Exercises in Conflict

13 Questions/Thoughts/Exercises to Help the Conflict in your Novel

  1. What IS the conflict in your novel?
  2. What does your main character want?
  3. What five ways do you keep your character from getting what he wants?
  4. Do you start the story in the right place? Is it the day something new happens? Is a conflict hinted at on page one? Is the major conflict revealed as the main character moves forward into the beginning of the middle of the novel?
  5. What is the part of your story that creates the most tension? Why?
  6. Write your main plot as a yes or no question. In film, this is the major dramatic question (MDQ).
  7. What is the definition of “inciting incident?” Joseph Campbell says it’s a call to action for the main character. What does this mean?
  8. What is the inciting incident, or that first point of no return, for your main character?
  9. Write the inciting incident from several (at least three) points of view. How does each character view this event? Is your main character the most interesting?
  10. Remember these? What is your book and why?
    1. Man against man
    2. Man against society
    3. Man against self
    4. Man again nature
    5. Man against technology
  11. Make sure you have only ONE main plot or you will wrestle trying to control and write plots of equal weight. While you should have subplots, none should be more important than that problem you reveal in the MDQ.
  12. I think some of the best conflicts result from relationships. What are you finding in your book?
  13. Our good friend Richard Peck said, “You are no better than your first line.” And that’s the truth with everything. Make sure each thing you write, is your best. Always.

1 Comment

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One response to “Exercises in Conflict

  1. Robert

    I like this list, and number 12 says it so well. I believe I start my approach to conflict with question 5. “Sure, my character wants to achieve this goal, but why THIS goal?” My personal view is that anything a character might want is symptomatic of a larger need that they probably don’t recognize, at least at first. And then I draw upon that need to feed my conflict.

    When I’m trying to brainstorm conflict, my favorite exercise is asking other aspiring authors, like me, why they want to get published. Some have an immediate answer, some won’t be able to verbalize why after ten minutes of conversation, but the reasons that people give *always* feel incomplete.

    One writer answered my question with, “I just want to say that I’ve done it.” But after speaking to her for a while, it became clear that she “just” wanted to say she’s done it because there were people in her life who had made her believe that the things she had to say weren’t important. She wanted to give herself a chance to prove them wrong, and the external validation of having her words published was the benchmark she had set for herself.

    When a very kind author asked me why I write, I told her about how poor health had kept me from regular employment and said simply, “I don’t know what else to do.” But if I think about it for a minute, that doesn’t answer the question of why I chose writing fiction over something like, say, web design.

    Even when it comes to a chase story, the question is rarely as simple as, “does my character want to live or die?” All the fun, for me, is in discovering “how” they want to survive and “why.” And if I can’t come up with a surprising, layered answer to those questions, I know I need to find a new conflict.


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