Conflict in Fiction: What It Really Is and Why It’s Important to Plot

Conflict is one of the central engines of story. We’ve all heard it: no conflict, no story. On the surface, that makes total sense. But I find there can be a lot of confusion around the word “conflict.” What is conflict in fiction really? What is its purpose? What does it look like in a scene? And how can you use it in all types of stories?

Years ago, I remember reading an interview with a famous author, in which he explained that one of his secrets to writing a successful story was to double check that he had included conflict on every page. I dutifully underlined the sentence, but it always confused me a little bit. What about pages that described the characters’ travels? Or what about pages where the dialogue was mostly relational? What about love scenes?

For that matter, what about whole stories in which, practically speaking, not much happens? Two high-altitude examples off the top of my head: David Guterson’s East of the Mountains and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. These two acclaimed novels are both literary-style stories that are mostly existential in nature. Stuff happens; there is a plot; but with a few exceptions, there really isn’t much in the way of what we generally consider to be conflict.

So how can these stories work? For that matter, how can they, by the classical definition, be stories at all?

The answer is all in how you define “conflict.”

What Is Plot Conflict?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “conflict”? You might think of physical altercations or even outright violence. At the least, whatever you’re currently picturing very likely involves confrontation.

It’s natural enough for our modern, western minds to conflate conflict and confrontation when we consider fiction. This is because in most stories and most scenes, conflict does manifest in some sort of confrontation, whether it’s subtextual, verbal, or physical. Everything from passive-aggressive staring contests on up to intergalactic wars. That’s conflict.

But to limit our understanding of plot conflict to merely confrontation is problematic on a number of levels. For starters, it is just too simplistic. As noted, many wonderful stories from many traditions will prove this thesis wrong at a glance. More than that, it’s worth considering that this overemphasis of confrontation (especially in its almost ubiquitous pairing with violence) equally reflects and generates a cultural emphasis on the same.

There’s nothing wrong or incorrect in using confrontation to create plot conflict. But to understand conflict as confrontation is much too narrow a definition.

Indeed, what I personally deem the most useful perspective is that of conflict as obstacle. Confrontations can and often do create obstacles, but even more often they result from the obstacles. Therefore, conflict as a generator of plot is much less about the possible emergent of a confrontation and much more about the occurrence of obstacles to the characters’ forward progress toward their goals.

Understanding How Goal/Conflict Function in Plot

Let’s go meta for a second and consider why it is that we even need conflict in fiction at all. Why is it such a big deal?

One of the simplest ways to examine this question is to boil plot down to one of its smaller integers—the scene. How does plot work on the scene level? And how does conflict factor in?

>>Click here to read more about scene structure.

Although there are many ways to examine scene structure, one of my favorite remains Dwight V. Swain’s classical approach, which breaks scene down into causal halves: Action and Reaction. Put practically, this simply means: The Character Does Something and Something Happens.

From there, we can break the scene down further. The Action half, which is where the majority of plot movement happens, can be broken down into three parts: Goal, Conflict, Outcome.

To fully understand how conflict works on both the scene and plot level, we first need to make sure we understand how “goal” works. Just as the word “conflict” tends to evoke immediate but limited ideas of its scope, so too “goal” often creates associations with ambition, focused drive, and specific plans. When this is how “goal” is used in a scene or story, the “conflict” that follows very often will be confrontational in nature.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

However, a broader understanding of the word “goal” might be more along the lines of “intention” or even “direction.” What “goal” really indicates is simply the character’s forward motion—which will then be met by an obstacle of some sort that will require re-calibration—aka the Outcome of the scene.

The Goal/Conflict pairing in a scene might easily and successfully translate into a character’s plan to rob a bank, which then leads to a confrontation with police. But it can just as accurately be represented by a character who gets up in the morning with the intention of making breakfast, only to be blocked by the obstacle that there’s no food in the refrigerator.

At first glance, we’re talking about vastly different types of story here. But in fact even most race-‘em-chase-‘em, plot-centric stories will include well-structured and integral scenes in which the Goal and Conflict remain ordinary and even subtextual.

What Is the Purpose of Conflict in Fiction?

Conflict keeps the story moving. Just as in life, characters are always moving toward something—whether that something is specific or vague. It may just be getting through the day so they can go back to bed and start over. Regardless, there is always forward momentum. There is always an underlying need that keeps humans moving. And that need is created by either conflict or the threat of conflict—by the suggestion that there may be obstacles between us and what we need to survive.

No food in the fridge means our characters have to find another way to feed themselves. And even if they do have enough food in the fridge to keep themselves successfully fed for another few hours, a new need will immediately arise as soon as they’ve put their forks down: now they have to do the dishes, dress for work, use the bathroom, etc.

It’s true most of the time, these mundane “goals” and “conflicts” will not be enough to keep readers’ interest. After all, readers probably get their fill of solving these sort of problems in their own lives. They probably just finished their own breakfast dishes before picking up your book.

And this is why most stories raise the stakes.

As in Cold Mountain (which is, in fact, mostly about one of the main characters attempting to fill her larder with food), the stakes in fiction will usually be closer to life and death than just about whether or not the character has to walk down the street to buy more eggs.

Cold Mountain (2003), Miramax Films.

And that is where confrontation often enters the picture. The higher the stakes in a story, the more important even mundane daily intentions become. Those intentions become concrete and specific goals because of their importance to the character. The more important the character’s goals, the more dangerous any obstacle to that goal becomes. And the more dangerous the obstacle, the more likely the character will be willing to engage in confrontation to achieve that goal.

The Importance of Understanding “Conflict” in Fiction

I still think “conflict” is a good term. It’s evocative after all. Just saying it immediately brings up possible scene ideas. Plus, it’s ubiquitous in the writing world.

But it’s also important not to limit its definition too strictly. Doing so inevitably limits our understanding of story itself. Ultimately, “conflict” is just a word used to describe the things that happen to our characters to change their trajectory to whatever degree. By that definition, conflict is the welcome but surprising kiss between two characters, just as it is the toilet paper stuck to one character’s shoe before a big meeting, and just as it is one character arguing with another or even socking the other in the nose.

In short, it’s a sliding scale. By not boxing “conflict” into the idea that it must always indicate “confrontation,” we can also avoid boxing our stories into limited forms. Although the terms “goal” and “conflict” aren’t going away, you may find it helpful to at least keep it in the back of your mind that “intention” and “obstacle” are just as valid and, in fact, perhaps more accurate ways to view the abstract mechanics of plot.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is a good definition for conflict in fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).


Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. This is a brilliant post, thank you.

    I once read the elements of a scene are:


    The term ‘disaster’ always confused me as it suggests something catastrophic.

    • I recently read about these elements, and the term “disaster” confused me as well. I write fantasy but it’s not very heavy on the action so this made me feel like it had to be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The term “disaster” originated with me. Dwight V. Swain, who originated the rest of that list for scene structure terms, used “outcome” instead. If I had it to do over, I’d use “outcome” more prominently as well, although I do personally like “disaster,” since it reminds that the “outcome” needs to be something that creates complications and therefore the subsequent goal.

  2. Excellent breakdown here.

    You say conflict keeps things moving. I think of it more as that characters always *are* moving (“Make a character want something on the first page, even if it’s only a glass of water.” –Kurt Vonnegut), and conflict is the part that makes us aware of that, and how it might change. A drive is just cruise control until we hit a speed bump, after all.

    But anything that changes that motion, or even implies it might change, is a form of conflict — “What’s going to happen now? Has he been on the wrong track all along? She didn’t deserve that, why’d that have to happen?” Even that surprise kiss counts, as long as we care about what it means.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I like that. I’ve always defined “moving the plot” as “changing the plot.” If a bunch of stuff happens (even if it seems like “conflict”), but the character’s trajectory or inner development never changes, then the plot hasn’t moved.

  3. Paula Bergstrom says

    I think of ‘confict’ as something that keeps tension in the reader’s mind. In fact, I prefer the word ‘tension’. This can permeate even down to the choice of words to describe something – specific words chosen by the narrator or author. For example (quick, off the top of my head) – a sickly smile. Something that is unexpected, not-quite-right, alerts (sometimes subtly) the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like “tension” as well, although I do see it as a separate thing from “conflict”–namely, that tension is the *promise* of conflict. Foreshadowing, basically.

      • Greetings! I like how you define tension. I wonder if you also have an article about it. Would mind if I read it?

      • In the Bobbsey Twins stories, the tension never gets very high. A small event happens, there is the appearance of danger, and then it is resolved. This pattern repeats over and over (“episodic”). I’m sure this is a conscious choice because small kids don’t like a lot of tension.

        Sometimes, beginning writers don’t like tension and so they don’t put much of it into their stories. And in negotiations, whoever can’t stand the mounting tension will “cave” first, and get the worse end of the deal.

        We also find tension in music. Chopsticks, written by a sixteen year old girl, is episodic; it never strays far from the original key. Classical music, has short-term and long-term tension that vary; it goes through numerous key changes before finally resolving all the tension in the last chord.

    • I agree as well! Even the promise of conflict is enough reason for a reader to keep reading to find out what happens. They can “feel” a turn for the worst through all the devices that create tension. ~TKS

  4. I have a set of questions I answer before each scene. One is: ‘what is the conflict/obstacle preventing you from achieving your goal?’. I’m wondering now if I should change goal to intention, but I think it’s how I already often approach it. Words are so important. Once again, thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree that the words we use are important, but I also think it’s useful to have “umbrella” words like conflict that we can use to refer to the general basic building blocks of story. For me anyway, using these terms, helps me not get bogged down in the nuances when I’m doing the big-picture work of plotting. But it’s also important not to take these words too literally, as that cause just as many bog-downs.

      • I really love the word ‘intention’ vs ‘goal,’ KM — that clarifies things so much. Goals are sometimes wrought with ‘bigness.’

        When intention is thwarted–the character moves to heat up the abandoned house, only to discover there are not enough pellets to keep the stove lit–shows that the character may be attempting the simplest thing and yet faces the simplest hurdle, one which could launch a whole string of new obstacles. What happens if there are no more pellets within 20 miles? What happens if the stove has not been used for years, and even with adequate pellets it might not work right? What happens if the small amount of pellets she does have burn just fine, but leave traces of carbon monoxide because of a faulty fan she doesn’t know about? What happens if she tries to burn something else in the stove instead?

        Suddenly, nothing is simple, not even lighting the stove.

        No, this sort of scene does not describe a swashbuckling clash between valiant woodsmen, but it’s still conflict. And as a reader, I want to know how she overcomes these obstacles.

        I liked that you referenced COLD MOUNTAIN in this episode, too, because it shows how really good books don’t have to be written with an eye for Hollywood Splashy High Action Movie qualities to be rich with conflict, tension, and drama. ~TKS

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Great post, Katie. I’ve read that sitcoms have conflicts that are mostly mundane. “Seinfeld” is a great example. While the conflicts are mostly small, the reactions to them by the characters are big. That’s what makes the story.

  6. Like Paula, I often think in terms of tension rather than conflict. This makes sense for my current WIP because my main character is very conflict-averse and driven by a desire to keep everyone happy. So for her, tension is a very big deal and her internal conflict throughout will be peace keeping versus truth telling. There are a couple of big external conflict scenes in the form of arguments, but for the most part, it’s a slow simmering tension.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, sometimes avoiding conflict comes at a much higher personal expense than actually engaging in it!

  7. fwiw, Orson Scott Card wrote that a story doesn’t require conflict, it requires /struggle/, which he defined as ‘a heartfelt effort against resistance, or, heartfelt resistance to someone / something else’s effort.’ He said it doesn’t have to be an enemy, it just has to be a hard thing to do.

  8. Great distinction- informative, thought provoking. Thanks- always learn to reflect a bit deeper on your topics after your articles.

  9. Charles Molway says

    This excellent article has enabled me to understand the broader definition of “conflict” and I now see how conflict applies to much in my memoirs that are a large part of why I feel they are not only important stories to tell, but also entertaining; that while memoirs might by their nature have “slow parts,” it’s those little conflicts that keep the story going.
    A technical note: In your phrase “race-’em-chase-’em,” the apostrophes appear upside down. A technical glitch caused that to happen in one of my books and went unnoticed by me until I caught it in the galley. An expensive lesson for me for when checking for pre-print errors.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Charles. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can format the apostrophes differently on WordPress, but I do try to avoid that in typesetting books.

      • Try typing a letter, then the apostrophe, then the word you want to follow the apostrophe, then deleting the first letter. I think this will also work when done in Word or other word processors, and then cut-and-pasted into WordPress.

  10. Here’s something that I think will prove your point about overemphasizing conflict. I apologize in advance for the length. There is a narrative structure that isn’t driven by conflict / confrontation, and the Japanese call it “kishōtenketsu.” However, it’s used by other people, including Westerners. We use it in urban legends and slice-of-life stories.

    This structure is told in four acts: Intro (ki), development (shō), twist (ten) and conclusion (ketsu). In an urban legend you get:

    Intro (ki): A young man is driving home in the rain late one night.

    Development (shō): He stops for a young, beautiful woman who is motioning for a ride, and offers to take her home.

    Twist (ten): When he arrives at the woman’s house he discovers that the woman has disappeared from his car.

    Conclusion (ketsu): He knocks on the door of the woman’s house and is informed by an older gentleman that the woman was his daughter … who died four years ago on this very night. She’s still trying to get home.

    For a slice of life example, I’ll use the General Iroh vignette from the “Tales of Ba Sing Se” episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender :

    Intro (ki): General Iroh runs some errands in Ba Sing Se.

    Development (sho): Someone tries to mug him.

    Twist (ten): Iroh mocks the mugger’s incompetent fighting stance, then has a heart-to-heart with his would-be attacker, and convinces him to be a better man.

    Conclusion (ketsu): Iroh holds a private memorial service for his son, and wishes he could have helped his son as he helped the mugger.

    I have never seen the movies you mention, but I’m wondering if the reason they don’t seem to fit into the rules about conflict is because they’re using the kishōtenketsu structure. The key is that this structure focuses on how the characters deal with the Twist. If you have Netflix, the first episode of Squid Game (South Korean horror) is also using this structure. While the characters do have interpersonal conflicts, those conflicts are not driving the plot. What drives the plot are the reactions of the characters to their plight.

    The intro has the main character showing what a jerk and loser he is, then it develops with him playing a weird and humiliating game with a stranger in the subway station. The stranger gives him a business card with a number that will allow him to join the Squid Games. The main character becomes player 465.

    The twist comes when he and the others play a game of Red Light, Green Light and discover what happens to the losers. The conclusion is that the characters realize they’re in a horrific situation, and have to figure out what to do about it. All of the tension is based on seeing if their strategies and tactics work in each game they play, but it is never possible for the characters to go on the offense and confront the game masters.

    Because this is a structure driven by how characters react to the Twist, it perfectly suits a horror story. And interestingly, this structure is suited for a main character, as opposed to a protagonist. A protagonist has to move the plot, and has to be proactive after the midpoint, but in a kishōtenketsu horror like Squid Game there may not be an opportunity to be proactive. You just have to endure one fresh hell after the next (I gather this facet ties into Buddhist beliefs about withstanding adversity). The virtue is in endurance, not fighting back, and if I understand correctly, you’re not necessarily supposed to have goals or desires in this belief system.

    I think the failure to understand how conflict is used in a story is a central problem in a lot of “story fails”: writers who write slice-of-life stories as a series of pointless random events, or writers who only have a main character in story that requires a protagonist. Gotta know your Squid Games from your Hunger Games 🙂

    I hope this makes sense!

    • It looks like my long reply got eaten by the spam filter, probably because I used some Chinese characters, which is ironic, since the point of my long comment was that many English-speakers refuse to cite Japanese / Chinese / Korean language sources when they present their misrepresentations of narrative/rhetorical theory from those cultures.

      So, I’m going to write a shorter comment, without Chinese characters to make it through the spam filter. Perhaps you also tried to cite sources in Japanese or Korean and then had to edit your comment to get through the filter, in which case, this criticism is unfair.

      I don’t know Japanese, but every commentary I’ve seen of kishōtenketsu in English is based on one of two online essays which don’t cite sources. It is related to a similar concept which originated in Chinese rhetoric. I can read Chinese, and I’ve read about the Chinese version of that concept in Chinese, which is so different from those online English language essays which refuse to cite sources say that I suspect that the English-language essays are full of hot air. If they accurately represent Japanese culture, why wouldn’t they cite Japanese-language sources to prove it?

      I’ve also read/listened to a ton of fiction in Chinese, and I can tell you conflict (as defined in this article) is just as integral to Chinese-language stories as English-language stories. If anything, Chinese culture has a higher tolerance for over-the-top melodrama.

      What really, really gets me of these commentaries about kishōtenketsu which, as far as I can tell, have no basis in what any actual Japanese person has said about kishōtenketsu, is that they feel like… orientalism.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Ah, that’s interesting, Sara. As I said, I’ve yet to study kishōtenketsu in any depth, but it’s come up many times in discussions like this. And, yes, your other comment never came through, so it must have ended up in the spam filter (which I already emptied for the day). Sorry about that.

        • I have contacts in Japan who might be able to find experts on Japanese narrative theory who are also fluent enough in English for an email interview. If you’re interested, I could reach out to them. I would love it if you interviewed someone who understands kishōtenketsu from place of deep knowledge of Japanese culture.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I don’t know that I’m currently fluent enough in kishōtenketsu, in any sense, to properly interview someone about it. But if you run on to any good sources for research purposes, I’d be interested in seeing them.

