusing and sexy novel has been written on the premise of opposites attracting as much as they repel, but this is not the only form conflict can or should take.

Conflict can be more subtle, more complex, more interesting than "she says tomayto, he says tomahto." Conflict is opposing desires, mismatches, uncertainty, deadlines, pressures, incompatible goals, uneasiness, tension. We are all caught up in some of these conflicts every day. And so should your characters. A convincing story has many conflicts built into it, layered and connected. The first layer is inside your characters. Once you know what these are, you can use them to make the conflicts between the characters more convincing and interesting.

A character's inner conflict is not just being in two minds about something, not just being torn between obvious incompatibles ("I want to be a priest, and yet I love her") but is about being in a new situation where old attitudes and habits war with and hinder the need for change. For instance, a man who drives himself always to succeed because he doesn't want to be like his happy-go-lucky father is suddenly confronted with a situation where he isn't winning. Or an executive discovers that her ambition to be a vice president of her company is being thwarted by her own self-doubt. This war inside each of your characters makes them act and react in complex ways.

You show these internal conflicts not by means of internal dialogue (which, if not handled right, can be dull exposition), but by showing your characters responding to their own inner compulsions. She, for instance, decides to confront her own self-doubts by taking on a no-win project where the local people are opposing a development. She is determined to be hard-nosed, prove she's vice-president material. He is always confrontational, fearing that one minute of negotiation would be the first step to becoming a wimp like his father. You have a grade-A opposites-attract situation here, yet it is believable because we understand why each of them is acting the way they do, why they are foolishly stubborn, why it's important for each of them to win.

A character's inner conflict can be between what he thinks he wants and what he really wants. The rancher thinks he wants to be free of sissy emotion, but if he checked inside himself he'd find he was starving for love. The executive thinks she wants to work at head office, but actually she would be happier managing a regional branch. Each acts on this misunderstanding of his or her real desires or needs. The interest and tension in the story come as your characters realise (slowly or as a lightning-bolt) that, despite what they think they want, their actions always seemed aimed at some other goal. She keeps modifying the project to meet his environmental demands, despite knowing that head office won't like it, doing it because it feels like the right thing to do. He keeps engineering confrontations with that "stuck up city type" and he doesn't know why — but we do.

A good story has more than two people in it. Give the rancher a foreman, a friend of the rancher's father. They disagree about what the company is doing: the rancher thinks it's wrong, the foreman sees its good points. Incompatible goals are a good source of conflict. Here are two men who have worked together for years, suddenly on opposite sides of the fence. One works for the other, yet is the older man, so we have tensions between different sorts of authority and respect.

Secondary characters, like the foreman, also need their own inner conflicts, though the reader will only see these through the eyes of the main characters. The foreman could secretly want to bring peace between the rancher and his friend, the rancher's father, yet be reluctant to give up his role as proxy dad. What does he do? His inner conflicts make him a real person with his own motivation, and therefore as compelling in his own smaller role as the rancher and the executive are in their larger roles. A good story is when everyone comes alive.

Your layers of conflict can be used to delay realisations (will that stubborn rancher never understand his compulsion to keep squabbling with the executive?) or to create dramatic reversals (just as she's about to win, the executive's self-doubt rears up its ugly head. Is it the same old fear of failure, or is she reluctant to triumph over the rancher? What will she choose?) By combining and interweaving conflicts on many levels, both internal and external, you instantly make your story rich, messy, vibrant, real.

Conflict must always be resolved, and every layer you create needs its closure. A satisfying and economical way of achieving this is to use one big knot to close two or more conflicts together in the same action or in a double whammy, where one leads ineluctably to the next.

You resolve your central conflict by choosing a winner. Victory for one character is obviously defeat for another, and both must resolve more than the central conflict alone. The point of victory, if it's to be more than simply a moment of self-congratulation, has to give the winning character a final insight or a sudden moment of truth. The executive wins, but in the moment of victory she accepts what she has long suspected: that she deliberately modified the project to ensure that she would be kept in the regional office. She realises ruefully that she's no longer a driven big-city professional, but a woman who wants to live among friends. That final, culminating realisation or sudden bolt of truth doesn't have to be a wonderful moment, but it does have to be a convincing one. It has to resolve the tension you've created. We should finish your book convinced it could have happened no other way.

The executive has won the battle and, despite the fact that she changed the project because of him, the rancher thinks he's a loser like his father. He feels beaten, worthless, and vulnerable. For the first time he asks for help. His foreman, faced with the need to be a true friend, meets his moment of testing and resolves it by advising: talk to your father. So the rancher does, and has his own revelation: he has been equating love with failure. His defeat (resolution one) makes the foreman live up to his own sense of duty (resolution two) and that leads to the rancher shaking hands with his father (resolution three) and discovering his true inner self (resolution four, the big one). How do you show, in action, that the rancher's revelation is also a life-changing one? He's a man who acts on his principles: let him do it here. The executive tentatively suggests they work together as business partners. He challenges her to make instead a life-long deal: husband and wife. And the rancher wins.

Each layer of conflict has been resolved in a daisy chain of inter-connectedness, one closure bringing the closure of another. The executive achieves a goal she truly wants. The rancher achieves the goal he didn't know he wanted. They both have achieved their goals through the resolution of all the layers of conflict you established at the beginning. So go on, give your story that traditional resolution: the kiss.

And the foreman? He's achieved his goal being a good friend to both the son and the father. His reward? The two old men go fishing, and he catches the big one.