Saturday, 30 April 2011

Conflict and the Word Count...

There are many advantages to writing a book over other forms. Whilst screenwriters are generally squeezed into fairly narrow structural boundaries by their media, novelists have no limits. You can go anywhere, meet anyone and do anything you like!
However, novelists have one main problem over and above the more visual media. Generally speaking, their work is much longer. To fill a 100,000 word novel requires something like 4 times the material of a 100 minute film. There is also the double-edged sword that writing a book can be a lot more experimental. Constraints can be a very good thing in forcing a writer to be imaginative in coming up with creative ways of getting around limitations.

Novelists often come to me with a novel of between 10,000 and 50,000 words and they want to know how to turn this into something much longer WITHOUT getting out the dreaded padding.

The answer is to take the existing characters and find new forms of conflict to twine into their story. Let`s use Back to the Future for reference. It is fundamentally about a kid who is accidentally sent back in time. His key conflict is with the laws of physics and time travel. He has to find appropriate power in 1955 to match the nuclear reaction that propelled him there from the future in the first place. There are four types of conflict. Let`s see how each of these types can be used to add dimensions to the main plotline:

1)      Relationship Conflict. There is almost no story on earth that doesn`t include relationship conflicts. In Back to the Future, Marty is in conflict with his future mother, Lorraine (who falls in love with him); with his future father (who will not do what Marty requires of him so he can exist in the future); and with the bully, Biff, who wants Lorraine all to himself and bullies the weak and unassertive George. In your story, there is always space for another character providing a new set of conflicts for your protagonist.

2)      Internal Conflict. These are conflicts a character has with himself and his own fears and insecurities. Marty`s father, George, is in conflict with himself; racked with self-doubt and uncertainty. The outcome of the main plotline is directly linked to George`s ability to resolve his internal conflict.

3)      Institutional Conflict. These are conflicts against the rule-base of an organization; so the introduction of a policeman, doctor, teacher, bookmaker or anyone whose institutional rules will go against the desires and aims of the protagonist will always add a dimension. In the main story progression of Back to the Future, the school rules, as represented by the fearsome Mr Strickland in both 1955 and 1985, provide a surprising level of impact.

4)      External Conflict. You will note that all the above forms of conflict are – to a greater or lesser extent – open to being influenced by the character. External conflicts are story events over which the character has little or no control, so acts of God, machine malfunction, the random actions of incidental characters, illness, plane cancellations and so on. There are many minor interjections of this nature in Back to the Future, such as the fact that Marty got accidentally sent back in time in the first place.

  The key to successfully adding dimension to a story with additional conflict is to ensure that the new conflicts are directly tied in to the events that define your story and have an impact on the protagonist`s journey or character growth.

For lots more on conflict and antagonism, and the essential ingredient to make conflict effective (Triangulation) see The Story Book, or contact me directly and I will send you a freeeeee chapter on the topic.




  1. Great post David. This is useful stuff. I already have your excellent book so I don't need the free chapter thanks. :)

  2. This is very true. I've noticed how one little piece of conflict (say a new character) can add heaps of words to a novel because of interlayering of conflicts on one another. Meaning, one conflict can have an effect on another conflict.

    Anyway, great post.

  3. I completely agree, although as far as novelists go, I find (completely from my narrow and therefore bias experience) that the real problem is a lack of imagination in general. I 100% know this is due to an incredibly unbalanced exposure to those kinds of people, as opposed to good novel writers. I know different types of screenwriters, both good and bad, experienced and nube, but mostly regarding novelists it's people who think they'd be good at writing but who don't want to bother even thinking about what kind of writing they want to do, let alone learning how that approach is done if they do pick something specialised. These people, they tend to lack clarity on all aspects, whether it's figuring out if they are focusing on the wrong characters, accepting that the motivational cause and effect doesn't follow through, or bothering to put the time into reworking their novel because it has more impact in first person. Would probably be a nice change to know some novelists who are very good writers but just need to think more creatively about conflicts :p

  4. Re the comments above. John Sullivan (RIP - he died last week) told me he ALWAYS puts a third character into any interplay simply because it adds possibilities and stimulates the imagination. That's why, even though the stories always involved Delboy and Rodney, there was always Granddad or Boycey or whoever in the conversation too, adding possibilities and stimulating imagination. Great tip from a great man - I was privileged to meet him.

  5. I really wish that I had found this blog sooner. I am in contact with a couple of indie film companies and I could have used this advice.
    Thank you for posting such amazing advice and information

  6. This is well good!