      • @Sara, I hope this nests correctly!

        I only half-expected kishōtenketsu to get through, so I’m not surprised by your posting woes!

        Do you have an example of a story that IS true to what Japanese (or other Easterners) would say about that structure?

        I discovered kishōtenketsu at all because I have been actively searching out different narrative structures, and how they suit assorted types of stories. My quest is ongoing…

        Usually what I find is that when 1) A story works beautifully, but 2) clearly violates what I thought was an ironclad rule, that 3) the story is truly conforming to a completely different set of rules. Imagine trying to understand a Heroine’s Journey story if you only know the Hero’s Journey. Those situations prompt me to investigate, and my quest is ongoing…

        One point that you brought up that I want to clarify: none of my leads claimed Easterners don’t use conflicts in their narratives. That would be a shibboleth instantly outing a source as untrustworthy, because no one who watches anime, Hong Kong cinema, South Korean telenovelas, or Bollywood dramas could seriously believe Easterners don’t use conflict.

        No, where kishōtenketsu is concerned, the claim (as I remember it) is that this specific structure isn’t driven by it. That part at least holds up, from what I can tell. A few seemed to think that only Easterners used that structure, but that’s where I part company because it’s clear that the structure is used here in the West as well.

        • What, exactly, is the difference between a story structure ‘driven by conflict’ and one which is not driven by conflict, yet still has conflict? I don’t understand this distinction. I don’t know of ANY popular Chinese-language story which doesn’t have conflict as a core element.

          I have seen people claim that kishōtenketsu means that a story doesn’t need conflict.

          I understand the related Chinese concept, qi cheng zhuan he (I won’t write it in Chinese characters because of spam filters) better than Japanese kishōtenketsu. Qi cheng zhuan he originated in poetry. There’s a debate about whether famous old poets used it on purpose. I don’t entirely understand this debate, so I’ll just say that some famous Chinese poems obviously fit this structure, intentional or not.

          Qi cheng zhuan he is also how schools teach children to write essays, just as English-language schools teach children to write essays with a beginning, middle, and end. I can’t post links because of the spam filter, but there’s a paper in English about qi cheng zhuan he and Taiwanese high school students which (based on my skim, I haven’t read it in full) looks decent.

          There’s someone who writes screenplays in Chinese and teaches screenwriting in Chinese who has compared qi cheng zhuan he and the 3-act structure (my original comment which got lost in spam included his name in Chinese characters). Basically, he thinks they are two ways to reach the same result, a story based on one structure is indistinguishable from the other structure. You can’t tell a movie based on one structure apart from the other. To him, the second act in a 3-act structure is a combination of cheng and zhuan, and the midpoint divides them. However, he says, some screenwriters find it easier to use the 3 act structure as their model, and others find qi cheng zhuan he to be an easier model. So to answer your question about which stories an Easterner (in this case, a Chinese language screenwriter) is true to this structure, his answer is: every story which follows the 3-act structure. But he’s just one guy, albeit a screenwriter and screenwriting teacher. His views may not be representative of all educated Chinese speakers.

          There are popular Chinese novels which don’t follow the strictest form of the 3-act structure. For example, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Jin Yong doesn’t have a midpoint. It ALSO doesn’t fit qi cheng zhuan he, because it lacks a ‘twist’ in the middle. However, Truby’s plot analysis method, as well as Dwight Swain’s scene structure (well, I’ve never read Swain’s book, I only know about his ideas through secondhand sources such as K.M. Weiland) still check out. Also, Jin Yong follows Coyne’s 5 commandments of story (from The Story Grid) at the scene level.

          I agree that taking a story structure theory and applying it to stories from another culture that the theorist doesn’t know is a great test. I’ve ditched some theories because they didn’t fit really popular works in Chinese, and I have as much respect for Truby as I do because his Anatomy of Story works as well for popular Chinese works as for Hollywood movies.

          Heck, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer Day” fits the qi cheng zhuan he structure even though I doubt Shakespeare ever heard of Chinese poetry theory.

      • @Sara, nesting here because the comment may get too “narrow” otherwise:

        What, exactly, is the difference between a story structure ‘driven by conflict’ and one which is not driven by conflict, yet still has conflict?

