Conflict 101

Is your story boring? Are you struggling to stay interested in what you’re writing? If so, then you might not have enough conflict to keep yourself and your readers engaged.

What is conflict? Conflict is the driving force of your novel. Without conflict, we can’t have a story. And piling on that conflict will make for a better story.

Goal: Your protagonist wants something (goal) but they can’t have it -> that right there is your primary conflict. The journey of a novel is them struggling to achieve this goal while we (the author) throw obstacles at them. To have conflict, the reader needs to know what the protagonist’s goal is. Do they want to escape? Do they want to save someone? To want to see the character achieve their goal, the reader needs to know why they want it. They need to know what the consequences will be if they fail. We need to make our reader care. Engage them emotionally. The more important the goal is, the more engaging your conflict and novel will be.

Uncertainty: Most books end in a happily ever after and yours most likely does too. The reader knows this and so, they expect a happy ending. We need to shake that certainty. We need to make them question whether our protagonist is going to succeed and we can only do this by making the task seem impossible. We can also achieve this by foreshadowing if something bad is going to happen – because even in a happily ever after, there are consequences. So, allude to them subtly. Make your reader question what the outcome will be. Keep them on their toes.

So, we have a crystal clear goal that our readers are emotionally invested in and we have made them unsure of the outcome. But maybe that isn’t quite enough. Luckily enough, there are two extra spices we can throw into our recipe for engaging conflict.

Temporal aspects: To up our tension and create more conflict for our protagonist, we can put them against time. If there’s a set time limit and you’ve achieved the above two in creating meaningful conflict, then your reader will biting their nails along with your character.

Lack of control: This builds on uncertainty. By throwing obstacles that are out of your protagonist’s influence, you will make achieving the goal seem even more impossible. If the problem is so much bigger than your protagonist, then they will feel lost despite their efforts.

Overall, I really believe that meaningful and engaging conflict is the key to writing a brilliant story. Sure, structure and characterization and everything else is important but conflict is what keeps people flicking those pages. To me, it’s the most important part of a story.

Make me care about a clear goal and make me doubt the character is going to achieve it. That’s what makes a compelling story.

6 thoughts on “Conflict 101

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  1. Wow, this is actually incredibly helpful. I’ve been having a lot of trouble with staying motivated with stories for a solid year and a half, if not longer, so this is definitely thought provoking. Time to go rework some plot points, I think.

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    1. Yay, I’m glad! I wrote this ages ago but it was based off this psychology research thing and it was really interesting to look at and then analyse in respect to us writers 🙂 I definitely think juicy conflict is what keeps us motivated and sustains a story (along with fun characters because having fun makes everything a thousand times better).

      I think sometimes just moving a few plot points around and going for the jugular with the conflict can help a lot. Like in my first drafts, I’ll often sway the protagonist from doing certain things and not get her into too much trouble but letting them go all out lets the manuscript become more organic and will be more likely to generate more conflict.

      (actually outlines are the cause of many of my first draft problems because I don’t let my stories flow naturally but instead try to push it into the plan I already worked out. I’m definitely going to try focusing on planning the future to the minimum but planning out backstory more to let my characters and the world push itself forward. that’s for my new project anyway)

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  2. I think you’re spot on with the outline bit. I used to outline everything (and by God do I mean everything) and I’ve found that it’s only hindered me as of late. To the point I’ve just been having varying degrees of writer’s block since late 2015.

    Additionally, something one of my professors said convinced me that outlines are over-rated. He said that “the great writers are the ones who have no plan, because if they have no plan, then we can’t guess it.” He went on to say that writers who have everything planned out hardly ever get anything done or their stories are so predictable that they can hardly be considered great or creative.

    So I’ve been trying to ditch the outlines too. I still have basic premise points nailed down, but I’ve been trying to let the rest just flow naturally.

    But anyway, thanks for such an enlightening post!

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    1. Ahaha, I was never that bad but all plans can be bad if we let them chain us.

      Ahhh, I love your professor already! Stephen King tweets similar things and it was one of his that made me stop and think… what am I actually doing? LETS PANTS IT ALL

      Actually TWW rewrite I threw my outline into the wind and wrote it all from memory and let my characters lead me and it was definitely the best thing I ever did.

      That’s an excellent point about creativity! I always think that if we plan something in one day or a few days then we’re not giving our minds enough time to think of ideas. One approach I like is to just mindmap scenes if I get stuck instead of planning the whole story 🙂 I think it’s hard to write if you have no plan but if it’s just a few scenes each time then I think that’s the best of both worlds. (cue song)

      yeah, I think the few points is a great idea too 🙂 I like to have a little sense of where it’s going and let the rest work itself out. We can always fix errors and a meandering pace in subsequent drafts anyway, so what is there to lose? ^^

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  3. Yeah, he’s a great professor. He’s very fond of making people think and setting students against each other in debates about narrative.

    Funny thing, actually. I’m a student at the university Stephen King went to. It’s a weird world, isn’t it?

    And that sounds like a fabulous idea, rewriting it all from memory. That way only the important things stick and you have more space to let it do what it wants.

    I’ll have to try mind-mapping a bit more. And exactly, what is there to lose? Nothing that can’t be fixed later on.

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    1. Ahhh, he sounds so awesome. And ahhhhh, that’s so cool. That makes so much sense why he’s similar mindset.

      YES! exactly!! all of the best lines stuck and you know what, I even worded the killer lines better the second time around. It was soooo much fun but I pressurised myself to get it done too much. I’m not unhappy with the result but it was hard labour and I was unkind to my brain, really.

      Exactly 🙂 We can just fix it all later. AND if we never post our mess online then nobody will be any wiser 🙂

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