It is a truth universally acknowledged, there is no story without conflict. Unlike the opening of Pride and Prejudice, this one happens to be true. Go ahead, argue with me.
Conflict is the crux of storytelling and plotting. Every novel thrives on conflict. Therefore writing conflict is pivotal to crafting a compelling story. Without conflict, there is no drama. Without drama, there is no story.
Peace is not absence of conflict
Conflict comes in many forms; a struggle, rivalry, disagreement, incompatibility. It may be thwarted ambition, family, career, romantic, war, even the End of the World.
Without conflict, we essentially see the character’s everyday lives. Literally nothing happens except routine; eat, sleep, go to work, repeat. How dull.
However trivial, there is conflict in every school, club, workplace. Conflict is friendship broken, life’s ambitions thwarted, romances blocked, status or acknowledgement denied. Look hard enough, you will find it.
Conflict is mandatory in all genres. It’s doesn’t have to be life or death. It’s the basis of Romance, either Enemies to Lovers in the case of Pride and Prejudice, or warring families in Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it’s be a love triangle and a fight for promotion as in Bridget Jones.
In other genres, Pip has to undergo many social rites of passage in order to meet his Great Expectations. In a comedy of manners, it might be rivalry within the knitting circle or baking class.
Or it could genuinely be life and death in the Action genres; sci-fi, fantasy, war, Western. Our protagonists need to survive and overcome in the War of the Worlds, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games.
In meaningful conflicts, there have to be stakes and consequences for the person who loses. For Lizzie Bennett, its the loss of Longbourn, the family home, social standing, penury and a lifetime as Mrs Collins.
Conflict often results from miscommunication. If only Lizzie and Darcy could overcome pride and prejudice, we could have a wedding by chapter three.
Paths to Conflict
In fiction, you can find uncover the conflict by asking three simple questions:
- what does the character care about?
- why can’t they have it?
- what will they do to get it?
Dig a little deeper with three further questions:
- Are your characters fighting to obtain something, or just hold on to what they have?
- Who or what represents opposition? A person? An organisation? Society? Sauron?
- What kind of obstacles do they have to overcome?
The paperboy has to deal with the neighbour’s mean little dog. That’s a major conflict when you’re ten years old. Bridget Jones has to make a choice. Her main opposition is herself, or her own indecision. Luke Skywalker has to blow up two Death Stars, take down the Evil Emperor and not get killed by his own homicidal father. That’s a lot for anyone.
What’s your conflict?