Learn to Write Deep and Rich Story Conflict

Learn to Write Deep and Rich Story Conflict

Learn to Write Deep and Rich Story ConflictWhat is story anyway? We could explain it in any number of ways, but it’s hard to come up with anything pithier or more accurate than the old saw: No story conflict, no story. If we flip that on its head, we could just as easily say: Story=conflict.

Why? Obviously, conflict is pretty entertaining on its own merits. Whether we’re talking mega action scenes on the big screen or a whispered argument overheard in a bistro, it doesn’t take much in the way of conflict to rivet most human beings.

But surely, you say, entertainment value isn’t enough in itself to qualify as a story? And you’d be right. Conflict doesn’t create story based solely on its merits of sheer entertainment. Conflict creates stories because it creates the uncertain, rock-strewn, life-altering path the character must tread between his goal and its resolution.

Take a look.

Where Does Your Story Begin?

Every story opens with a goal. Somebody (or somebodies) wants something.

  • The bad guy wants to blow up the Empire State Building.
  • The heroine wants to reconcile with her estranged husband.
  • The hero wants to make peace with his role in the death of a brother-in-arms.

Some of these will be plot goals (e.g., kill the bad guy and save the world). Some of these will be thematic goals (e.g., find the inner courage to let go of the past and face the future). All of them will drive your story forward.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

They represent a destination toward which your characters are headed. Without that destination in view, your story will wander aimlessly, your readers will have nothing to anticipate, and your plot will fall flat (something I discuss in more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel).

Your characters’ goals will evolve throughout your story. The protagonist may not even know about the bad guy in the beginning. Or he may later decide he doesn’t really want to kill the bad guy after all. But the goals you set up in the first chapter will always be the ones that influence and frame the entire story to follow.

Where Does the Story Conflict Come In?

So you’ve figured out your characters’ big plot and theme goals. Now what? Does he just make up his mind to get ’er done—and then do it? Maybe. But for the sake of your story, let’s hope not. The moment your character reaches his story goal, the story ends.

And that is where story conflict comes into play. Conflict is all about not giving your characters what they want. We often think of story conflict as being a personal altercation between two people. A better definition of story conflict is that it is an obstacle that stands in the way of your character’s accomplishing his goal.

Goal Obstacle Conflict Infographic

  • A flash flood washes out the bridge he needs to cross to get to his daughter’s dance recital? Conflict.
  • A slimy informant gives him only half the information he needs to find the drug kingpin? More conflict.
  • He gets a concussion and forgets the password to get into the super secret spy base for his latest debriefing? Ta-da! More conflict.

Goals and Story Conflict on the Scene Level

The main thrust of your story will center around whatever large-scale conflict is preventing your character from reaching his main story goal. But story conflict will also play out, on a smaller scale, in every single scene.

To reach his overall story goal, your character must enact many smaller goals. If his overall goal is to track down and kill the hideous swamp monster, he will have to break down that goal into smaller chunks.

  • Assemble his equipment.
  • Learn the necessary tactics to fight a swamp monster.
  • Get permission from his superior officer to go on his quest.

And so on.

Every one of these goals must be met with conflict. Some of these story conflicts the character will overcome. Some will stymie him completely. Most will push him sideways. He won’t be defeated exactly, but his straight path to the accomplishment of his overall story goal will turn into a twisty, turny mess.

Path to Success Goal Meme

And, just like that, you have yourself an interesting story.

Where Does Your Story End?

Once your character accomplishes his overall goal, the story is over. His plight probably won’t be perfect. Conflict will still exist in many areas of his life. But the main conflict—the one you introduced in the first chapter—has been capped.

  • He’s killed the bad guy
  • She’s reconciled with her husband
  • He’s found peace and learned to forgive himself.

The end.

The resistance—the conflict—he pushed against throughout the story is now gone. Without that resistance, both the entertainment value and the meaning of the story disappear. Author and characters must both make their bows and exit stage left—to much audience applause, of course. Thanks to all that appropriately wielded story conflict, you just gave them one heck of a show.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your main story conflict? What is the obstacle between your protagonist and his goal? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Tony Findora says:

    The main conflict of my story centers on the protagonist fighting the reign/tyranny of the antagonist. He doesn’t realize though, the amount of damage that must be reversed before finally battling the antagonist. And in order to do all of that, he must first bring together chosen individuals within this fantasy realm. It’s a mighty conflict if I do say so myself.

