Everything You Need to Know About Conflict

conflict

What’s conflict?

Conflict creates tension and gives the plot its driving force. It can be disagreement, an emotional struggle, anything that poses opposition, any obstacle that keeps the character away from satisfying a desire.

Why is it essential in a story?

Conflict makes or breaks the story. Stories without it are weak and boring, readers put them down and won’t even remember what it was about. Conflict draws them in and keeps them reading. Why? Because conflict forces people to act and when they do, they show their true self. You will get to know the core of a person by experiencing how he deals with conflict, just as we get to know ourselves the same way.

Conflict = Desire / Need + Obstacle

Conflict = Fear VS Desire

The conflict is what make the readers care about the characters. They want to see how the characters deal with their problems. It doesn’t matter if they solve it, as long as the problem is addressed. Thus, every scene must have some conflict and conflict must always move the story forward. The potential for conflict gives urgency to everything that happens.

False conflict vs  Dramatic Conflict: How to tell the two apart

False conflict creates drama, but not a story. True conflict sets a story in motion, pushes it forward. Dramatic conflict is the strongest tool to drive a story forward. It creates a sense of urgency and crisis. A story goes from “before” to “after” while illustrating the change that took place. The first crack in the wall is the “before”. The external obstacles block the path but mean nothing unless they touch upon inner issues as well.

Dramatic conflict = dramatic desire/need + dramatic obstacle

A dramatic conflict is created through dramatic want and dramatic obstacle. The desire must be strong enough to feel like a matter of life or death to the character. It must be strong enough to make the character determined, driven, desperate to achieve it. The obstacle must be equally determined to put a stop to it. If the two are not of equal proportions then you end up with an uneven match, a false conflict, quickly resolved.

The order of appearance can be switched around. When the desire will be implicitly understood by a reader, the writer can drop the obstacle on the character’s head out of the blue. For example, we assume a wife doesn’t want her husband to cheat on her. The desire for a loyal husband need not be shown before she walk in on him in bed with her sister. The desire for a loyal husband will naturally be shown from her response to her discovery. Does she shrug it off or walks into the kitchen to grab a knife? Whichever order you use, the desire and obstacle must appear as closely together as possible.

Measure the weight of the obstacle by imagining what would happen if the character ignores it. If the character can ignore it without sustaining serious harm some way (physically, emotionally, financially, etc) then you have false conflict.

When to start?

It can be established off stage (before the scene starts) and it can be discovered as the scene is in progress. In any case, the conflict should be established as soon as possible.


Types of conflict

Implied

Implied conflict hides critical information, such as what actually happened while promising the reader that something has in fact happened that is worth noting. It may also hide why exactly it’s important to the character or who it happened with/to. This is commonly easily used for foreshadowing, forward and back-flashes.

Example: Blood drips through the ceiling.

Omniscient

Omniscient conflict permits the reader to see the important change take place (the conflict) without permitting the reader to know who was affected or what the consequences of the change will be. This also, is an excellent tool for foreshadowing (and forward/back-flashes) if your story structure allows it. However, don’t use it too often or it will loose its power.

Internal

Your character is in conflict with himself over some issue. He wants something but can’t have it. Wants to get rid of something but can’t shake it off. Do something but he’s stopped. There is something he can’t, shouldn’t, won’t and he has his reasons.

Show internal conflict by:

Having your character take action against himself  (e.g. self harm)
Internal or external dialogue (e.g. praying)
Showing his environment is unsettling in some way (e.g. too neat)

The purpose is to let the reader know what your character wants/needs/fears. Simple as that.

Examples:

What the protagonist believes to be true is not what the actual truth.

There is a discrepancy between what he wants and what he has.

What he wants does not align with what is expected of him.

His fears stand in the way of his goals.

Interpersonal

Interpersonal conflict involves at least two characters. They can be racing towards the same goal and thus be getting in each other’s way or have conflicting desires. There are many possible conflicts.

Examples of subcategories:

  • Deception
    • acting like everything is fine
    • lying
    • claim to misunderstand
  • Evasion
    • walking away
    • change the topic
  • Intimidation
    • physical threats
    • verbal threats
    • leaving dead pets on their doorstep
  • Bragging
    • grandiose actions
    • big spending
    • talking big
  • Fighting
    • bickering
    • eye rolling
    • shouting
    • throwing objects

External

Impersonal forces affect your character. They endanger, frustrate or impede him. This can bring people with like-minds together or drive a giant wedge between people who differ too much. It only has one purpose, to create a situation where interpersonal conflicts can flourish.

Example: The sky fell down.

Summary of conflict categories

  • Relational (human vs human)
  • Situational (human vs nature/environment)
    • Physical/ cultural
  • Inner (human vs self)
    • Desires / values / flaws/ handicaps/ ignorance
  • Paranormal (human vs tech/possibility)
  • Cosmic (human vs fate/god/destiny)
  • Social (human vs group)

Problem intensifiers
  • Specificity
  • Immediate
  • Probable
  • Significant
  • Dilemma
  • Uncertainty

Keep in mind

It is your job to skip boring parts of a story. There is no such thing has a necessary boring part. Insert conflict, add action, move the story forward, put something at risk. Make the boring thing interesting. If you can’t make it happen, kill the scene and figure out a way to weave the necessary information to convey in a different place.

Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.

Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques