Where does conflict in our writing come from?
We generally assume that conflicts come from events. Conflict is an argument with a neighbor or a fight in a parking lot. It’s a bad grade on a test or a stalker with a knife. It’s the apocalypse, whether nuclear or zombie. But while these are all contexts where conflict can exist, they are not in and of themselves conflicts.
In fact, there’s no such thing as an inherent source of conflict.
Consider the traffic jam. Somewhere in the world, a traffic jam is happening right now. But probably, that traffic jam is not causing any conflict in your life. Why? Because you’re not in it. It doesn’t affect you.
So conflict, then, whatever the cause, appears only when it actually impacts upon your characters.
Writing Good Conflict Starts with Your Characters
But it’s more than that. Suppose you’re in that traffic jam on a beautiful spring day. The windows are cracked open, the birds are chirping, you’ve got your favorite music on the radio, and you’re not going anywhere in particular. You may be in the traffic jam, and you may be moving slowly, but you don’t care, and because you don’t care the traffic jam still represents no real conflict.
That’s because the source of conflict is not the traffic jam. The source of conflict is you having somewhere to be.
Conflict, then, is not a matter of circumstance so much as motivation. Conflict is a character issue. Conflict resides in the impact of events and circumstances upon a character’s wants and needs. And once you internalize that, generating conflict in your narrative becomes a far clearer process.
Conflict Comes from Wants and Needs
A nuclear apocalypse is not a conflict in and of itself—not if your character has a perfectly good, well-stocked fallout shelter in which he already planned to spend the rest of his life. But if your character is struggling to survive long enough to see his family again, that’s conflict. If your character wants to make it to some fabled enclave unaffected by the disaster, that’s conflict. If your character needs to find a steady source of food to survive, that’s conflict.
In this respect, writing good conflict in fiction and memoir is very nearly impossible without first crafting a convincing character. And that comes down to determining what that character wants and needs, and how these desires impact upon his goals. So…what does your protagonist or antagonist want? What does s/he need? And what obstacles are getting in the way of his or her plans to get those things?
Conflict is Crucial
This, of course, is not a challenge that can be avoided by not bothering with conflict. We need conflict. Conflict is the source of energy in any narrative, whether fiction or memoir. There’s not much story in driving down an empty highway and getting to work right on time. There’s no doubt you’ll make it. Conflict raises questions: What are you going to do? How can you escape this traffic jam? What happens next? Without questions like these, you’re not really telling a story. You’re just describing a series of events, and readers have no investment in that.
Conflict is crucial, and its origin is character. So when you find that your novel feels somewhat less than engaging—when you sense that you don’t have enough conflict—don’t just throw in a traffic jam or a meteor or a dinosaur. Consider your protagonist. Consider what he wants and needs. Consider his goals. Then create events and obstacles that make it difficult to achieve any of it.
That’s where conflict comes from.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).