Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 31: One-Dimensional Conflict

Conflict is one of the most essential ingredients of fiction. When a character with a goal meets an obstacle to that goal, conflict ensues. Story ensues. But one-dimensional conflict isn’t enough to plumb the depths of a story’s potential. So just what is one-dimensional conflict?

When conflict is coming at the protagonist from just one direction, the story runs a very real risk of becoming flat. Everything in the story will be focused on this one goal/obstacle. While that may be fine in a short story, it’s going to create a couple nasty little problems in longer works.

The Three Problems With One-Dimensional Conflict

When all your story’s conflict is arising from just one source (e.g., Zack’s teacher has it out for him and keeps giving him unfair grades), then your story becomes tremendously limited. Here are just three possible pitfalls that may result:

1. Repetition

When you’ve only got one horse to beat, you can bet he’s going to end up dead pretty fast. There’s only so much we can say about any given story scenario. There are only so many ways poor Zack can try to figure out why his teacher hates him and how he can overcome that. Once we’ve covered those options, either our story ends–or we start repeating ourselves.

2. Lack of Thematic Depth

Subplots require their own offshoots of conflict. Whether these subplots feature the trials and tragedies of minor characters (Zack’s best friend’s trouble with his parents because he couldn’t care less about his own legitimate bad grades) or another aspect of the protagonist’s own struggle (Zack’s determination to fill the shoes of his dead valedictorian sister), they offer the opportunity to riff on the main theme and explore different aspects of the same subject. Without subplot conflict, you’ll never be able to find thematic depth.

3. Flat Filler Scenes

If only one main conflict drives your story, you’ll almost inevitably end up with important linking scenes that don’t feature that particular conflict: Zack saying goodbye to his parents before school, Zack hanging with his friends after school. And because that’s your only conflict, these scenes, in fact, feature no conflict.

How to Add More Dimensions to Your Story’s Conflict

This one’s easy-peasy, right? Just add more conflict. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

1. How can you create varying levels of conflict between your protagonist and every other character in the story?

Note, of course, the key phrase “varying levels.” You don’t want all your characters out for blood. But Zack could be getting a lot of flack from his parents over his bad grades. Or his buddy could be pressuring him to help him cheat on his own tests.

2. What are the other characters’ goals and how do they interfere with the protagonist’s goal and each other’s goals?

To be dimensional, conflict must be layered. Zack isn’t the only person with a goal, which mean he isn’t the only person meeting with obstacles and conflict. Maybe Zack’s dad wants him to get an after-school job, which will interfere with his studying. Maybe there’s a cute girl he’s crushing on who wants him to take her to the movies instead of working his job. The possibilities are endless.

3. How can all the layers of conflict drive the main plot and be thematically pertinent?

It’s not enough to simply pile on the discord. Characters can’t just be getting in each other’s way for any old reason. To create a coherent story, every layer of conflict must ultimately influence the plot and resonate within the overall theme. All of the potential conflicts I mentioned above for Zack’s story impact his main goal of getting good grades. But we could also deepen the thematic resonance by creating conflicts that explore why good grades are important (as an accomplishment in themselves? as an investment in the future? as a way to make it up to his parents that his sister died instead of him?), why authority figures sometimes let us down or don’t let us down (the teacher, Zack’s parents, Zack’s buddy’s parents), or even why priorities are important (Zack’s grades vs. the after-school job vs. the new girlfriend).

Is there such a thing as too much conflict in a story? Not really. I’ve seen very few, if any, stories that come even close to pushing that envelope. Most stories would benefit from more conflict—as long as it drives the plot and powers the theme.

Tell me your opinion: What are the different levels of conflict in your story?

Most Common Mistakes Series, Pt. 31: One-Dimensional Conflict

 

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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. Aww, I was hoping the negative character arc series would start today! Haha, but this is good too :P.

