Subconflict, and Lots of It

ConflictNovels are cool, but they’re tough to write.

I’ve been working on manuscript about a rock and roll star who inexplicably rises from the dead. Think Mick Jagger meets Jesus Christ. I think the premise is interesting and I like the characters, but once I really got into it, I found that the story was slowing down. It just wasn’t interesting to me anymore.

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my story until some time later, while I was reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (all hail his majesty). I got about a hundred pages in and realized the key difference between King’s book and mine: he had tons of subconflict, and I didn’t.

Of course, conflict is one of the cornerstones of story. If people aren’t fighting about something, then you don’t have much of a plot. I don’t think I quite realized just how much conflict you really need to sustain a reader’s interest for three, four, or five hundred pages.

Let’s look at Lisey’s Story for a moment. As you might’ve guessed, it’s a story about Lisey Landon, wife of late author Scott Landon. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot going on in Lisey’s life. She’s still coming to terms with the loss of her husband, while also figuring out what to do with his estate. In addition, her sister Amanda is on suicide watch. Also, a mysterious whacko is after Scott’s supposed lost manuscripts. Oh, and Lisey’s also being stalked by some kind of cosmic monster which only appears in reflective surfaces.

I count five separate conflicts in there. And those are just the most prominent ones.

Managing all this conflict can be pretty tough. On the one hand, once you set up your dominos, you should probably give them a push, right?

But here’s the tricky part: oftentimes, some conflicts should go unanswered. When books resolve all their conflicts neatly, you might feel like everything was a bit too easy.

For example, at the end of Lisey’s Story (spoilers ahead!), Lisey never defeats the monster that plagued her late husband and has now set its sights on her. In fact, by the end of the book, the creature might very well still get her at any time.

That might sound like a loose knot, but it really isn’t. It works because some of the best fiction mirrors life, and in life, there are some conflicts you’re just never going to solve. (Although hopefully if you’re being stalked by a cosmic horror, you can figure that one out.) Plus, I think it’s a mistake to answer all your readers’ questions. Don’t leave them satisfied—leave them wanting more!

When it comes to conflict, the challenge is to balance resolution with open-endedness. I think you’ll like the results.

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One thought on “Subconflict, and Lots of It

  1. Hi Kyle!

    I really like your post. Subconflict is important to any fiction story. I was wondering if I could have permission to feature this article in full as a guest post on my blog. It has 8,400 subscribers, and I often feature guest posters. It gives me additional content, and in return, it offers those guest bloggers access to thousands of new readers. I’ll provide credit, a bio for you, and a link back to your blog. Thoughts?

    -Ryan
    http://www.ryanlanz.com

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