When I enthusiastically began drafting my first attempt at a full-length story, I never thought that it would turn into a painful, memorable, and invaluable lesson. After a decade of occasional short stories, a number of which I never finished, I got an idea for a longer book. It would be a farm story, set during the Depression years and seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. I was so excited, eagerly creating a host of characters and jotting down pages of possibilities for plot elements. After a few weeks of preliminary work, I started the rough draft. It was harder than I thought, but I stuck with it, and many hours and twenty-six thousand words later it was with a sweet sense of accomplishment that I typed the words The End.
Reading the manuscript, my brother summed up his thoughts for me: “Not bad.”
Not bad? That’s it? I appreciated his honesty, but that wasn’t quite the response I had anticipated.
Further clarifying, my brother told me that I had some good ideas and that the story had a lot of potential, but frankly, it was pretty bland. “You need more conflict,” he explained.
Conflict. A much-needed ingredient, and one I didn’t particularly like. My preference by far was to describe all the nice, happy things that occurred, keeping real conflict to a minimum. It was, consequently, missing from nearly all my short stories, and in this, my first novel, it was still pretty weak. I had recently read some guidelines for structuring a story, which involved creating a central conflict from which the plot would build. Though I really did try to add in more conflict, my idea didn’t really fit the recommended structure, and I was a bit resistant to “following a formula” for writing. After some consideration, I decided to just write it my way. The result? A story that wasn’t bad but likely would have little impact on the reader.
Conflict is critical to the formation of a story. We’re not in heaven yet, which means that there are troubles and difficulties in our lives. By reflecting the reality of life on this earth, conflict sets the stage for a personal application. It also will engage the readers, giving the author opportunity to speak to them as they turn pages to find out what will happen and how the story will end.
Conflict creates a backdrop for the characters and enables their growth and development. As the characters work to overcome the obstacles that the plot sends their way, it will give the opportunity for them to learn and grow. Challenging circumstances will draw out the characters’ strengths and flaws. Readers will relate to this, setting the stage for the most important part: theme.
Conflict creates the perfect setting for driving home a theme. How the characters respond, what they learn, how they grow, and what the outcome of their actions is will reflect what the author believes and is trying to say. The story’s message is inextricably bound up in the conflict and characters.
Because my first attempt at a novel lacked sufficient conflict, it was not particularly engaging, character development was difficult, and the theme, my message to the readers, was not strong. It was a five-month, ninety-five-page lesson in what happens when a key ingredient is neglected. Conflict is a story’s backbone, creating the framework on which to develop the rest.