Story Conflict

A successful story must have conflict. No one wants to read a story where everything goes exactly according to plan and everyone is happy all the time; that’s boring. It’s often easier to understand what to do by understanding what not to do. Here I’ll talk about what not to do to create conflict.

Don’t Solve Conflict with a Conversation

Solving conflict with a conversation is too easy.

“I think you’re still in love with your ex. You’re always on the phone with him, and you hang up as soon as I walk in the room. You’re hiding something.”

“I’m not still in love with my ex. I’m sorry I made you feel that way. The dog that we owned together is sick, so I’ve been calling to check on her. I hid it from you because I knew you wouldn’t like me calling him.”

“Oh. You should have just told me. I love dogs. I totally understand.”

“Thanks for understanding. Love you!”

We just solved this conflict in four paragraphs. Can you imagine what it would feel like if this conflict dragged on for an entire novel? The reader would be very frustrated that neither person would just talk to the other and get their conflict out of the way of their happily ever after. This might even be a throw-the-book-across-the-room kind of situation. This kind of easily solvable conflict is not sustainable for an entire novel. You need something that is more difficult to solve, that has deep meaning to the characters.

Don’t Make the Conflict Something That Goes Away on Its Own

This type of conflict is also too easy and doesn’t have any emotional payoff for reaching the solution.

Situation: There’s an empty building up for sale. A man wants to buy it and make an art studio and museum. A woman wants to buy it and make it an ethnic grocery store. Neither is willing to let the other one have it.

Solution: A tornado comes through while they’re in the middle of negotiations and wipes out the building. No more conflict.

Sure, you can have a story go on for quite a long time, and have it be interesting, for the situation above. The two characters can be involved in heated legal battles. It could be further complicated by a mutual attraction. But, if the solution is not brought about by the characters, then the reader will feel like they went on this journey for nothing. The emotional payoff from the character bringing about a solution is what makes the story feel worthwhile at the end.

Don’t Make A Series of Small Conflicts

Small conflicts that are annoying but easily solvable won’t make a compelling conflict.

Situation: A mother just wants to get her kids dropped off at school and get to work on time.

Conflict 1: Her young son wet his bed in the night, so he needs to bathe, and she needs to get his sheets in the laundry. This is accomplished, maybe with a little bit of pushing to get the son to shower, and slows down her morning by a few minutes.

Conflict 2: Her daughter tried to be helpful by making her cereal for herself and spilled milk on the floor. The daughter is crying over the spilled milk. The mom assures her it’s okay and together they wipe up the milk.

Conflict 3: On the way to the school, traffic is  worse than usual. There’s not another route that’s feasible. The mom just has to wait it out.

You get the idea. These are challenges that the protagonist has to overcome, but they’re not compelling. Readers won’t be invested in this story for more than a couple of paragraphs before they get annoyed. Instead, the conflict needs to be something that the character can have some control over (unlike traffic) and is strongly emotionally invested in. If the character doesn’t reach their goal, it needs to be heartbreaking.

Don’t Make the Conflict Implausible

Make your conflict something that is believable for the world in which your story is based.

Situation: A girl is working at a donut shop dreaming about becoming a environmental lawyer someday. Suddenly a movie producer comes in and offers her the opportunity to direct his next film. Should she direct the film or pursue her dreams of protecting the environment?

That situation is utterly unbelievable. The girl has done nothing to indicate that she would have any skills or desire to direct a movie, nor is that likely to happen in a donut shop. If you have situation like this, readers will not stick with you to see how the story ends because it’s just too far removed from any reality.

What To Do

Now that we’ve talked about what not to do, let’s talk about some ways to create good conflict.

Create some goals for your characters. The goals should be clear to your character and therefore to your reader. If you can’t identify what your characters’ goals are, then it will be very difficult for you to figure out things to put in the way of achieving those goals.

After the goals are made clear—to you, to the characters, and to the reader—something needs to get in the way of those goals. This can be another character or something non-human, such as trying to escape Mother Nature. It needs to be something appropriate to the goal that the character can somehow influence (to use an example from above, not something uncontrollable like traffic). It also needs to be difficult to overcome so that the character and readers get that emotional payoff when it’s conquered.

I hope these situations have helped you grasp the do’s and don’ts of creating conflict for your story. Need some help making sure you have good conflict? Contact me, and I’d be happy to help.

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