It’s what it’s all about, and you can’t have a story without it, or there would be nothing to hold the story together and give it purpose or to entertain our readers.
Throughout the story, the protagonist is trying to achieve their goals.
But if they can succeed without facing any trials or even putting any real effort into it, the story has no reason to exist, because there’s not going to be very many people who’ll want to read it.
Conflict is what brings the excitement and tension into the story. Without it, the story is nothing but dialogue, exposition, and internalization.
That doesn’t sound very exciting, does it?
In real life, the most interesting and fulfilling experiences are those where we overcome the odds to succeed and come out stronger for it in the end.
There are four major types of conflict our characters can experience:
Conflict with Another Person or Group of People
Whether we know it or not, every one of us at one point or another has stood in the way of someone else achieving their goals, whether it was deliberately or indirectly.
This form of conflict can be used in many ways, but it should impede the protagonist’s goals in some way, with anything from minor to extreme consequences depending on what is needed at that point in the story.
For example: promoting the boss’s daughter to keep him happy instead of choosing the most qualified person for the job who has been working his butt off for years to get that very position.
Or the best friend of a guy who’s too shy to ask the girl he likes out deciding if his friend is never going to make a move, he will.
Or a woman running a red light crashing into a man trying to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital, causing her to give birth in the back of an ambulance after her husband is killed in the crash.
All the protagonist’s problems originate with this person or group of people, and without them, there would be no conflict.
The conflict should affect the protagonist in ways that are personal to them and cause them to make decisions that cause much internal debate, forcing them to do things they might not otherwise do and overcoming their fears and weaknesses to win.
Conflict Against Nature
This conflict is all about survival of the fittest against all the odds.
The story is made of ever-escalating stakes as the situation worsens and the only way to win is to avoid the danger or survive the consequences of being caught in it.
This conflict quickly becomes deadly to all involved, whether by forces of nature or the survivors turning against each other.
The characters must find the will to survive as the fight becomes personal and it becomes clear not everyone might make it out to tell the tale.
Some examples might be a plane crash in the jungle, a volcanic eruption in Hawaii, or an earthquake in downtown Los Angeles.
Conflict with Society
Society has its own way of causing conflict for people.
The rules are made by the wealthy and influential, and they do not always work to the benefit of the lesser man. In fact, often it works against them instead.
An example from American history might be the slavery and segregation of blacks by the whites.
For the longest time, the law separated the two races, making one feel superior, and the other downtrodden and abused.
It caused such strain, it eventually erupted in a civil war that never fully resolved the chaos and hatred.
Even today we still face difficulties between the races.
Much harm was done over the centuries, and such things take a long time to heal.
But hopefully, someday we will overcome it and come out united and stronger than ever.
This is an extreme example of the conflict a society’s laws might cause, but the thing to remember about this conflict is that for the story to have meaning and an emotional impact on the reader it must be personal or unique to the protagonist.
It is much more compelling to see a character suffering than to simply explain the society’s flaws.
We want to see them fighting back against the injustices of the system and people with opposing views who uphold that system and represent everything wrong with it.
We want to see the conflict between the two sides personalized in their lives as they face off against each other, not blindly suffering without acting against it.
The protagonist must be shown fighting for what they believe in and have personal stakes for failure, with consequences for either side winning and changes to society whether for better or worse.
Conflict with One’s Self
The character is the source of their own problems and their own worst enemy in this conflict.
Their behaviors and beliefs repeatedly lead them into trouble, forcing them to change or overcome their flaws to reach their goals.
All their external problems are caused by internal struggles and consequences for failure to reach their goals has far-reaching effects.
For example: a man struggling with the loss of his son to gang violence might turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain instead of facing his grief and moving on with his life.
He becomes so out of touch with life, he doesn’t see his wife slipping into depression, until one day he comes home to find a suicide note and his wife dead on the floor with a bullet in her head and a gun in her hand.
It is a lot easier to plan the obstacles and challenges your characters might face when you know the source of your story’s conflict, helping you to raise the stakes and make their decisions more difficult.
You might even try combining conflicts to give your story a little more flavor.
Just be sure it’s clear what’s the core conflict of your story to keep your protagonist focused on the end goal and not confuse your readers.
What types of conflict do you prefer to use in your stories?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.