Today’s question from an Advanced Fiction Writing blog reader is about how to intensify the conflict in a novel. Leila writes:
I have the following problem: most times it’s easy for me to come up with a conflict for a story, but sometimes, such as the current book I’m writing, I find it difficult to come up with something of big scale.
Leila goes on to give a few details of her particular manuscript, but the main thing I think she wants to know is how to create more tension in the storyline, and how to make the conflicts and problems matter more.
Anytime this sort of question or issue comes up as I’m editing for a client, I always point them to a set of my favorite writing reference books: Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Maass is a literary agent who has a knack for helping writers see what makes for a strong story and creating excellent writing exercises to help you get there. For Leila and anyone else who wants to make their story tension stronger, I recommend starting with these two books.
Maass is fond of asking writers “How can you make this matter MORE?” and that is the question I’d have for Leila. There are a few ways to make a primary conflict in a novel matter more.
1) Make it more personal. In Leila’s story, she has a group of medical personnel trapped in a building to prevent them from creating an important cure for a disease. If one of the main characters is among those people being held in the building, then Leila can create all sorts of reasons why this is causing problems for that character. Perhaps the character has a child on the outside that needs her. Or maybe her own father is dying of that disease, and if she can escape in time, she could complete the cure and save her dad. Perhaps she had a fight with her husband before she was captured, and now she worries her husband will think she’s left him. There are millions of ways to intensify the tension and conflict simply by making it matter more to the character on a personal level.
2) Make it more universal. To make a conflict bigger, make it affect more people. If they are being held in a building so they won’t complete a cure for a disease, then you’d better let that disease become an epidemic that is threatening the whole country. Or see what other far-reaching threats you can heap on the people being held hostage. What if there was a huge catastrophe and the medical staff being held hostage have to try to talk inexperienced people on the outside through handling the crisis?
3) Make the consequences of failure more serious. What if the medical staff–in addition to being held hostage–find out that the rebel forces not only plan to prevent them from finishing the cure, what if they plan on using the cure as a poison to assassinate the government leader? And then what if they plan to blame the medical staff, ensuring neatly that they will all be executed for treason? What if the child mentioned in #1 is kidnapped unless her mother agrees to work for the rebels? Anytime you can increase the risk and make failing even worse, you will increase the tension.
4) Allow the protagonist to fail at their Story Goal. What could you do that would seem to make it impossible for the protagonist to succeed? Do it. And then find a way for your protagonist to claw their way back to success. Too often, we’re too afraid to let our hero fail. But coming back from certain destruction creates huge tension in the story.
Hopefully, that will generate some ideas for you, Leila. Be bold and always ask “How can I make things WORSE for my character?” An author friend of mine, Elaine Isaak, signs all her emails “You do NOT want to be my hero!” and I think that’s an excellent attitude to take—we want to make being a hero in our books an extremely challenging, often unpleasant, proposition. It is the very best way to keep the reader turning pages.