Let’s talk about conflict—those tangly, knotty plot threads that screw up your main character’s life and give us a story instead of a straight line. We don’t want to make things easy for your characters—that would be boring. But spending the whole book focused on just one conflict? That’s letting them off too easy, if you ask me. We want them to suffer for your art, despair and wail and feel hopeless before slowly, things start to fall into place, one by one.
I believe for a richly layered story, you can balance three types of conflict for maximum heartache: internal conflict, interpersonal conflict, and global conflict. Regardless of your story’s genre, if you can slot at least one conflict into each of these categories, I think you’ll be pleased with the results, and never tire of ways to torment your character on their journey to the end.
Internal Conflict. This is where you really dig into who your main character is and who he or she wants to be. Whether they are consciously pushing toward these goals or not, that doubt and determination will add interest to your character’s internal life (especially if you’re writing in first person). Does your psychic feel guilt over the harmful nature of her superpower? Does your star quarterback regret that he never made time for his secret love of painting? Does your princess question whether finding a wealthy husband is really all she wants from life? Make them question their identity, or yearn to reconcile their internal wants with the way they’ve constructed their life.
Interpersonal Conflict. Here we learn how your main character ties into the people around him or her. These people can, in turns, help or hinder your character’s other conflicts, or this conflict can be the crux of the story. She could be really close to her dad, and be devastated when he’s diagnosed with cancer. Maybe he is trying to win the eye of the talented sorceress, but she rebukes him at every turn. Whether these interpersonal conflicts form the crux of your story (like in a contemporary romance) or add depth to another conflict, the question of who is or isn’t an ally adds a great sense of tension and drama.
Global Conflict. Now the fate of the universe hangs in the balance! …Or even just the outcome of the Prom Queen vote. The “global” conflict doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death, but it should be something hanging over most if not all of your main players. College entrance exams, a war summit, an impending space shuttle crash, or the beach party to end all beach parties—everyone stands to lose or gain something, and often no one does so more than your main character.
You can weight these three levels of conflict however you like, depending on the sort of story you want to tell. Generally, I would expect different genres to emphasize different levels—an introspective and emotional contemporary may focus on internal conflicts while a high-concept sci-fi might focus on a global conflict—but a strong story will incorporate all three.
What conflicts on each level occur in your favorite books? How do you incorporate all three levels into your writing?