        Ah, so that’s where the confusion is coming in. Remember that most writers are defining conflict as confrontation, hence the blogpost. The assumption is that the central problem in a story involves an adversarial situation between characters, and one often must defeat another.

        The kishōtenketsu discussions (that I’ve seen) are explicitly saying that stories do not require this element for the central problem. That said, I have seen posts [wrongly] claiming Eastern stories in general don’t have conflict, but they weren’t talking about this structure in particular.

        Driven by conflict: Girl wants to go to sing, but mom wants her to do something “sensible.” This is the central problem, and the only way to deal with it involves conflict / confrontation, or goals which may be thwarted. The plot is oriented around whether the girl is true to her goals in spite of her mom, or whether she can convince the mom to let her sing, or whether the mom will thwart her dreams, etc. Confrontation is woven into this story.

        Simplified, kishotenketsu is driven by causality: a thing happens, and the characters have to deal with it. Each event in this story is typically outside of the characters’ control, and importantly, the events are NOT happening as a consequence to what the characters are doing. As opposed to stealing the plans for the Death Star, which will naturally cause Darth Vader to come after the characters.

        Plot not driven by confrontation (conflict): Two buddies are minding their own business, when suddenly zombies swamp their town.*** The buddies can’t do anything about “hell running out of room, so the dead will walk the Earth.” This is the central problem, and confrontation is simply not an option. How the buddies and their friends survive (react) to the central problem is the point.

        Yet conflicts can still appear in this story: will the buddies and their friends choose to run, hide, or fight? Will they save other survivors, or is it every man for himself? Is one member of the group in denial about the zombie threat? Resolving these conflicts will not resolve the central problem: the zombies will continue existing regardless of what the characters do.

        In Squid Game the characters couldn’t do anything to the game masters or the enforcers, but they did argue, fight with, and betray each other from time to time.

        The hypothetical zombie story could potentially have the characters be in agreement about strategy and tactics, but instead deal with obstacles: getting a car, getting weapons, or securing their citadel or bunker. A sapient antagonist actively thwarting them may not be required.

        I hope this clarifies what I meant. Sorry for the confusion!

    • What an amazing comment. Thank you for writing about kishōtenketsu. Coupled with Kate’s post, this will really help my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t studied kishōtenketsu in great depth, but I did have it in mind when I was working on this post. I agree that many Western stories also qualify as more of what I would call “reaction stories.” The characters will still have goals, but those goals/intentions will be more reaction-based in reference to something that happened to them rather than something they initiated. For example, I was recently reminded of the Glenn Close movie Skylark, which is almost entirely about the characters’ reaction to the challenges and struggles of an ongoing drought.

      • Thanks for that example. I haven’t seen Skylark” but I can add it to my list of stories for studying the types of narratives.

  11. Substituting Intention/Direction for Goal and Obstacle for Conflict, this makes great sense to me. Thanks! This reminded me of an Australian children’s author who came to my school once and presented some interesting assemblies on how to write a story. He said the easiest way to write a story is to put a string of “Uh-Ohs” in the way of the main character. I can’t remember his name, but I remember his Uh-Ohs.

  12. Good article, and I’m adrift in agreement. My writing is very conflict oriented, but much of the conflict is internal to the POV character, and frequently this is what I show in the reaction segment. The character either wrestling with, or actively not wrestling with, the implications of the results of the action portion.

    I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis here. FYI, I feel like I’ve beaten the “tortures geezers” lines to the put where those ponies are buried in straw, so I’m putting that away. For at least a week.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Reaction scenes (sequel scenes) are almost always some of my favorite bits, especially in action stories. If they’re neglected, the whole story will weaken. But when they’re given their due, they make everything deeper and richer.

  13. This was such a helpful post! I’ve been so stuck lately on the terms “conflict” and “goal.” It’s so helpful to have another way to look at them. Thank you!

    I also wanted to share that one of my favorite helps in constructing scenes comes from Lisa Cron in her book Story Genius. For every scene she suggests asking these four questions:

    (1) What does my protagonist go into the scene believing?
    (2) Why does she believe it?
    (3) What is my protagonist’s goal in the scene?
    (4) What does my protagonist expect will happen in this scene?

    I especially found it helpful to think about the character’s expectation, whether it’s met or not.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like that. Subverting character expectations is one of the easiest ways to create scene “disasters” that move the plot forward. And it doesn’t require big fireworks to make it happen.

