First: A central conflict definition
In a story, the central conflict is defined as the main opposition, obstacle or complication that characters need to navigate in order for the story to reach a conclusion. The central conflict is similar to the central idea: It is a dramatic kernel that contains the seed for the rest of your story.
In The Lord of the Rings, it is Sauron’s lust for power and domination and the surrounding lands’ refusal of that which forms the central conflict. ‘Conflict’ isn’t necessarily a synonym for warlike or violent opposition and struggle, though. In a romance novel, the central conflict can be the question of whether or not the protagonist and the love interest will end up together, for example. This is the case in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie’s prejudices towards Mr Darcy make their union seem fairly unlikely to begin.
How to create an effective central conflict for your novel:
A good central conflict has several important elements:
- It has high stakes readers can relate to. The loss of freedom Sauron’s rise would ensure in LOTR or the prevention of a romantic relationship in Pride and Prejudice are two unhappy experiences we as readers wouldn’t want for ourselves
- It clarifies the themes the reader can expect. Good central conflicts are clearly about one of several classic story subjects: Power and the way it corrupts (in typical hero versus villain novels), love and the (usually) challenging path to its consummation, adventure and its pitfalls, and so on
- It’s handling is careful, preventing it from becoming a cliché. Most readers know the classic noble hero versus calculating villain archetypes. Your central conflict, be it the battle between good and evil or a love that threatens to fall apart, needs to be handled so that the conflict doesn’t feel forced or stale
Here’s how to create a strong central conflict for your novel:
1: Know your central idea
Your central idea can be written as a two to five-line synopsis of your story and explicitly or implicitly describes the central conflict. For example, your central idea could be ‘Boy marked by destiny finds out he has special powers and has to confront villain who wants him dead’ (the basic central idea of Harry Potter. Even if the primary conflict isn’t as explicit, it should be clear in your primary novel idea, so that you never lose sight of the most important plot arc. For example, your romance plot could be ‘two young lovers are torn apart by their feuding families and take their own lives in the ensuing drama’ (the basic central idea of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Whether your central idea is the hero vs. villain type or the feuding family saga, your central conflict is the central problem that urges the story towards some or other resolution.
Hone your book’s central idea using the Now Novel process – it’s a guided series of prompts that help you create a flexible blueprint for your book.
2: Know typical central conflicts of your genre
The central conflict definition above covers a wide range of story types. Stories within the same genre often display common central conflicts. In fantasy novels, there is often an individual or party that must travel to unknown lands to achieve a vital goal (the quest narrative or ‘epic fantasy’). In historical romance, the central conflict may be a real historical conflict that threatens to separate the two lovers.
When you know the common central conflicts used by authors working in your genre, you can find ways to be original. What if your party discovers that the object of the quest was misleading and do not encounter what they (and readers) expect? What if your historical romance lovers do not get what they desire in the end? Remember that central conflicts do not always require total resolution: Sometimes partial resolution provides an interesting effect. Or you can upend the type of resolution readers expect and add an element of surprise.
Fiction Factor also notes that the type of conflict you make central to your novel will depend in part on your intended audience (elements of your readership such as age group and sex).
Whatever you decide, knowing the central conflicts most common in your genre will let you make an informed choice.
3: Surround your central conflict with other significant conflict arcs
This is something the successful YA fantasy author J.K. Rowling understands very well. In Harry Potter, the primary conflict is between Harry Potter and the series’ arch-villain, yet Rowling populates her books with a large cast of other characters. Harry’s three-way friendship with Hermione and Ron frequently involves falling out and making up, and the abusive and neglectful behaviour of his adoptive aunt and uncle is another source of tension. At Hogwarts school, there are teachers who are occasionally villainous towards their students. On the whole, these minor conflicts keep the story suspenseful and keep the pace moving even in the lulls between contact with the primary antagonist, the villain Lord Voldemort.