Fifty Shades of Conflict

The caller identifies herself as Wendy and says she has a question.

“I’ve been sending my suspense novel around to literary agents for the past three months, but so far no luck. One of them said it lacks a strong central conflict. What did she mean?”

I get calls like this once or twice a week. Literary agents often toss out generic comments that leave writers scratching their heads. “She probably means there isn’t enough conflict in the story.”

“She’s wrong!” Wendy blurts out. “I have plenty of conflict in my novel. Kate—she’s my main character—has to deal with all kinds of bad things. Bam! bam! bam! It’s one thing after another. If I try to jam any more conflict into this story, I think my head might explode!”

“What’s your novel about?”

“Well, it’s about a girl named Kate growing up in a little town in Oregon, who falls in love with a boy in high school . . . They fight a lot, so she breaks up with him. Then she goes to college, where she fights with her roommate, and one of her professors starts hitting on her . . . then she learns that her parents are getting a divorce, and she gets really depressed. Then she falls in love with Nicholas, who turns out to be a serial killer . . .”

“Whoa! She falls in love with a serial killer?”

“Right. That makes for a good conflict, right?”

“Sure. How long is your novel?”

“A little over four hundred pages.”

“At what point does the serial killer enter the picture?”

“Oh, around page 300.”

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Wendy doesn’t have a suspense novel with a central story line revolving around a young college woman and a serial killer. What she has is a story about a young woman’s problems with her high school boyfriend, her professor, her roommate, and her parents, with a serial killer tacked onto the end.

“Okay, then what happens?” I ask Wendy.

“Well, Nicholas attempts to kill Kate six times. His first plan is to shoot her, but he can’t get her alone in the right place. Then he decides to strangle her, but ditto, same problem. He decides to run her down in his car, but she steps onto the curb just in time. She doesn’t even know he was going to do it. Heck, she doesn’t even know her life is in danger. Then he puts arsenic in her wine as they’re having dinner, but . . .”

And so it goes. Kate does, indeed, have plenty of conflict in her life. But conflict by itself isn’t enough, even if there’s a lot of it. The elements of the story must be stitched together into one central conflict that runs through the entire novel. Then that conflict should mature in a way that builds and maintains a strong sense of anticipation in the reader. Worrying about that central conflict and how it’s going to be resolved is what will keep the reader turning pages.

The Elements of a Strong Plot

For writers like Wendy, I offer a quick primer on plot development based on the outline below, which I use in my Fundamentals of Novel Writing workshop.

  1. There must be a recognizable, well-developed Protagonist with whom the reader can identify and sympathize, and who must face a major conflict at the beginning of the story.
  2. The Central Conflict must emerge immediately as the story opens, and it must be seen as specific, serious, and urgent by the protagonist, as well as by the reader. The protagonist then sets out to resolve the conflict. In the process, the protagonist becomes entwined in additional unexpected complications.
  3. The Plot Complications grow and build way beyond the initial problem. When one problem is overcome, another one pops up. The situation keeps getting worse and worse, drawing the reader further into the story.
  4. At the Crisis Point, everything seems lost. It appears to the reader that the protagonist is going to be defeated by the conflict.
  5. At the Climax, the protagonist overcomes the original problem.

Take another look at #3 above. That’s where a lot of promising novels fall flat. Most of the novel manuscripts I receive from newer writers have a well-defined protagonist, and many have a solid foundation for a viable central conflict. The most consistent plot problem I see is a lack of complications that keep the protagonist engaged in that central conflict. A stagnant plot will not build a sense of anticipation in the reader.

Let’s take Wendy’s novel. Nicholas, the serial killer, is introduced far too late in the novel to be an effective antagonist. He must emerge early, which means Wendy will have to dump most of the scenes leading up to that point. If anything from Kate’s growing-up years, high school, boyfriend, and her parents is relevant to the central conflict between her and Nicholas, then they’ll have to be brought in as background information or flashback. They should not be jammed into the story in chunks that will detract from the evolving central conflict, but rather blended into the story around that conflict.

Another issue is the nature of the conflict between Kate and Nicholas. After Nicholas is introduced, he tries to kill her on several occasions, but Kate dodges the proverbial bullet, car, and poison without even knowing she’s a target. Where’s the conflict in that? Kate has nothing to worry about because she doesn’t know there’s a threat. Simply having one thing after another happen to her isn’t enough to build a sense of anticipation in the reader. For that, Wendy will have to get Kate engaged in—and reacting to—the threat she’s facing. She must realize that she’s in danger, and she must devise a plan to survive.

The time to think about the nature of the central conflict is when the writer is developing the story. If Wendy wants a direct and personal conflict between Kate and Nicholas, she may place the story in an isolated setting like a cabin in the woods. A young woman stranded in a cabin facing a predator like Nicholas could certainly add up to a compelling suspense novel. On the other hand, if Wendy wants a more complex story involving Kate’s friends and police investigators, then the college setting would be better.

A central conflict is essential regardless of what type of novel you’re writing. Let’s look at some other examples.

From Baldacci to James, Conflict Matters

Whether you’re writing suspense, action, fantasy, romance, or mainstream fiction, the central conflict is what your story line depends on. Let’s look at some examples.

In a spy novel, the protagonist’s superior might say to the protagonist, “You have to find that microchip and destroy it before six o’clock tomorrow morning. If you don’t, the computers of every major financial institution in the nation will crash.”

That’s a specific goal, and it should be revealed early in the story. That will immediately give the reader something to wonder and worry about. How will the protagonist find the microchip before the deadline? The protagonist’s efforts to find the microchip, and the antagonist’s efforts to stop him from finding it, can make for some very dramatic scenes of conflict. The antagonist may try to kill the protagonist, or he may kidnap the protagonist’s family and hold them hostage, or he may find other ways to thwart the protagonist. Each time the good guy or the bad guy takes action against the other, it changes the central conflict in some way, makes it more complicated and more interesting. It feeds the tension.

If that sounds like something David Baldacci might publish, you’re right—and Baldacci is turning out one bestseller after another. He does that by introducing the central conflict early in the story and keeping the protagonist’s focus—and the reader’s focus—on attempting to resolve that central conflict as the story unfolds.

Let’s take another example. A romance novel is much different from a suspense novel, but the central conflict develops in the same way. The protagonist is almost always a woman, and the conflict is always between her and her love interest. They share scenes of both romance and conflict as their relationship deepens and becomes more complicated, and the question on the reader’s mind is this: How will these two people overcome their differences and become a committed couple? There may be other elements of conflict in their lives, such as a demanding job or family members who object to the relationship, but these plot complications must strengthen the central conflict, not detract from it.

Take E. L. James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey. People call it mommy porn, but there’s more to it than the sex. The Fifty Shades books have sold in the millions, and it isn’t because of the erotic scenes. Most readers probably consider the sex to be entertaining, but what really keeps them turning pages is the tension that builds between the two main characters—a young, naïve woman and the control freak she falls in love with. As the story plays out, each scene contributes in some way to heighten that tension and to engage the reader in the resulting conflict as it matures. That’s why sales of the Fifty Shades novels have expanded beyond the somewhat limited market of erotica into the much wider market of mainstream fiction. It isn’t because the author was so clever at writing graphic erotica. It’s because she was savvy enough to construct a conflict that many women can relate to (relationship problems), she introduced the conflict early, and she allowed the conflict to build and grow more complicated as the story progressed.

Now that I think of it, Fifty Shades also offers some great examples of character arc. We’ll save that for a future blog post.