  14. Colleen F. Janik says

    This subject of conflict is something I struggle with so much because there’s a part of me that can’t bear to see my characters in pain, to witness any sort of real evil or cruelty in my own handwriting. Yet in the novel I’m working on now, I visualize it as a movie and it has to show a decent amount of visible action, not just people glaring at each other.
    In reading your post today, I got an inspiration for a more visual conflict. Hurray! I guess I have to let my characters hurt a little bit, right?
    Thanks for another wonderful, helpful post. This subject is always a little tricky.

  15. Polly Hansen says

    When wants and obligations are at odds! Thanks for your excellent instruction.

  16. J.L. Callison says

    Good article.

    I think “conflict” begins in the mind of the character. Frequently, some of the most intense “conflict” in a story is totally within the psyche of the character whose turmoil of mind drives all of the action within the story. A writer should never ignore the roots of conflict when telling of the actions. For instance, guy sees beautiful girl, but is afraid to approach. Why? What drives his fear? What are his thoughts/turmoil in his mind?

    This, of course, can be overdone, but when sprinkled in the action it also can give greater insight into the character. This creates a well-rounded character instead of just a two dimensional caricature.

  17. Yes, I agree. In the back of my mind, I always think of narrative ‘conflict’ as resistance against an obstacle.

    While reading this blog post, I felt thirsty, so I picked up a cup, went to a sink, filled the cup with tap water, and drank. Not an exciting story because there was so little resistance to me fulfilling my intention (relieving my thirst). But what if I discovered that the sink was broken and no water came out? Or what if I had some disease which made it difficult for me to stand up, I needed water desperately because dehydration would accelerate the progression of the disease (raising the stakes), and I had no caregiver present to fetch water for me? And there are endless scenarios for increasing the resistance and/or raising the stakes.

  18. I think, in the broadest sense, conflict could be described as anything that disrupts the status quo of a plot, plot point, section of a plot point, scene or scene section.

  19. A great rundown, much more detail than in my attempt, which was to state:

    conflict comes because there is a strong motivation that compels the character to get/do/become or the consequences of inaction will ruin their lives.

    If there are no consequences to the actions undertaken to achieve the goal, why do it? Why spend so much time pursuing something that doesn’t matter?

    A plot begins with a problem, an unfilled desire, an immediate or likely threat, an unanswered question. Whatever it is, it’s unresolved tension, an unfinished through-line in expectation of a resolution.

    Tension, basically, is the risk underlying all the actions, reactions, scene outcomes that divert from the main story goal, that torture the journey from the beginning to the end.

    Conflicts are the knots in the rope, tension is the tangles that pull it too tight to carry the weight without a shift in the grip

  20. Lincoln Clark says

    What a wonderful insight to broaden objective and counter-aggression to intention and obstacle.

    I’m one of those people who struggles with portraying genuine confrontation in a story. It literally makes me shudder or cringe to have to let the thoughts cross the stage of my mind.I have a friend who is a playwright. He has read my work and finds it too bland. His teachers said to “chase the protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him”. To be fair, my friend and his wife have a tradition of watching the Die Hard movies for Christmas. That may be more telling about their perspective. 🙂

    However, the intention/obstacle view makes me think of climbing a rock wall. The obstacle becomes the next foothold to keep things moving in the desired direction. That’s a good thing. Maybe this will also help me understand confrontation better, too. It is not just an anger driven burst of hurtfulness but can become a foothold for the protagonist despite the pain. The battle does not need to be a crushing defeat even though it may feel like it. Hope works. Life is deeper than pain.

    Thanks for yet another great article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would study the kind of stories you enjoy reading/watching (not Die Hard 🙂 ) and examine how the characters in those stories get “rocks thrown at them.” The “bad” things that happen to characters in certain low-key stories really aren’t that bad at all. For example, I’m currently re-watching a BBC favorite, Lark Rise to Candleford, in which the worst things that happen to characters are honest words spoken in haste in an otherwise loving marriage or one character walking in on another teasingly imitating her. It’s real and sometimes deeply anguishing for the people involved, but it’s never brutal or violent–because that’s not the kind of story it is.

  21. This was the podcast episode I needed to hear today.

    Sometimes it seems like one of my writing groups only wants there to be terrible, high drama conflict in every single scene. That if a scene only has small obstacles, then the stakes aren’t high enough.

    I think that having a string of small obstacles can create major detours for the character, though… and understatement is an art form all its own. I also think tension doesn’t need high drama to work. Tension can be found in quiet place like the weather, place details, word choices… craft level intentions I follow through on as the writer.

