Intense Conflict vs. Gentle Conflict

Photo © 2006 mudkat CC BY-NC 2.0

Conflict is the engine that drives a story forward. And not just any conflict, but relevant, meaningful conflict that matters to the protagonist and to the reader.

Moreover, every scene needs conflict. I’ve included this as an item on my novel-revision checklist, to make sure that each scene is a story in miniature, with characters, plot, and–most importantly–conflict.

Some scenes focus on suspense, the edge-of-your-seat desperation of the character’s situation. Other scenes are full of action, as our hero matches wits in combat against his foe. Some scenes portray deep wants, unrequited love, unfulfilled longing. Others betray passions that threaten doom.

None of that should surprise you. What might surprise you, however, is that even slow scenes need conflict.

In between the fast, fierce mountains of any story, there lie the leisurely, contemplative lowlands, where we readers get to catch our breaths. But even through the grassy valleys, you the author must keep the story moving. And if conflict is the engine that drives a story forward, that means you need conflict. Not a intense, driving conflict, but a more gentle, maintaining conflict.

Occasionally, I’ll read a novel that seems to forget the second of these two. During the more leisurely, in-between scenes, the story will degenerate into a sequence of meaningless activities.

“And then we went to the store, and we bought bread and flowers. And I thought the flowers were so beautiful. But I was hungry, so I ate the bread. And then…”

Who the hell cares? Give me a reason to care. Give me something that matters deeply to the character, because it addresses one of her compelling needs. It doesn’t have to be a life-and-death struggle with the enemy. But maybe she’s wrestling with a decision she needs to make, or a decision she just made. Maybe she’s stewing, because she feels wronged. Or maybe her ever-abiding fear that her beloved will leave her, it haunts her, building up into a dysfunction that will eventually threaten her relationship. Maybe she’s mustering the courage to stick in there for the long haul. Or maybe she’s going through the long haul, dealing with whole classes of issues in the abstract.

Here are some ideas for understanding gentle conflict:

Intense conflict… Gentle conflict…

… grips the reader.

… entices the reader.

… startles.

… builds.

… demands immediate attention.

… demands personal investment.

… demands decisive action.

… demands prolonged effort.

… acts now.

… contemplates for later.

… reflects the character’s extraverted side.

… reflects the character’s introverted side.

… is more concrete.

… is more abstract.

… looks at the action close-up.

… looks at the action from a distance.

I’m sure you can think of some more possible differences, if you compare the conflicts of your favorite novel. Note that the slow passages are not absent of conflict, but they focus on different character needs and may look at them differently.

Pace your story. Start with intense conflict, to get the story rolling. But then take a breath, and switch to a gentle conflict, which only needs to overcome the friction of a story that’s already moving. After a period, increase the intensity again, and then let it subside. And if you really want to end with a bang, let the intensity drop off to almost nothing, just before you ratchet it up to its highest point ever, just before the denouement. (I see this a lot in suspense novels.)

All conflict addresses a compelling need of the character. But not all conflict needs to be life-and-death, push-the-story-up-Mount-Everest serious.


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