What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader. And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble! Readers are gripped as they vicariously experience a massive pile of trouble on a lead character.
That’s where conflict comes in. While there those who say plot comes from character, I say Bosh. Character comes from plot.
Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400-page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when Scarlett finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble!) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional, or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create). Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!
In The Silence of the Lambs, professional death is on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
The second element is suspense, and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz, and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability. Suspense technique helps you to do that. I am so passionate about this that I wrote a book on the subject: Conflict & Suspense (Writer’s Digest Books). In fact, if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about.
Raymond Chandler’s legendary PI, Philip Marlowe, once told a client, “Trouble is my business.” It’s yours, too, writer. Now go make some.
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.