    At any rate, I find a page-turning read for the kind of story I’m writing wholly unrealistic to the narrative; as a reader I would not like every single thing that happened to the character to lead to a cliffhanger/point of no return… that would be exhausting!

    I have always said that every character’s journey has peaks and valleys, and not every story is an adventure tale, hard sci-fi war of worlds, or dramatic murder mystery. Quiet stories can also be POWERFUL (the new film, Power of the Dog, is a mind blower and super quiet).

    Now I better understand why expanding the notion of conflict to include more than ginormous detours to intention is an approach that better serves the book I want to write (and read).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Understatement is an art form all its own.”

      Absolutely. I think so many of us, myself included, were “brought up” as writers to focus on high stakes and “conflict as confrontation” that it can be almost difficult to retrain ourselves to also weave in the art of character reaction as well as action.

  22. It’s interesting that the “con-” in “conflict” means “together.”

    Your article doesn’t distinguish Outer Conflict from Inner Conflict. Perhaps the character wants to light the stove, but also wants to save the last match to light a cigarette?

  23. I like to think of conflict as zero-sum dilemmas. To get something, they have to risk losing something. Or alternative, to get rid of something (a debt for instance) they have risk getting something else they don’t want, like humiliation in what they’ll do to discharge that debt.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. When those scenarios are done well in fiction, they are electric, even when the stakes are relatively low.

  24. Wow! I learned almost as much from the comments as from your post. I’m going to weigh in on the tension arguments.

    You replied to Paula that you consider tension to be separate from conflict. I might be oversimplifying or misinterpreting what you said, but I consider tension to be more integral. For example, I’ll expand one of your points: conflict as obstacle to goal – through tension. The artful manipulation of tension, amping up or ratcheting down, changes a mechanically structured scene into a page turner you don’t want to put down. I think this holds true regardless of genre.

    I interpreted Sara’s comment to show this where she changed the simple act of getting a glass of water into a health crisis brought on by a disability which prevents her from getting to the sink. The tension in the few sentences she wrote makes conflict/obstacle intriguing.

    Can you have one without the other?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think they’re causally related and definitely two sides of the same coin. But I do think you can have one without the other. Tension can presuppose a conflict that never happens (for example, dreading a confrontation with someone is resolved before it gets to that level). Tension *can* absolutely coexist with conflict, but often once the conflict is actually underway, then at least the tension that was involved in expecting the conflict will be resolved. There may be additional tension in wondering how the rest of the sequence will unfold, but the anticipation of the sequence itself will have dissipated (for example, nervous tension before a confrontation often disappears once the engagement actually begins).

  25. As usual, K.M., you’ve taken abstract terms like ‘goal’ and ‘conflict’ and defined them in concrete ways and included a playbook so writers can immediately apply these concepts to their own WIP. Conflict as obstacle: now, this is something writers can use!

    Honestly, I was beginning to worry that I didn’t get conflict at all but the Scene/ Sequel structure really deepened my understanding.

    What I’m learning from you is how to break down an abstract writing term with different meanings that turn it into something more tangible.

    Thanks for another illuminating article!

  26. Thank you for your insightful articles. Yes, conflict may be important to the plot-driven novel. Thirty years ago my first editor taught me the limitations of the plot-driven novel. It is entertaining, but lacks the life-changing quality of literary fiction. Since then I have sought to emulate classic, literary fiction. Pride and Prejudice is an example of character-driven literature. . . pretty much no plot. Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is an example of thematic literature. As a writer of historical fiction, theme plays a strong role, as I am trying to teach the patterns of history so we can learn from history. Those patterns are best described as choices and consequences, or action and reaction. The plot automatically evolves from there. Thankfully, I must be getting something right, because the first two books of my historical Birthright trilogy are being prepared to be made into feature films.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true there is a sliding scale of sorts, in that what we often term “plot-driven” fiction focuses more on the external story, while “character-driven” fiction focuses more the internal. But I think the idea that stories are one or the other–plot or character–is a false paradigm. Plot and character are part of a tandem (or, really, a triad with theme). One doesn’t truly exist in story without the other. Stories that we stereotypically think of as plot-driven—genre stories—can be deeply moving and even potentially life-changing for readers when they properly pair the external action with strong character arcs and deeply realized themes.

  27. A definition of conflict… The hardening and softening of perspectives through life events.
    Maybe not the most practical definitioj for writing a novel, but a general one.


  1. […] Conflict in Fiction: What It Really Is and Why It’s Important to Plot […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.