July 4, 2019

Do Our Stories Need More Conflict?

Two people on opposite benches with large gap between them with text: How Much Conflict Does Our Story Need?

Today is Independence Day in the U.S., the day the country’s fight for independence officially started. Appropriately, for today’s post, we’re talking about conflict…in our stories. *grin*

Conflict is one of those concepts that writers can sometimes struggle with, especially when we’re new to writing. So let’s make it easier to understand and include in our stories.

Outside of the writing world, conflict is usually considered a bad thing. Conflict is often thought of as fighting—and thus to be avoided.

But in the writing world, conflict is about far more than just “fighting,” and more importantly, our stories need conflict. In fact, as agent Donald Maass said years ago, our stories should have some sort of tension on every page.

So what is conflict and how can we make sure our story has enough?

What Is Story Conflict?

Among writers—and therefore within writing advice—conflict can refer to any situation where:

  • characters have conflicting goals or
  • there’s a gap between what a character wants and what they currently have.

In other words, conflict is everywhere.

How Are Goals and Conflict Related?

Notice that word goals in the explanation above? We’ve spent a lot of time over the past month talking about goals at our story and character level. Goals help our story move forward. Now that understanding of goals can help us with the concept of conflict.

How are goals and conflicts related in our stories? Click To TweetAs alluded to above, conflict refers to whatever stands between our characters and what they want. Conflict is what creates the story and not just a tale of “she wanted a job and she got one. The End.”

Why does it take them 300 or so pages to reach their goals or fulfill their desires? (Assuming they do succeed and we’re not writing a tragedy.) Whatever those obstacles standing in the way of their goals are, that’s conflict.

Types of Conflict

Not all obstacles between our characters and what they want actually help develop the story though. True story-worthy conflict needs consequences and induces change, and in turn, that change drives the story forward.

Ever read a story with tons of obstacles that still feels like it’s going nowhere? That might be because there’s no point to the conflict, and the author is just filling pages with complications until they deem the story long enough.

For those types of obstacles, “winning” doesn’t change anything, and without change, there’s no momentum for the story. Those superficial obstacles are okay to include occasionally, but real conflict should be going on at the same time (at least in the subtext or background).

Obstacles that aren’t just superficial and only about winning will sometimes be internal (“they don’t believe they have the right to X,” “they’re too scared to go after Y,” etc.), and some obstacles will be external (a meddling mother, a job loss, a terrorist, etc.). Usually, we combine internal and external conflicts for a richer story.

What’s the Source of the Conflict?

Whether internal or external, the source of the conflict is an antagonist. Some think of an antagonist as a villain, but there’s more to antagonists than just being a “bad guy.”

An antagonist is any thing that has different goals from our protagonist or widens the gap between “want” and “have.” Notice the word thing

An antagonist doesn’t have to be a person or character. As mentioned above, it could be a job loss, or it could be a broken-down car or a headache.

In some cases, especially with internal conflict, our characters might act as “their own worst enemy.” But for conflict with “things” or “man vs. self” as antagonists, we often want to set up proxies, someone who’s setting up the change driving the story. The antagonist isn’t just the job loss—it’s the boss who laid them off, etc.

Conflict in a Story Is…

With all of that information, we can see how important conflict is to our stories:

Our characters have goals.
Their goals aren’t immediately reached because antagonists/obstacles stand in the way.
The opposition creates conflict.

The struggle to overcome the conflict:

* creates tension,
* sets our story’s pacing, and
* introduces change to the story.

The change brought on by conflict gives our story meaning.

At the same time, every change in a situation can trigger additional conflict: characters disagree on new priorities or approaches, alliances shift, etc. So yes, opportunities for conflict are everywhere, and that’s why conflict should exist throughout our stories.

How Can We Add More Conflict to Our Story?

So now that we truly understand why some type of conflict should exist in every scene—or even on every page—we might be wondering how we can go about adding more.

What makes conflict so important to our stories — and how can we add more? Click To TweetAngela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, famed for their Emotion Thesaurus book (and other Thesaurus books) and their Writers Helping Writers site, introduced their latest Thesaurus series this week. And lucky for us, they’re focusing on conflict. *grin*

As Angela says in her introduction to their new free, online Thesaurus series:

“Big or small, conflict creates problems for our characters, tests their motivation, and forces them to prove just how much they want to achieve their goals.”

By looking through their introduction, I can see that this series will be full of ideas for how we can add more conflict to our stories. I love it already. *grin*

Far beyond the stereotypical idea of just fighting, their weekly blog entries about conflict will fall into various psychological categories:

  • Power Struggles
  • Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks
  • Failures and Mistakes
  • Relationship Friction
  • Duty and Responsibilities
  • Moral Dilemmas and Temptations
  • Losing an Advantage
  • A Loss of Control
  • Ego Hits
  • Unwelcome Challenges
  • No-Win Scenarios

For each entry, they’ll be giving examples and exploring:

  • minor complications
  • potentially disastrous results
  • people who could be negatively affected
  • resulting emotions
  • flaws that could make the situation worse
  • internal struggles
  • positive outcomes

Writing Helping Writers: Conflict Thesaurus

Check out their new Conflict Thesaurus collection, including the first entry. (*psst* Sign up for their blog updates email to get each new entry as they post. Look in the top left of their blog page for the subscription form.)

With this resource, we’ll have more ideas for how we can include conflict on every page. When we have conflict that matters for our story, readers will feel compelled to keep reading to find out what happens. *smile*

P.S. Don’t forget to enter my Blogiversary Contest! We’re almost up to two winners, and the more comments we get, the more winners we’ll have.

Do you struggle to add conflict to your stories? What types of conflict do you find easiest to write? What conflict categories are you most looking forward to Angela and Becca writing about? Do you have any questions about conflict or how it ties into the rest of our story? Do you have any insights about conflict to share?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Angela Ackerman

Jami, I am so glad you’re excited about the Conflict Thesaurus! I am too – I think this is a fascinating area and when I’m stressed, writing an entry about something terrible we can do to characters will be therapeutic, haha. BONUS!

Thanks for giving it a shout out!


Hey Jami! Wow I can’t wait till the conflict thesaurus comes out. My eyes are not the best when reading online, so reading on my Kindle would be much more pleasant. Yesterday, I was comparing a scene I wrote, versus a scene written in one of my favorite gay romance novels. At first, I thought my scene felt like a drag because it was too long. But when I counted the Kindle pages, my scene was actually much shorter (about half the length). One possible explanation is that while my scene clearly expressed a relationship/emotional issue, it didn’t say much about an external, action-oriented plot. For that scene in the gay romance novel, the characters talked about both relationship and external action issues. This seems related to your point that we should mix both external and internal conflict to keep things interesting. (For genre stories, at least. Though I have seen literary fiction mix the external with the internal as well, such as in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.) If we see conflict as the gap between what a character wants and what they currently have, then a character might want a guarantee that his love interest will stay with him forever, yet there is no guarantee in life. There could be some interpersonal conflict as well, where you have one lover who wants reassurance that what they have will last forever, while the other lover says that the future can never be predicted, so they can’t offer that promise. Thus,…  — Read More »

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