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Wednesday, June 11

Skill Builder: What is Conflict?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.
At the core of this conflict are two (typically) sides with different ideas about what the right thing to do is. They're not necessarily enemies (though they can be), just in opposition to each others' goals--only one can succeed.

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.
The "fighting" type of conflict typically contains a lot of animosity--this isn't a disagreement, it's a battle.

(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.
The "long struggle" type of conflict typically isn't resolved by winning once, but by repeated victories to change the status quo.

(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.
This conflict is about convincing the other side that the protagonist is right (or that the other side is wrong), or defying the side the protagonist disagrees with.

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.
The conflict here is typically more adversarial, with two sides that can't successfully co-exist.

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.
Collision conflicts are often unexpected and unavoidable, because they involve forces outside the character's control.

(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.
Whatever the problem is, the protagonist is making it harder on herself than it needs to be by her actions or refusal to act.

(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? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Perfect timing, as always! The tenth chapter in my book is falling flat, so this will definitely help spruce things up.

    1. Oh good, glad I help out there. Good luck on that chapter!

  2. Great post. Really appreciate the links that expand the concepts as they are brought up in the narrative. Cool!

    1. Most welcome. Glad you like the links. :)

  3. The last paragraph is key for me! It's scary how the basic concept of conflict can sometimes be overlooked, or overworked even. Thanks for a wonderfully clear and eye-opening post, as always :)

    1. My pleasure. It's so easy to get scope-locked on what we "think" conflict ought to be, but we have so many options on how to create it.

  4. I get tripped up when there's supposed to be conflict in every scene. I have to work hard on that one. Thanks, Janice!

    1. I think that gets a lot of writers (I've had my share of struggles with that as well over the years). What I've found works well, is to mix up the type of conflict--that way each scene can contain conflict, but it doesn't have to be the big PLOT CONFLICT (booming voice) that might not fit that particular scene. If it's a reflective scene, try an inner conflict instead.