  2. I think that was the problem I had with my first novel “Rock and Roll Children.” There wasn’t enough conflict in it. The only conflict was the characters being discriminated against for being metalheads in the 1980s. While this was shown in many different ways in the story, it was still said that I pounded that point too much.

    • The great thing about a cultural conflict like that is there’s usually plenty of room for internecine conflicts within the specific culture as well as from outside of it.

  3. I love layering conflicts! I’m usually working with four, sometimes five, POV’s, so I need conflict layers to pull it off.

    Main conflict in the current WIP is the hero’s tension between the two things he wants most, and can’t figure how to have at the same time. Secondary conflict for him is finding his long-lost brother he’s grown to hate in the last twenty years. Third is his loyalty to someone the rest of his people despise. Fourth is there’s a war going on and he’s caught in the middle of the war zone.

    And fifth, he’s surrounded by children, and he watched his only child die while he could do nothing to save her.

    He’s tried to build a shield around his heart to keep from being hurt again. All the conflicts are aimed at forcing him to drop that shield and accept that he can’t be perfect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example of how to layer conflicts. If we’re ever at a loss for how to add more dimensions, the first place we need to look is at our character’s relationships with every other character in the book. Almost all of them should be able to provide a new level of conflict.

      • Absolutely! There’s even a ton of conflict between him and the woman he’s in love with over the death of their daughter, and that she doesn’t understand his loyalty to the other person who means as much to him as she does.

  4. I love this: “To be dimensional, conflict must be layered.” You could write a post on that alone!

  5. I don’t totally disagree, but I do see cases where one conflict drives multiple situations or interactions among various characters. We could call those separate or different conflicts but since they derive from the one conflict, I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, we want all the sub-conflicts to tie back into the main conflict. Sometimes they do this indirectly, but as you say, often the tightest “sub”-conflicts are really just offshoots of the main conflict in various different spheres of the protagonist’s life.

  6. Phew! Every time I read one of your posts I have a mini anxiety attack *hoping* that I didn’t commit the common mistake you’re talking about this time. And I’m glad to say I’m good on this one! The thing I love about your posts is they get right to the point, offer great examples and ideas for correcting any deficiency. Thanks for consistently helpful content!

  7. Wow, I just piled things on my MC in the last week. Unexpectedly on Thursday, her partner kissed her, which has sent her into a bit of a tizzy. Couple that with the fact her best friend is dying and she doesn’t know whether to tell the best friend or her own boyfriend about the kiss–and it’s making her question her relationship with the boyfriend–and she’s a bit of a mess right now. The kiss was not something I’d planned out, but it’s definitely adding another dimension, and will benefit some other subplots I’m working on because it goes into motivation.

  8. I agree that the vast majority of stuff I read could use more conflict, but I have encountered one story that was ridiculous. It seemed the story was just a vehicle to have every one of the 12+ characters to have a screaming match with each and every fellow quester.

    Conflict for the sake of conflict ruined it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing irritates me more than “conflict for the sake of conflict.” If the conflict isn’t informing and expanding upon the main plot, then it doesn’t belong, just as any extraneous element doesn’t belong.

  9. Great article. My approach to conflict is that it is never black or white. It is never simple and when you really look at it, it is very complex with no easy answers or simple solutions. That of course doesn’t stop the characters from trying a simplistic approach to deal with the problem, and often times that makes things worse, even if they succeed.

    The best kind of conflict is the Xanatos Gambit. That no matter what you do, your villain still comes out ahead, even if you should win the battle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree about conflict needing to be gray. I always find it helpful to remember that both opponents – the “good” guy and the “bad” guy – are both convinced they’re right. They both think they’re the ones making the stand on high ground.

  10. So my story is a YA fantasy and the main plot thread has the two main characters versus the antagonist, but things get trickier when a romance flares up. There’s also a monster attacking them repeatedly that I think seems to have almost nothing to do with the story since it isn’t in cahoots with the antagonist, but in reality has everything to do with every plot thread, which isn’t revealed until the end of the book.

