The ABCs of Your Novel’s Core Conflict

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

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You could plot a novel around this picture. A man, a woman. Love, followed by its opposite. Who will take home the money? How will each on handle the hurt and sense of failure? Before we start thinking about plot, let’s see if we can “sum up” the core conflict of this story. What is the “through line” that holds the events of the story together?

The Core Conflict

Screenwriter and writing coach Lajos Egri, in a book I highly recommend called THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, writes that every book can be summed up simply: subject-verb-object (loosely interpreted). For instance, honesty triumphs over dishonesty, America beats Russia, fidelity conquers infidelity, openness defeats secrecy, or family bonds beat dysfunction. Note that the verb must be a transitive verb (meaning an “action” verb as opposed to a “being” verb like to be or to seem.) The transitive verb gives your plot its dynamism because the verb suggests that the force that will ultimately prevail will have to do something to make victory inevitable. Also, if you use this idea, the plot of your novel will have a clear winner, and that makes for satisfied readers.

Can you figure out the core conflict for your novel? Get out your Thesaurus. Look for synonyms. Don’t settle for the first words that pop into your mind.

Framing the central conflict in this simple way ensures that the novel carries with it the potential for tension. Even if you’ve pushed through to the end of your book and have a messy first draft, you can still benefit from nailing down the core conflict before you begin revising.

Core Conflict in the Middle Chapters

The reason for this preliminary exercise is to see if the central conflict–the dramatic focus–is still evident in the middle chapters. Is the book fulfilling our expectations, based on what we saw in the beginning? Do we sense change in the middle chapters? Are new obstacles appearing, new people, new moments that provoke the protagonist’s guilt, remorse, longing, or memories? Your protagonist must see the goal–living happily with Juliet, let’s say–but the closer he gets to it, the more desperate and exhausted he becomes. Go, Romeo! She’s right up there at the top!

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Have you made sure that your protagonist always keeps his or her goal in mind? Even if they can’t pin down an exact goal, you must do that. (To be happy, my character desperately needs to escape his own loneliness and passivity. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.) What new obstacle or perturbation has my character had to cope with in this chapter that is different from what they coped with before? What new thing cropped up to upset the character’s feelings and expectations?


How will you measure your protagonist’s progress? By rereading the three words that sum up your entire plot.

Each scene in your novel must move your protagonist closer to the goal or further away. Most of the time the obstacles you put in your protagonist’s way will make reaching the goal more difficult. The hope for a quick sprint to the top dims. Victory or moral triumph grows less likely.

Your character will have to shift strategies and try new tactics. She or he may feel lost or stalled.

But the plot itself will never stall if you keep your three words–the ABC’s of your novel’s core conflict–right where you can see them. Put them on a Post-It above your desk. They provide the litmus test for every scene that will ultimately make it into your finished book.

For more on this, read my post on revising for tension.

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