  2. What a treat! Thanks for the post. There’s so many juicy parts. 🍴🙂

    What’s the main story conflict? First I must determine the story or thematic goal. Justice is a very complex matter. So who or what determines justice? I’m attempting to write a sci-fi legal thriller. My Protag is born into a royal family who is part of a ruling party in the universe. From a long list of heirs. Thing is, they always have twins. According to tradition, they must fight to the death once they are mature and fully prepared. Whoever wins becomes the rightful heir, and Prime Lord in their system of government called the Domain. A two or three chamber ruling/regulating power in the universe. So whoever is the heir has ultimate ruling power. And there’s a handful of villains who want nothing more than to thwart the process and cause an imbalance of power. And my protagonist either doesn’t want to rule, won’t slay his brother, or falls to kind of corrupted scheme that prevents him from becoming the heir. The name of the traditional succession of the heirs is called the foundation of solace. Both sons are bound by law to participate. And one of them MUST die. Otherwise there can be no heir. And if there’s no heir by a certain timeframe, the government must declare an emergency state of interregnum. Which is a chaotic period in between two kingdoms where there is no ruler. The bad guys would instigate this whole thing and twist it to their own advantage.

    Whew.

    😊👊

    • Hmm. I’m too old for this kind of conflict. I have to wonder what civilized society would even start such a tradition.
      I mean, they have to be civilized if they are “A two or three chamber ruling/regulating power in the universe. ”
      I mean, THAT has to be an advanced, educated, scientific society.
      Going back in history to less advanced times, when twins were born to a royal inheritance of any kind, the first-born was the heir.
      But I guess that wouldn’t make much of a story.

      • Yes, great analysis. I’m attempting to write a sci-fi legal thriller, with the following thematic question: Who or what determines justice? Your response is one of the responses I’d hope to invoke in readers. It seems appalling and baffling, for a “civilized” society to participate in such barbaric practices. How could they? That’s because we have our sense of right and wrong. But to them it’s not only perfectly normal, but hailed and celebrated. The sense of right, wrong, righteousness and justice can be murky waters. Especially in our own world and across different cultures.

        • Sounds like an interesting story. I like it when speculative authors don’t feel their societies have to be similar to what we know.

        • Kate Flournoy says:

          Hey Benjamin Thomas, guess what, I’m writing a fantasy thriller where the main thematic question is ‘who determines truth?’! 😀

          This was another really great article, Mrs. Weiland— thank you. I realized I don’t do the scene to scene conflict as consistently as I should. :/
          Good points, all of them. Thanks again! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like it! Interesting premise and juicy thematic approach.

    • There is definitely a lot of conflict here. To me, the underlying conflict would be “What pressures brought that society to this state? What is the problem they’re trying to solve or avoid by having twins in the first place, and then having the twins kill each other?” The problem the fratricide custom is addressing would likely be biological or religious for your species, and would be huge source of conflict.

      Another conflict you’d have is how parents relate to their children when they’re specifically raising them to kill each other. A society that encourages “Cain vs. Abel” is extremely maladaptive in the absence of a compelling reason. Such people would become extinct before they ended up ruling the universe. Legal and customary fratricide would truly have to be the lesser of a greater evil.

      Are the villains really villains if they want to overthrow that system? That could be conflict for the reader, because they’d be rooting for the main characters to lose and the villains to win. Which doesn’t happen often!

      • Excellent points. The royal order of Vangorians, the King and Queen, are the only ones who actually produce this lineage of twins. And they don’t reproduce that often. That’s why it’s a custom and tradition. Everything in the “known” universe hinges on the heir taking the reins. Without a succession by law, an interregnum will ensue causing complete chaos. Actually the interregnum will become the centerpiece on which everything hangs. Their celebratory custom, and it’s result will only be an origin and starting point. The sense of Righteous and justice will hang in the balance. All based upon the action/inaction of one person.

  3. Oooh! I’ve grown to love conflict. Every time I don’t know where to go with a new chapter or something was starting to plateau, I throw in a new obstacle for the main character, which makes me laugh like a mad scientist a little, but also gets the wheels in my head turning again. It’s good for the reader and good for the writer!

  4. My protag is constantly embroiled in conflict. Her life is kind of one big conflict, partly due to the priorities she’s chosen. I rarely write scenes where something troubling doesn’t happen to her, to the extent that a beta reader suggested I add more pleasant moments. Thinking about it. 🙂 But at the story’s beginning she literally lives in a perfect world, so that both brings some balance and sharpens the conflict’s impact on her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A few pleasant moments can provide nice contrast. Just make sure you’re balancing the active scenes with reactive/contemplative sequels.

