I spoke last time of a manuscript that gave focused to a character conflict over far more pertinent financial struggles and natural disaster fall out. Well this same MS also had its fair share of forced conflict. The characters always seemed to be clashing for really unnecessary reasons. All of the dilemmas were easily solvable by communication but instead the author dragged them out for as long as possible. It made the reading experience frustrating rather than engaging, and that it is a fine line you really don’t want to cross.
The Lord of the Rings movies, on a larger scale, also had some forced conflict that didn’t necessarily need to be there. There are enough stakes with the orcs and Mordor and a quickly developing, worldwide conflict. But changes like making Faramir an asshole honestly detracted from the movie rather than adding to it. Peter Jackson added this conflict because he didn’t want to lose the stakes but there were plenty of stakes to begin with. Also it didn't happen in the book.
So, how do you tell if your side conflicts are forced? Well here are a few hints.
1) They can be easily solved
If you have to use contrivances like misunderstanding and miscommunication to keep a conflict going, it’s going to feel forced. Misunderstanding can be an excellent story telling device in comedy but in dramas it is tiring, especially when the misunderstanding continues on for several pages without resolution.
2) They are contrived
Good conflicts are built up over time. Bad conflicts are caused by contrivances like a character walking into the room at just the wrong time to hear just the wrong words, often out of context. Stuff like Shrek walking up to the house in time to hear Fiona’s words out of context and making him think she’s calling him an ugly ogre. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you want to mutter ‘are you kidding me’. Your third act tension should be caused by something legitimate, not just some easily avoided misunderstanding
3) They are predictable
A long time ago I did a post on the ‘liar revealed’ trope, especially focusing on A Bug's Life. This plot usually begins with the telling of the lie and in your heart, the entire time, you know the lie must be discovered and then forgiven. Any tension created off of this plot is so predictable because we know the reveal will come and we know that ultimately the hero will be forgiven and it won’t matter in the end. So dragging out the lowest point as a ‘will they be forgiven’ plot point is so boring because we can see the resolution coming a mile away. I loved the most recent Star Wars movie because when Fin reveals he lied about being part of the resistance, Rey barely cares. There are more important things to worry about. It was beautiful.
Sometimes, your book has plenty of tension. Really. If the world is ending or the town is flooding or someone is dying that is plenty of tension. Sometimes a forced conflict is just an unneeded crutch that holds the actually interesting plot back. And as we discussed last week, you want to focus on the right things. It’s not that you don’t need small conflicts and arguments along the way, but they shouldn’t outstay their welcome.
Sometimes, small conflicts happen, in fiction and real life. And subplots, of course, are the spice of a novel. But if you find a side conflict dragging on too long, relying on contrivances or taking the focus from more important conflicts, it may be time to tone it down a bit. Your readers will thank you for it.