One of the primary elements in every great story is conflict.  More often than not, when I struggle to figure out why a scene or a chapter isn’t working, it usually comes down to conflict, or more accurately, lack thereof.   Without a conflict, a scene can read as boring, slow, or just plain pointless.   Even a subtle infusion of conflict can rescue an otherwise flat scene from the cutting room floor.

The online- Merriam-Webster Dictionary has three definitions of Conflict all of which apply to storytelling.

The third definition is the general definition of conflict as it applies to storytelling, so I’m going to take it out of order.

Definition 3: the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.

Opposition! Dramatic action!  All things we want to infuse in our fiction, right?  But how?  That’s where the more traditional definitions can guide us.

Definition 1: fight, battle, war

This definition is the literal application of conflict, reduced to its simplest form: an actual battle, physical fight or climactic showdown.  Battle scenes are conflict personified, full of action and opposition at every turn.  But not every scene in a 300 page novel can or should be a fight scene.  If we want to infuse every scene and chapter with conflict (and we do!), we need to delve beyond the physical manifestations of conflict into deeper territory.

Definition 2 a : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)

Now we are moving into more subtle territory.  Conflict can arise from differing ideas, interests or characters who oppose each other.  Opposing ideas can provide tension without devolving into a physical battle.  It is enough that the characters want something different, believe something different, or must compete for something they both want.  This type of conflict appears in novels in the form of opposing forces or ideas that directly conflict with the protagonist’s ideas or goals.  

Our protagonist’s path is paved with obstacles which must be confronted, and possibly overcome.  I say, "possibly," because obstacles that are easily overcome are not much better than no conflict at all.  Tension doesn’t come from obstacles alone- it comes from doubt.  If the reader doubts the outcome, they become invested in finding out how things turn out.  If every obstacle is easily and obviously defeated, there is no real conflict.      
"Opposing forces" conflict can arise when characters want different things, but one character can’t have what she wants without compromising what the opposing character wants.  Or the characters want the same thing, but only one can have it.  Or the characters have opposing ideas about how to get something they both want.  Or the characters want the same thing, but have opposing reasons for wanting it.  

Opposing forces do not necessarily come from other characters. The government, poverty, weather, wars, illness, and death are just some example of opposing forces that characters must deal with on their way to their story goal.

Although the definition calls this type of conflict “antagonistic,” you should not assume that this type of conflict is limited to conflicts between the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflicts should exist in every scene, and so there must be conflicts between allies and supporters, as well as with the primary antagonist of the story.  That’s not to say that allies must always oppose the main character’s ideas or goals, but supporting characters are more interesting when they sometimes do, particularly if they have a good reason for doing so.   The conflict between allies can be more limited and subtle than the primary story conflict.  Sometimes it’s as simple as an ally supporting the primary goal, but disputing the protagonist’s chosen method for accomplishing it.  The characters could disagree over the reasons for taking a particular course of action, or they could just each need something different.  These sub-conflicts can influence the choices the characters make with respect to the primary conflict, and enrich your story on a deeper level.  
Definition 2 b : mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.

This is the most subtle, and I think the hardest kind of conflict to nail. I don’t usually have a problem with boring fight scenes or scenes where the characters have diametrically opposing views or ideas.  But what about quieter scenes between lovers, friends or allies, where the characters want or are working toward the same thing?  Or how about scenes where the character alone must make a decision or take some action. Where does conflict come into play?  

The clue is in the definition- “the mental struggle.”  This type of conflict stems not necessarily from opposing characters or forces battling the character (although it certainly can be informed by those things) but comes from opposing needs and desires within the character.  This kind of conflict manifests itself where a character must choose between competing needs and desires or competing demands on the character.  And, this kind of conflict is often the most gripping in a story, because it usually involves a moral or emotional choice.

Imagine a character falls in madly in love with his best friend’s girlfriend.  There is conflict inherent in the character’s competing desires- the love for the girl and the love for his best friend.  He can’t have one without sacrificing the other.  Neither the girl or the friend may be aware of the situation, so the conflict doesn't come from others.  Still there is conflict built right into this type of scenario, and I’m willing to bet it will play out with tension in every scene.  The character can’t interact with his best friend without feeling conflicted about his feelings for the girl.  And, he can’t interact with the girl, without feeling like he’s betraying his friend. Every choice the character makes will be informed by the conflict between his competing desires.

Everyone can relate to having competing desires or demands on our time.  Conflicting demands and desires lead to hard choices.  Hard choices mean sacrifices, big or small.  Sacrifices have repercussions.  And repercussions lead to more conflict.  Are you detecting a theme here?

The bottom line is that a scene without conflict is just not as interesting as a scene where something is at stake for the characters.  If you want the reader to be invested in the scene, than the character has to be invested in the scene; i.e. the outcome has to matter.  If you can keep the reader in doubt as to how the scene will be resolved, and make the outcome matter?  That's the definition of a page turner.


Love this detailed exploration of conflict, Talia, but most of all the reminder that the outcome has to matter. Will be looking at all my scenes to see how to ramp this up. Thank you!

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers