When it comes to writing romance novels, conflict can often seem like a contradictory concept. In a book about love and happy endings, why would discord be necessary?
Conflict is crucial to every story. It drives the plot forward, keeps readers engaged, and develops character growth. Without it, you can’t build tension or raise the stakes because, when everything goes well, nothing needs to change. Without struggle, people can’t overcome obstacles and conquer challenges. We all face conflict. And in books, we find characters relatable through the ways they handle situations. Those are the stories people like to read. Those are the books that sell.
In this blog find out:
- What is conflict?
- See great examples of conflict.
- Learn how to build great conflict.
- Find out why your book needs conflict.
So, what is conflict?
There are two types of conflict:
- Internal conflict
- External conflict
It reflects two competing emotions. Internal conflicts are ethereal. They happen within the mind and create an inner struggle.
It involves more concrete obstacles. It occurs between two characters, a character and society, or a character and nature. The character has no control over these, and they often force the character into situations where they would not readily engage. Forces outside the character prevent him or her from obtaining what they need or want, standing between them and a tidy resolution. These struggles provoke the character to make hard decisions, prioritize their desires, and resolve challenges.
Learn about conflict from one of the greats.
Jane Austen interweaves conflicts into her novel Pride and Prejudice. In a sentence, Austen’s story is about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy falling in love, but it’s not without considerable conflict. In early-twentieth-century England, women were expected to find suitable marriages, and in the Bennet household, this proves critical with no male heirs. But Elizabeth and her five sisters are less than eager to marry for convenience.
Jane, Elizabeth’s sister, falls in love with Mr. Bingley at a dance, and though Elizabeth initially finds Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy, attractive, he injures her pride by calling her plain. She struggles to remain civil with Darcy. The Bingleys later invite Jane to their estate, where she falls ill and has to stay to recover. To care for her sister, Elizabeth sets out on foot and walks a great distance through mud to the Bingleys’.
After the sisters return home, a distant cousin visits. This Mr. Collins is set to inherit the estate if none of the girls marry. Initially, Collins courts Jane but later sets his sights on Elizabeth. Elizabeth can’t stand his doltish behavior, but she is forced to choose between her happiness and her duty to marry Mr. Collins, who is a suitable match despite his mortifying behavior. Elizabeth stays true to her heart and refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal.
Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy overhears a rumor that Jane courted Mr. Bingley for his money. Darcy convinces his friend to leave his estate and travel back to London. Jane is distraught, and Elizabeth dislikes Darcy more for breaking Jane’s heart. Mr. Darcy later returns to tell Elizabeth how lowly she is, then he ends by proposing to her. With Elizabeth’s pride and loyalty to Jane, she rejects Darcy outright before she explains why she would never marry him.
Darcy defends himself for protecting his from someone he thought was only after money. He confesses he loves Elizabeth despite all his societal expectations. He then reunites Jane and Mr. Bingley, and after seeing her sister happy, Elizabeth realizes she’s been unreasonable. When Mr. Darcy proposes to her a second time, Elizabeth accepts his proposal, and they both live happily in the end.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen integrates a complex variety of conflict: internal conflict over Elizabeth’s hurt pride and her loyalty to Jane, which drive her to reject Mr. Darcy’s proposal and her greatest challenge of setting aside those qualms to marry Darcy. She endures external conflicts as well: trudging through the elements and rejecting Mr. Collins’s proposal, which serves as a conflict against society as well. Each drives the plot forward, but they also help Elizabeth grow. She becomes complex as she demonstrates strength in her tenacity to choose her own fate.
How do you build conflict?
Know your characters
When building conflict, it’s important to ask the questions: What do your characters fear? What do they value and desire? How can those characteristics conflict? It starts by creating goals for your characters then placing challenges in the way of those goals. The more seemingly impossible the challenge is to overcome, the greater the conflict will be. Elizabeth’s desire to marry for love is nearly impossible to achieve despite societal expectations.
Make conflict complex
Good conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be black and white, right and wrong. Finding the gray areas intensifies conflict. Mr. Darcy separates Jane and Bingley out of concern for his friend (external conflict for Jane). But Elizabeth thinks Darcy sees Jane as inferior to Bingley, which she perceives as a cold, calculated move (internal conflict for Elizabeth). Both characters prove they’re loyal, and yet, that becomes a major conflict between Elizabeth and Darcy. That gray area makes the disagreement (and the book) more interesting.
Sometimes there are no good options
Another way to increase conflict is to make all the options bad. Before the whole truth is revealed, Elizabeth is left with two horrible proposals: marrying a complete embarrassment, or marrying someone who considers her family unworthy. Both terrible options force Elizabeth to stand up for her happiness by rejecting both, though it puts her family’s estate in a precarious position. Leaving your characters with bad options makes the reader curious about how those characters will react.
Challenge a character flaw
You can make conflict stronger by challenging a character flaw. Elizabeth’s pride is a major stumbling stone. After Mr. Darcy insults her, she can’t look past it to see his good intentions. This flaw occurs throughout the book, and Elizabeth’s happiness can only be achieved once she rises above her pride. Resolving conflict based on character flaws helps your characters grow and develop.
Decide where conflict drives the characters and narrative
A truly engaging book will have various levels of conflict, some larger struggles, which take the entire book to resolve, others minor stepping stones that help the characters reach their end goals. The plot can have your character overcome their conflicts, or succumb to them. Elizabeth’s pride proves an ongoing struggle throughout the book, while her hike to the Bingley estate is a momentary challenge that she overcomes to care for her sister. And her resistance to society’s expectations is a constant battle, though she succeeds in maintaining her independence. Varying the level of conflict allows for small accomplishments while still leaving room for more character growth and plot development.
Your book needs conflict.
Interesting books are full of conflict. Building tension engages readers and leaves them hungry for more. All successful books need conflict, even romance novels. It’s a critical part of making characters relatable and allowing those characters to grow and reach their goals. Marketable books require enough conflict to excite readers and keep them wondering where the story will go, how the hero will succeed. People inherently seek conflict. Readers search for those experiences in the pages of good books. We want to read books about the women who fight against society’s expectations and find their dream man, not just the girl who always lived happily and got married. Good conflict leads to good books.
Need more tips on how to incorporate conflict? Check out HotGhostWriter, where our seasoned writers can create a strong, engaging outline for your book and our developmental editors can ensure a conflict-packed read.