      • Actually, presently my sequels are overwhelming my scenes! I enjoy having the protagonist think things over, since it helps me showcase the inner conflict that is central to the story, but I really need to give her a few more or larger events to think about. It’s difficult because, for the most part, she leads a normal life. She’s not going off on any adventures until the third act.

  5. Great post! I’ve been making a conscious effort to make sure that I have a solid conflict for my characters. I’m using a bit of Star Wars fan fiction to work on it, using the Sacking of Coruscant as the backdrop. The Sith Empire has just decimated the capital planet, destroying the Jedi and executing several Senate members. After a couple of days of martial law, the Empire forces the Republic to sign a bogus treaty and withdraws. My story follows a Padawan protagonist who left the Jedi Order with his Master years ago to start an orphanage as a way of rejecting the Jedi notion that one must remain detached from those he protects. The Master dies in the initial attack, leaving my protagonist to lead the orphans on a harried and desperate journey to safety. They find it in the home of another resident who’s been affected by the war, but with one orphan getting severely injured. When the Sith Empire leaves, my protagonist is approached by another Jedi with a plea to join them again in the war. So, he is faced with the decision to either stay with his orphans as he thinks his Master would have wanted, or to go fight in the war as a way of protecting them from further harm. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to share about the time when we lose our mentor and have to rely on our own feelings and experience for the first time.

  6. Thanks Kate for the post. I wasn’t expecting it, so this is bonus for the weekend. 🙂

    I’m not worried about external conflict. I’m more concerned about showing my protag’s inner conflict and struggle as he moves through his arc. To really bring readers into his mindset, feelings, struggles, and the dilemma that he’ll have to face. I defintely resonate more with stories that do that. I had that experience with Storming throughout the book. Hitch going back to his hometown as kind of an outcast. The tension with Mama Nan and his brother. Him taking heat from the sheriff forcing him to face his past, trouble from Schturming. But there was also the inner conflict and turmoil that was deeper and integral to the plot. Especially related to the outcome with Walter. I almost cried at that point because I could feel his pain. I think without seeing the inner struggle in our MC, it’ll be another plot driven story. Crazy things happening to them again and again, but not much arc or true testament to story. I can see this now in some books I’m reading. There’s so much potential with the plot, but the author doesn’t milk the scenes with his protagonist’s inner reactions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every weekend needs a bonus. 😉

      I totally agree with what you’re saying here. For me, the “level up” element of any story is taking it beyond plot to a deeper inner struggle on the protagonist’s part. (Very happy to hear you enjoyed that part of Storming!) I think you’re totally on the right track with this.

  7. This is a timely post. I just seriously restructure my novel, because no matter how much I loved the story there wasn’t enough conflict and I had to face the reality that readers wouldn’t find it interesting enough. I killed a lot of darlings and moved things around and now I’m ready to write new material to address the conflict I’ve created.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart of you! So many authors fail to realize that just because *they* love their characters enough to watch them wandering around doing basically nothing, that readers will too. Not so. Good for you for taking steps to correct that!

  8. Christine says:

    Well, my MC faces quite a bit of conflict. He’s a con man, who is actually quite good at what he does, that just got conned by the weather. Now, over 150 people are wanting to kill him, including his wife, who he didn’t mean to marry.

  9. Lauren Harris says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been keeping an eye out for your posts 🙂 My MC is an orphaned young woman named Rinn who was raised by her only family – her grandfather, Pop. When Pop becomes fatally ill, she must illegally travel to another world to get rare medication to save his life. However, when Rinn gets caught trying to leave her world illegally and discovers a power she didn’t know she had, Pop comes into more immediate danger by the corrupt government because of her actions and (unbeknownst to her) his past crimes. She is forced to decide between saving his life by freeing him from prison on her home planet now, or leaving, (saving herself as well), and hoping she gets the medication (and back) in time to save his life, on top of rescuing him from prison. 🙂 The trick is going to be keeping things smooth whenever new facets conflict come into play. Does anyone have any pointers for making seamless the transition between the main conflict at the beginning to what the main conflict can entail by the end?

  10. Great post! I wondered whether your books have any advice for plotting from theme first and developing conflict from there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most of my approach is bottom up: identify your plot, then find its theme. But I’ll actually be talking a little about the opposite approach in the character arcs online class I’m working on right now. It’s supposed to come out in May.

