Subconflict, and Lots of It

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by Kyle Massa

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

I’ve been working on a 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.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Kyle Massa. Kyle writes speculative fiction, blogs, some non-fiction, and the occasional tribute to coffee. 


226373498_dacf4f263f_bNeed help with your book or novel? Check out the Writer’s Toolbox, a list of free, discounted, and overall helpful links to tools and benefits to help you with what you do best: writing.


 

 

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8 thoughts on “Subconflict, and Lots of It”

  1. My novels thrive on conflict, be it physical or emotional. A good subplot can support the main arc.Since I write romantic suspense/crime, I need to have a satisfying ending for the reader. I have a villain I created in book 2, and he reappears in book 3, and my WIP of book 4. He’s been very useful to throw the reader off the scent.

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  2. Fantastic post! I too struggled/am struggling with this in my own novel. On the plus side, while pantsing a good deal of my character interaction they found conflict for me amongst themselves haha. Now I’m sorting out which I actually wish to follow up with

    Like

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