Ask any agent or editor to list the top five reasons manuscripts get rejected and you'll find "not enough conflict" on that list. Conflict is at the core of every story and I'd even go as far as to say that without conflict, there is no story. It's that critical.
But it isn't always clear what people mean by conflict, and this can cause some writers (especially new ones) a lot of frustration. Does conflict mean characters have to fight? Does there have to be a physical battle? Does there have to be a mustached villain plotting against the hero at every turn? These are all things that can contribute to the conflict, but they're not the only ways to achieve it in your stories.
Let's look at the basic dictionary definition of conflict and see how it applies to writing:
1. To come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash.
"Things in opposition" sums the concept up fairly well. The protagonist wants something/believes something/ is trying to achieve something, and the antagonist opposes her in some way that must be resolved in order to succeed.
- Two politicians both want to be president.
- Twp scientists try to prove opposing theories.
- A child wants to go to summer camp and Mom says no.
2. To fight or contend; do battle.
Conflict can, of course, be the physical kind and it's a battle to determine the victor. This side vs. that side. But the fight doesn't have to be physical, it can also be a metaphorical "war."
- War between two villages over water rights in the desert.
- Federal agents raid a drug kingpin's compound.
- Two lifelong enemies both want to marry the same person.
(Here's more on the four basic types of conflict)
3. A fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.
Sometimes the conflict isn't something that can be decided in one fight, but an ongoing problem the protagonist is struggling with or against.
- A rebel working to overthrow a tyrannical leader.
- A girl battling a terminal illness.
- A woman fighting to get worker's rights for the employees.
(Here's more on the person vs. society conflict)
4. Controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
These types of conflict have two sides that disagree, usually over a belief or sense of what's right vs. wrong. You'll often find moral or philosophical issues debated here.
- The gay male student who wants to run for prom queen.
- The husband who doesn't want his wife to work.
- The doctors who disagree if a patient should be treated with an experimental drug.
5. Discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles.
This is more the traditional villain type conflict--the bad guy is actively trying to stop the good guy from winning (or the good guy is trying to stop the bad guy from being bad). The two sides are actively trying to stop each other from succeeding.
- A policeman tries to prevent a serial killer from killing again.
- A local farm boy tries to stop an evil overlord from enslaving the land.
- A woman tries to escape from her abusive husband.
6. A striking together; collision.
These types of conflicts are often things that can't be avoided, but also aren't personal. Events prevent the protagonist from succeeding, but they aren't being done specifically to that person, just bad timing. Natural disasters and forces of natures are good examples here, though any "wrong place, wrong time" situations can also apply.
- A girl is the lone survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the ocean.
- A man searches for his missing son during a blizzard.
- A woman goes to the bank just before it's robbed and is taken hostage.
(Here's more on the person vs. nature conflict)
7. Incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another.
This type of conflict is often seen where the protagonist is her own worst enemy. She wants to live, act, behave in a certain way, and others in her life are interfering with that and trying to get her to change her ways. It could also be conflicts between people with very different outlooks or views on how to accomplish a task, who either can't work together or try to interfere with each other's goals.
- The party girl who refuses to acknowledge her self-destructive behavior.
- The obsessed workaholic who won't let anyone help him.
- The estranged married couple who refuse to compromise.
(Here's more on the person vs. self conflict)
As you can see, conflict encompasses a wide scope of problems and situations, and can be as varied and interesting as you want to make it. In essence, conflict is what makes it emotionally harder for the protagonist to make choices that affect the plot of the novel. If this wasn't in the picture, the protagonist would have no problems at all (and there'd be no story).
In every scene you write, look for the conflict. If there's nothing preventing your protagonist from succeeding or making it harder to decide what to do, then look for ways to add conflict to the scene.
Do you have any questions about conflict?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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