Why Your Story’s Conflict Isn’t Working

Conflict is the life’s blood of fiction. Conflict means something’s happening. Conflict brings change. And there’s also the little matter of human nature’s voyeuristic fascination with other people’s confrontations. “No conflict, no story” is a rule of fiction familiar to even the noobiest of noob writers. We’re told to pack in the conflict. Make sure there’s conflict on every page. When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict—it’s the fiction fix-all.

But is it?

Turns out conflict isn’t the wonder drug we may have thought. For example, let’s consider that last bit of advice: “When the story feels slow, just add a little more conflict.” On the surface, it’s pretty good advice. But, if we dig a little deeper, we’re going to find it’s also pretty problematic.

Your Story’s Conflict Is Broken

Why? Because conflict is only interesting or compelling within the context of the plot. In other words, conflict, just for the sake of conflict, is not only just as boring as zero conflict, it’s also much more difficult for readers to swallow whole. Dwight V. Swain, in his canonical Techniques of the Selling Writer, explains:

[Your reader] demands that your character’s efforts have meaning. They must be the consequences of prior development and the product of intelligence and direction. So, unless you’ve planted proper motivation, he’ll resent it if your boxer, for no apparent reason, slugs a cop or stomps the arena doorman. Nor will he be satisfied, for that matter, if a gang of young hoodlums chooses this particular moment to pelt your vanquished warrior with rotten eggs, not even knowing who he is.

So there goes that random argument about which of our characters was supposed to buy eggs. In the context of our save-the-world-from-a-nuclear-holocaust thriller, an argument about eggs is going to be pointless. Likely, we’re only sticking it in there because we don’t know what else to write. The story has stalled, and we don’t know what’s supposed to happen in the next scene. But something has to happen in this scene and it had better include conflict. Enter the eggs argument. Often, this is yet another symptom of the meandering or goal-less character.

Creating Meaningful Story Conflict

If some types of conflict don’t cut it, how do you know which types are acceptable? Generally, of course, you’re looking for conflict that makes sense within the scope of the plot. You’re looking for conflict that flows from the plot. But how do you know when conflict flows from the plot?

It all comes down to character. And not just character personality, but, much more specifically, character motivations, goals, and reactions. The kind of conflict that drives stories is that which arises from a direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals.

If the presence of eggs in the protagonist’s refrigerator has no effect on his story or scene goals, then the egg conflict has no place in the story. On the other hand, if the absence of those eggs is going to spell doom (or perhaps just delay) for his dreams, that’s the kind of conflict I want to read about.

Subtle or Sidelong Story Conflict

While we’re at it, let’s also note that this integral conflict we’re talking about doesn’t always have to be overt. It could be the eggs in the above argument won’t have any direct impact on the characters, but the argument about the eggs might be symbolic of a deeper, unstated conflict between the characters—one which will present inherent obstacles.

On its surface, conflict is a very uncomplicated mechanism (two people arguing—how complicated is that?). But we must always understand what’s driving the conflict in every scene. What’s causing it? What changes will it cause in future scenes? Answer just these two questions, and before you know it, you’ll have a cohesive and compelling plot on your hands.

Tell me your opinion: How does the conflict in your latest scene present an obstacle to your character’s goal?

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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.

Comments

  1. I’m constantly amazed by how our thoughts are in accord KM. I’m about one-tenth the way through a crime novel and I was thinking about a characters goal, and was about to add a scene of high conflict but decided against it. The story simply was not ready for it. In fact, with this character it would be out of character to act or re-act violently at this particular point.

    I just wanted to keep the story going and thought this might be one method of doing that. Had I chosen that path and not read your post I might have ruined the story. So thanks for the timely comment. Again, you have helped me as a writer. Thank you.

  2. Great minds, great minds. 😉 Glad the post was timely for you! A book is such a large and intricate thing, and we have to keep the whole thing in our heads at once in order to understand how to best use the conflict at certain moments. A scene that might be perfect at one point in the book could bring the whole thing crashing down were we to stick it in at a different moment. It’s really just a vast juggling act.

  3. i like these articles make me think –

    i argue its merits back & forth, applying and checking the fit, and almost always find it worthwhile

    this particular go ’round, i decided / found / realized my conflict-preference alternates ‘tween external and internal, in its own rhythm –

    at least at this time 😉

    thanks k.m., take care

  4. Eggs?! Eggs were actually a foreshadowing element in the season seven Doctor Who opener. A character trapped in a spaceship spent a year making souffles, and the Doctor asked where she got the milk (eggs) from…it was a hint for something really big.

  5. I think that was a justified foreshadowing(I saw that episode too!) because it was interesting and not really an argument anyway, and because it foreshadowed that big thing.

    I don’t think I have this problem as much, but this is a good thing to look out for. I stick to the plot in my head and the characters and the emotions and morals behind them.

  6. Thanks for clearing up that conflict that happens outside the story doesn’t need to be there!!

  7. I love writing conflict… but sometimes, I do have to force myself to do it. I’ve got a scene that I’ve been working on that didn’t have a bunch of conflict in it originally, and I decided it needed to be punched up… it’s still feeling false to me–both ways. Before the change and after it. You have to make sure you get the right balance, and the characters aren’t betraying themselves.

  8. @Adan: Finding the balance between internal and external conflict is important. One without the other is like a sandwich with either peanut butter or jelly – but not both.

    @Galadriel: See, even eggs *can* create good conflict!

    @Writer4Christ: “Sticking to the plot,” as such, is usually a good way to avoid meaningless conflict. Even still, it’s often the beginning of scenes, before we’ve quite figured out how we’re going to develop that plot, that these failed conflicts often crop up.

    @Traci: That’s a good way to phrase it.

    @Liberty: It all comes down to character. If a conflict – or the characters’ reactions to it – don’t ring true to personality and motive, it won’t ever work.

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  10. Anonymous says

    Are there any good exercises to generate character’s goals? From the story to scene goals. I need help generating goals so I can know how to sets those goals/desires against each other which will lead to conflict. How to I create something that many people want but only one person can get.
    Thanks

  11. You might find this post on scene goals helpful.

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