  11. Hi K.M.,
    You are 100% on target: conflict = story.
    No conflict = no story.
    To add more conflict or “drama,” add twists to the story, especially toward the end.
    And it is true irrespective of genre: whether we write Sci-fi, YA, Literary, Romance or Contemporary fiction, and even Creative nonfiction–it requires conflict.
    In # 1 MS (historical fiction) my MC is confronted (2004) 40 years after the incident, by a friend to make right on a lie she told which send a man innocently to prison, when they were kidnapped as young children and she was abused by their kidnapper (1964 in Zambia during the independence struggle.)
    In # 2 MS (contemporary, tongue-in-the-cheek fiction), my MC (a 64 and a half year old) real estate lawyer, an OCD sufferer, lives his life according to a “rule book.” He’s a pain in the ass, but also a sweetheart — its sketches his trials and tribulations as he goes for a “delicate” urological operation, and depicts how his life unravels in the ensuing months and next year or two as his relationship with his spouse and two adult sons are put to the limit and beyond.
    Thank you for the valuable post, K.M.!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Both of your stories sound great! Lots of complications and consequences make for great conflict.

  12. Lauren Harris says:

    Thanks for your help K.M.!

  13. Redd Becker says:

    A wonderful synopsis of story structure. Thanks. It’s a wonderful reminder. I’ll be passing it on to some cohorts and I’m sure there will be many more benefiting from it.

  14. What if your protagonist doesn’t reach her goal? I’ve read a few amazing stories like that, though they tend to be the types of stories you “hate to love” or “love to hate.” I noticed that in some of those stories the focus becomes the character arc–the protag doesn’t reach her goal, but she evolves as a person (and not always in good ways). Is that the “trick” to pulling that off? It’s a technique I’ve been trying to understand recently.

    Sometimes these stories have sequels–but not always. Sometimes they have disagreeable protags, but not always. I’ve seen this method used in comics and graphic novels for “making of the villain” or “dark hero” origin stories, but not just there.

    I wonder about your thoughts on this….

  15. Mark Willisford says:

    First of all, thank you for this website, I found it year or two ago and have loved it!
    I wanted to ask you how early in the structure we need to introduce these two goals / needs? I have a young protag with two primary story goals and needs. Find the prophesied child (Goal) and prepare herself to assist him. Yet I can’t seem to introduce them into the story before the 25% mark at best.
    How much of a problem is this? Ironically neither need are what she thinks they are even when the reader discovers them. How explicit to I need to be in the text or can I take advantage of subtlety, misdirection and foreshadowing to make both my protag and the reader think that there are different issues driving the story?

    I’m sure these are basic questions, but this part has stumped me in my outlining as I work through your structure and outline books.
    Both of which, I should mention, are wonderful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The First Plot Point at the 25% mark officially launches the main conflict, so it’s very common for that to be the moment when the character’s main plot goal officially crystallizes. What’s important, however, is that the *seeds* of that goal are planted as early as possible in the First Act. You need to start foreshadowing or building up to that goal or at least introducing the character motivation that will influence that goal when it becomes a reality.

  16. Does the inciting incident have to be one of conflict? Or does it incite the story in some other way? I assumed that it was. I’ve been trying to indentify this in the books I’m reading and not as easy as I thought. It’s supposed to fall around the 12% mark. But that’s if there following a typical story structure. Could it also be before or after that 12% mark? Been trying to keep my eye out for what actually incites the story into motion at that point. There’s two to three books I’d like to add the database but I lost my notes on them and have to start from scratch. I guess that’s not such a bad thing for learning.

    Over and out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Timing can be flexible, especially in books (vs. movies). If anything, you’re likely to see the Inciting Event landing a little earlier than 12% (although that timing is still ideal). The Inciting Event is always going to be a decided turning point in the middle of the First Act. It will be a moment when the character will encounter the conflict and try to get away from it (or be removed from it by an exterior force). So it’s definitely bound up in the main conflict, although sometimes the conflict will appear subtly in the background without the character fully realizing what it is.

  17. My character StarGirl often tries to help people and does it while she’s a superhero and often encounters a lot of bad guys and encountered her counterpart, Samantha Storms, who is not making it easy for her.

  18. What about a doomed or impossible goal?

    “the goals you set up in the first chapter will always be the ones that influence and frame the entire story to follow.”

    My MC’s first-chapter goal is to obey his mom and marry a rich doctor — a doomed goal, since there are no single rich doctors his age (21) and if there are, they aren’t interested in him.

    Soon he acquires a competing goal: get to the bottom of some disturbing stories, and if they’re true, figure out what to do about it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It isn’t important whether the character achieves or fails to achieve his goal. What important is only that the success or failure comes to a definitive point in the Climactic Moment.

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