One Way to Simultaneously Create Conflict and Suspense

Boil fiction down to the essentials and what you find at the core is the main character’s desire for something. What your characters want is what fuels them through page after page of conflict.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the saw that without conflict, there is no story. But without frustrating the character’s ability to get whatever it is he wants, there can’t be any conflict.

How to Create Conflict That Lasts for 800 Pages

Take, for example, George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch. This is a hefty tome of 800 pages. Most modern readers stand agape at the mention of a book so large, especially one about quiet town life in 19th-century England.

No explosions or high-speed car races in this book, and the hero isn’t out to save the Prime Minister from assassination or prevent another war with France.

So how does Eliot keep her readers’ attention for so long? Quite simply, her book is a superb example of delayed gratification. Eliot absolutely refuses to give her characters what they want, right up until the end.

What Should Your Characters’ Desires Be?

Most of the characters’ goals and desires in Middlemarch are simple enough.

  • Dorothea Casaubon and Will Ladislaw want to be together.
Dorothea Casaubon Will Ladislaw Middlemarch

Middlemarch (1994), BBC.

  • The banker Bulstrode wants to keep others from learning about his criminal past.
Banker Bulstrode Middlemarch

Middlemarch (1994), BBC.

  • Dr. Lydgate wants to pay off his debts and live in harmony with his wife.
Dr Lydgate Rosamond Middlemarch

Middlemarch (1994), BBC.

  • Mary Garth wants her quasi-fiancé Fred Vincy to start acting like a responsible human being.
Mary Garth Fred Vincy Middlemach

Middlemarch (1994), BBC.

Eliot tantalizes readers by allowing the characters to get close to their goals, only to be pushed back once again. The result? Readers keep turning page after 800 pages to discover if, when, and how these characters will accomplish their goals and get what they want.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How will you create conflict by preventing your characters from getting what they want? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Yeah, if I was gentle to my characters, half the things in the story would never happen.

  2. Writers have to a lean, mean bunch of people, if we’re gonna get the job done!

  3. Absolutely. But don’t forget to give them what they want at the end – otherwise readers are left frustrated and unsatisfied.

    • Leto Kersten says

      Unless it’s a negative arc from the start. Then they might not get what they want (or need).

  4. Yes, indeed, delayed gratification only means the culmination of the goal is put off. It has to come sooner or later – preferably later!

  5. The worst writing advice I got was from an early crit group leader who said, “Please don’t have anything else bad happen to Sarah.”

    Characters have to want something, regardless of how trivial, on every page, and as authors we must figure out ways to keep them from attaining that goal–or let them have it, but give the consequences an unexpected twist.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  6. ah–love coming here for my daily light bulb! :o) This is such a great point and what I’m currently trying to do w/WIP3… Just trying not to wear the reader out w/too much non-satisfaction, though. ;p Thanks, KM~

  7. Your post really resonates with my WIP…I have a character who’s looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, one who’s fighting to expand the thematic scope of Genesis and another working single-handedly to defeat the growth of radical Islam. I don’t know if any of them will get what they want…yet.

  8. This has always been my biggest problem as far as writing goes. When I first started writing, I was very good at putting my main character in a LOT of conflict; now, I don’t know. I’m too nice, I suppose. I’m working on it, though. 🙂

  9. That’s a useful guideline, but not a rule. Several of the best parts of The Wire feature one character getting what he/she wants, while others are in hot pursuit to take it from them. It provides emotional contrast, and sometimes necessary relief. In Tolkien’s Hobbit, the dwarves get what they wanted, only to have to go to war to keep it, one of the most interesting narrative wrinkles in all Fantasy. For every Middlemarch, there are thousands of rubbish novels that mire themselves in unhappiness for the illusion of depth or essential conflict. Sometimes getting what the characters want makes it interesting. The rule is to keep it interesting.

  10. This is very helpful to me! i’m working on my first novel, and while I know what the characters want, I haven’t given much thought to how they get it or even if they will. This adds a good depth to what I’m working on.

  11. @Terry: Writers are in the rather dichotomous position of needing to both love their characters and also put them through all kinds of trauma.

    @LTM: The key it to find a good ebb and flow. Allow the characters to fulfill lesser goals even in the midst of their inability to reach the larger one.

    @Mohamed: Sounds like a recipe for delayed gratification to me!

    @Alexis: Writers have to be lean and mean!

    @John: Definitely. As always, fiction is about balance. Sometimes the illusion of a character getting what he wants, or allowing the character to get what he wants, only to discover it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, can provide interesting situations in themselves.

    @Elaine: Speed bumps and roadblocks are a writer’s best friends!

  12. Aww, now wouldn’t that be cruel. But the again, I am a bit cruel when it comes to my characters 😉

  13. Robert Easterbrook says

    Sometimes I make minor characters do unexpected things, making the major characters wonder what the devil is going on.

  14. Reminds me of the old adage about dangling a carrot from a stick in front of a mule or horse.

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