    My question is: Is there a way I can make the third dimension of conflict seem more connected to the rest of the story throughout the story without cutting it out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I presume you’re talking about the monster as the third dimension? As long as it ties in later on, that’s what’s important. But you can strengthen that connection earlier by foreshadowing the reveal appropriately.

  11. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    ‘Is there such a thing as too much conflict in a story? Not really. I’ve seen very few, if any, stories that come even close to pushing that envelope. Most stories would benefit from more conflict—as long as it drives the plot and powers the theme.’

    Yay! Thats good to know. My story is jam packed with conflict, action, and hard decisions the povs have to make. Now if I can just learn the pesky grammar rules.

  12. There’s so much going on, I’ll try to narrow things down. Hea. First off my main pov starts the story stealing an ancient book in the kings castle. (I don’t say why so much, that gets unfolded in little bites.) Partly because shes ticked off her friend was killed by the kings guards years ago.

    After all the drama (the ancient god int e book gets unleashed, and then the book melts down the city.)

    Now she has a few remaining guards that have come back from another city out for for her head, as the lead guards son was in the city that was destroyed.

    A few chapters later I introduce a new antagonist who’s a little wracked who’s after her wanting to force her into marriage, and all sorts of crazy things happen. By then the good that’s been with her takes over again ..

    In the middle of the book she gets framed for attempted murder of the second povs father. All the while trying to get back to her home elven town for help to get rid of the ancient good that she unleashed.

    To bad the city is ….

    How’s that is that enough?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say so. 🙂 Good job!

      • mimsy/darkocean says:

        Great 😀 This week i’ve got an easy edit, put more of the dialogue tags after the dialogue not quite so many in the front. And or get rid of some add some back in I think I have to many action beats? (I love action beats)

        Are you on the Wattpad reading writing site? That’s where I get most of my help from. ^-^

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          No, I’m not on Wattpad–although I hear a lot of great things about it!

          • mimsy/darkocean says:

            Ok I was just wondering. It seems to get better every year, they have a stats tracker and one of them shows the ages of the readers, this year there are lot more 20-40 year-olds on the website then last year. (Before it was mainly teenage girls) Because of this (imop) the people offering critiques are more knowledgeable.

            Have you posted anything new lately in this blog?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yep, I post twice a week. You can find the latest posts by visiting the home page.

      • Great, back to work on adding more setting.

  13. Thank you. 🙂

  14. I’ve only just now read this post, and I have to say, the timing is pretty convenient given that I stumbled upon it by chance. 🙂

    What I’ve found in my WIP is that while I had no real plot while writing the first half of my first draft (I’m not a pantser normally, but this entire project started as me writing random stuff down when I got bored or had writer’s block with whatever unfinished manuscript I happened to be writing at the time – I never expected it to become my first fully drafted novel!)… Anyway, while my first draft had no plot at first, I actually had a lot of layered conflict without really intending it m (and interestingly enough, the main plot is foreshadowed and supported surprisingly well throughout it all, considering I didn’t know I had one).

    There was the main antagonist (part of a prophecy of course), but then there was also the MC trying to deal with the fact that nothing in the place he’s at makes sense, and everybody seems to be content with it or insane, plus he’s trying to live up to his dad’s expectations of him to be good at a particular “magic-ish” skill (the class his dad teaches, and which he happens to be naturally strong at) while overcoming his immense fear of doing that very thing due to traumatic events the first time he tried, as well as the fact that his way of thinking is entirely counter intuitive to the way he has to think to do the skill-thing…

    It’s a lot of stuff, and the conflict all fits together way better than I would have predicted!

    Of course, now I have to edit that first draft. Did I mention that I wrote the first half of it without a discernible plot in mind? Yeah, this’ll be fun. 😛

    In all honesty, though I ‘m enjoying it so far; and your posts have been seriously helpful figuring out some of the trickier bits of the process, so thanks a bunch for that. 🙂

Trackbacks

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