THE NOVEL'S "AGON" - PRIMARY CONFLICT
Non-negotiable facts of conflict in the context of dramatic storyline - All Genres

First and foremost, the aspiring author must conceive and plan the steps of central conflict, the major source of drama that drives through the core of the novel from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax, the "falling action" of denouement to follow. This is true for nearly every genre-- thrillers, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, historical, etc.--with the exception of the most literary of works.


Conflict, tension, complication, drama--all basically related and serving to prevent a reader's eyes from straying. Since the early days of literary time, serving up a big manuscript of quiet is a sure path to damnation. So what is the best way to prevent this? What is the first and most important structural step to avoid quiet and fixate the reader?

At the B.C. dawn of drama, conflict was known as the agon (the central contest - according to Aristotle). In order to hold the interest of the audience (or reader), a protagonist must strive to overcome an opposing force (the antagonist), thus creating a primary conflict--whatever form that may take. The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and according to later critics such as Plutarch, the struggle should ideally be "ennobling" in some manner, even if death follows. Is that always true these days?

Regardless, first and foremost, the aspiring author must therefore conceive and plan the primary conflict, the major source of drama that drives through the core of the novel from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax, the "falling action" of denouement to follow. This is true for nearly every genre--thrillers, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, historical, etc.--with the exception of the most literary of works.

Consider the nature of conflict as presented in the novel hook lines below:
    The Hand of Fatima (historical fiction)

    A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God.

    Summer's Sisters (women's fiction)

    After sharing a magical summer with a friend, a young woman must confront her friend's betrayal of her with the man she loved.

    The Bartimaeus Trilogy (young adult fantasy)

    As an apprentice mage seeks revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, he unleashes a powerful Djinni who joins the mage to confront a danger that threatens their entire world.
The above diverse examples define classic drama that creates conflict with real stakes. Note that it is fairly easy to ascertain the stakes in each case above: a young woman's love and friendship, the entire world, and harmony between opposed religions.

As a writer, keep in mind that if you cannot make the stakes of your novel clear via a pitch or query letter, the odds are you don't have any.

- Michael Neff




Women's fiction author, Joani Elliot, (September 2019 NYC Pitch) just informed her workshop leader, Susan Breen, that an offer from Jennifer Weis Agency was forthcoming following the NYC Pitch and that the NYC Pitch played a major role in sealing the deal. No surprise there! Congrats to Joani.

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