Conflict is the life’s blood of fiction. Conflict means something’s happening. Conflict brings change. And there’s also the little matter of human nature’s voyeuristic fascination with other people’s confrontations.
by K.M. Weiland
“No conflict, no story” is a rule of fiction familiar to even the noobiest of noob writers. We’re told to pack in the conflict. Make sure there’s conflict on every page. When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict — it’s the fiction fix-all.
But is it?
Turns out conflict isn’t the wonder drug we may have thought. For example, let’s consider that last bit of advice: “When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict.” On the surface, it’s pretty good advice. But, if we dig a little deeper, we’re going to find it’s also pretty problematic.
Turns out conflict isn’t the wonder drug we may have thought.
Your Story’s Conflict Is Broken
Why? Because conflict is only interesting or compelling within the context of the plot. In other words, conflict, just for the sake of conflict, is not only just as boring as zero conflict, it’s also much more difficult for readers to swallow whole. Dwight V. Swain, in his canonical Techniques of the Selling Writer, explains:
[Your reader] demands that your character’s efforts have meaning. They must be the consequences of prior development and the product of intelligence and direction. So, unless you’ve planted proper motivation, he’ll resent it if your boxer, for no apparent reason, slugs a cop or stomps the arena doorman. Nor will he be satisfied, for that matter, if a gang of young hoodlums chooses this particular moment to pelt your vanquished warrior with rotten eggs, not even knowing who he is.
So there goes that random argument about which of our characters was supposed to buy eggs. In the context of our save-the-world-from-a-nuclear-holocaust thriller, an argument about eggs is going to be pointless. Likely, we’re only sticking it in there because we don’t know what else to write. The story has stalled, and we don’t know what’s supposed to happen in the next scene. But something has to happen in this scene and it had better include conflict. Enter the eggs argument. Often, this is yet another symptom of the meandering or goal-less character.
Creating Meaningful Story Conflict
If some types of conflict don’t cut it, how do you know which types are acceptable? Generally, of course, you’re looking for conflict that makes sense within the scope of the plot. You’re looking for conflict that flows from the plot. But how do you know when conflict flows from the plot?
It all comes down to character. And not just character personality, but, much more specifically, character motivations, goals, and reactions. The kind of conflict that drives stories is that which arises from a direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals.
If the presence of eggs in the protagonist’s refrigerator has no effect on his story or scene goals, then the egg conflict has no place in the story. On the other hand, if the absence of those eggs is going to spell doom (or perhaps just delay) for his dreams, that’s the kind of conflict I want to read about.
Often, this is yet another symptom of the meandering or goal-less character.
Subtle or Sidelong Story Conflict
While we’re at it, let’s also note that this integral conflict we’re talking about doesn’t always have to be overt. It could be the eggs in the above argument won’t have any direct impact on the characters, but the argument about the eggs might be symbolic of a deeper, unstated conflict between the characters—one which will present inherent obstacles.
On its surface, conflict is a very uncomplicated mechanism (two people arguing—how complicated is that?). But we must always understand what’s driving the conflict in every scene. What’s causing it? What changes will it cause in future scenes? Answer just these two questions, and before you know it, you’ll have a cohesive and compelling plot on your hands.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.
She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.