If you've read books or attended workshops on the craft of writing, you've probably heard the dictum, "A novel must have conflict on every page."
But how much conflict is enough? First, let's talk about what we mean by conflict in a novel. For years, I thought it meant my characters had to argue, fight, blow up a car. Yes, those elements do create conflict, but I wasn't writing thrillers. I was writing family dramas. The more I learned about conflict, the more I realized it wasn't restricted to fighting or mayhem. Conflict in a novel means "opposition of wills." One character wants one thing, another character wants something else.
For example, the protagonist wants to buy a piece of land to open a shelter for rescue animals. A noble cause, right? But the antagonist wants the land so he can clearcut the trees and build a golf resort. A battle of wills ensues. The antagonist has more money than the protagonist, but the townspeople support the animal shelter so they raise enough money to help the protagonist buy it. A very simple, cliched story, of course, but it shows an opposition of wills and readers tend to like characters with noble causes. The plot may not include any fistfights but each character will push his agenda. The protagonist might hold town meetings to acquire support. The antagonist might send thugs to beat up the protagonist, which would heighten the conflict, or he might rely on dirty tricks to get his way. When they meet, both might be polite to each other, but the reader knows they have opposing agendas and can easily spot the villain.
Let's look at another story in which the characters are in conflict, but they're both good people who want what's best for each other.
The novel is set in 20th century China. A mother, who has been raised to believe that a young woman should marry a man who is the best provider, tries to match her daughter with a very wealthy suitor, whom the girl finds unattractive. The daughter is part of the new generation that wants to have a career and marry a man of her own choice. Both the mother and daughter have admirable goals and love each other, but they're in conflict. And conflict generates emotion. They may argue and cry. Each may use subterfuge to get her way. They may refuse to speak to each other. Their opposition can come out in many different ways, but each will push her own agenda.
There will be other passages in which the mother and daughter are not in direct conflict, times when we'll learn about their thoughts, feelings, desires, experiences and other parts of their lives. In a romance novel, the hero and heroine must come together at some point.
Should there be conflict when characters are reconciling? Making love? Helping someone? Feeling happy? Working well together? Constant conflict can be just as tedious as no conflict, and conflict that goes on and on, never escalating nor declining can be just as bad. We call that "static conflict."
Without conflict in a novel, most readers will quit reading. A thriller with constant conflict has no depth. So, we're back to my earlier question. How much is enough?
My first novel, The Starlite Drive-in, had plenty of conflict but not on every page. And, yet, the novel was successful. It seems to me that a book must interest the reader on every page, and each person's tolerance level for low or high conflict varies. Your critique group or pre-publication readers should be able to advise you.
As the author, you must find the level that best suits your target audience.
I'd like to hear your opinion on this subject. Please comment.