Conflict and Form: Giving Shape to Your Writing
Helon Habila 

Part 2: Creating Conflict
How then do we impose a suitable form on a novel? How do we hold a story together, not so rigidly that it feels like a block of ice, not too loosely that it lacks form, but fluidly, pulling and pushing, rather like a balloon filled with water? The first thing to note is that everything, almost everything that goes into a novel can contribute to its final form. All the elements are interconnected: plot, character, dialogue, setting, point of view; any separation is really artificial, for the sake of analysis and discussion. As any writer can tell you, there is no discussing character without mention of point of view, there is no point of view without setting, no setting without detail. The critic, James Wood puts it more eloquently in the preface to his excellent book on craft, How Fiction Works: ‘When I talk of free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I am talking about detail I am really talking about character…’  In the same vein, Henry James asks rhetorically: ‘What is character but determination of incident, what is incident but illustration of character…?’                                            

Although here I want to focus on conflict and character, in talking about them I will also be talking about everything else.  Perhaps, because of that difficult, conflict-filled beginning to my writing career, I am convinced that in a story, as in life, the more conflict there is, the more interesting things become. In fact, a narrative, any narrative, could be said to be nothing but the introduction of conflict, the complication of conflict, and finally the resolution or at least a recognition or containment of that conflict.  The question then is: at what point in the story do we introduce conflict; introduce it clearly, unequivocally, so that the reader knows that this is the story’s major conflict? The answer is simple: at the beginning. But we all know there are three types of beginnings, as suggested by Aristotle: a beginning that begins at the beginning, one that begins at the middle, and one that begins at the end. Of course, every beginning also has a beginning, a middle, and an end; so does the middle; and so does the end.  In Waiting for an Angel, I decided to open with Lomba in prison. This is the beginning of the end of the novel: by doing this I was achieving two things simultaneously. I was immediately introducing the central conflict of the story, which is freedom versus repression. A journalist is imprisoned for daring to join words ‘together to make a sentence’. I localized the conflict and contained it within a single setting, the prison, and confined it to the interaction between two people, the protagonist, Lomba, and his antagonist, the Superintendent. The second thing I achieved is, that by opening at this point of high tension, the reader’s attention is immediately grabbed, more so than if I had opened at the beginning with a long passage of description or mere background information. Opening at the middle, or at the end, directs the reader’s gaze back to the chain of events that lead to that point, it makes the reader want to see whether things might have turned out differently for the protagonist. That is, it offers the reader a chance to see retrospectively those choices the character made under pressure, the moments that determine the character’s path and final fate.

Nothing illustrates character better than conflict. Conflict needs not be momentous as in Homer’s Odyssey, with Achilles in conflict with King Agamemnon against his sense of duty, and with his mortal half against his superhuman, egotistical other half. Conflict can be found even in the most mundane of situations, for instance in the decision at breakfast to choose between the healthy brown wheat bread, or the tasty but less healthy potato bread, the resolution of which can tell us more than words can as to what kind of character we are dealing with. To be or not to be, that is the question.  Here is an example, again from James Wood, describing a character: ‘This man, let us say, is curious, because the top half of him is expensively turned out – a fine pressed shirt, a good jacket – while the bottom half is slovenly:  stained, creased trousers, old unpolished shoes….’ Wood is here suggesting the use of dissonance, or conflict, in the appearance of a character, so as to make him immediately striking. Not just to introduce a character, but to ‘launch’ the character.                     

By throwing a small or a large difficulty in the path of your characters you are testing them. You are making them work harder and think harder in order to overcome these obstacles. In life, as in stories, nothing develops character like a little opposition.  Conflict can be woven in at any point in the construction of character, just as any other narrative element can be, for instance, dialogue. In the right dosage, conflict can make a story taut and tense. It gives stories that would otherwise meander aimlessly a focus. Most of all, it makes a reader immediately sit up and take notice; it makes a reader realize that this writer really means business.    


In conclusion, I want to say that what my experience of writing my first novel in Lagos has taught me, is never to worry about linearity when writing the first draft of a novel – I begin wherever I want to, wherever I can see most clearly and truthfully; as a result I have never experienced writer’s block.  Some people see writing as a contest between their minds and the narrative, they have to win, they have to start from point A to B to C till they get to the end. I don’t. When I get stuck I simply move on to another point, another character, another scene, and when all the scenes are down, I begin to join them together with transition passages. It jars in the first and second and maybe third draft, but by the fourth draft it flows as if it had been originally written in a linear fashion. And nowadays, with cut and paste, anything is possible.  The important thing is to trust in the revision process – you can never be a good writer if you don’t. Of course, as one grows older and more conversant with the writing process, and now that one’s chances of returning home safe in the evenings are better, it is easier to predict, even from the ideational stage, where a story is going, what a character might do or not do, and at times like this I find I miss the accidental, puzzling, and challenging process of writing my first book, when I had to, as it were, invent everything from scratch.

This is an extract from a longer essay forthcoming in Writing a First Novel edited by Karen Stevens (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

This article was first published in The Star.

Helon Habila is the internationally renowned author of Waiting for an Angel, which won both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. His second novel, Measuring Time, was published in 2007, it won the Virginia Library Foundation Fiction Award, 2008, and was shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, 2008. His third novel, Oil on Water was published in 2010 and was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orion Book Award.


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