All About Conflict, Part 1

Without conflict, you have no story. Sound like a simple concept, right? But what exactly is conflict and where do you find it? Understanding that you need conflict is a far cry from figuring out how to create the conflict and sustain it across three-hundred-plus pages. 

Part of the problem is that we don’t have the proper language to discuss this concept (strange for writers, right?). The word “conflict” is generally a negative word. When we think of conflict, we think of war, arguments, or fights. To an author, “conflict” is the good stuff. It’s the essence of story, the vehicle that drives plot and and the brush that paints deep characters. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad.

In simple terms, conflict is an opposition to the protagonist. Conflict can come from the villain or antagonist or even allies, but it can also come from within the hero and it is the cause of character growth (also known as the character arc).

You need to dig deep into your character’s motivations to find hidden conflicts that turn a one-dimensional story into a page-turner. You also need to vary conflict (in scope and type) and let it grow. Stagnant conflict is as boring as no conflict.

Conflict is a big topic—too big to cover in one blog article. So, in this post, I’ll describe conflict in terms of the scope of your story. Next time, I’ll go more deeply into the different kinds for making truly believable plots and characters. And finally, I’ll give some tips on how to develop that conflict.

Layered Conflict

Like ogres and onions (according to Donkey), conflict also has layers. First, let’s consider the scope. By this, I mean the size of the conflict, or how long it takes for the conflict to play out. Is it conflict that will take an entire story to resolve? Or will it begin and end in one scene? I like to split conflict into three general ranges: macro, mini and micro (though arguments could be made for more ranges).

Macro conflict is your basic plot and main character’s arc. It is the big struggle your hero will face. When you plot the main points of your story, macro conflict is the inciting event, the climax and the resolution. It is also the personal growth that will happen to your character (or downward spiral for a villain). If you can condense your story down to one sentence (a log line) this would be your macro conflict. 

Mini conflict is created at the scene level. Every scene needs conflict. This doesn’t mean that every scene needs to reflect the macro conflict that is your story arc. But something should change for your character in every scene. In theory, a scene should have a moment of buildup, a climax and some reflection. In the buildup portion, you create tension through description and dialogue. You are setting up the hero’s motivations (what they want) and the villain’s motivations (what will stand in the way). Eventually, those motivations clash (the climax) and something changes for better or worse (this is the reflection). That is the natural progression for a scene. Not every scene can (or should) fall into place so neatly, but if nothing changes for your character in a scene, consider cutting it. 

Look for tension in your scene to create smaller conflicts that can become building blocks to your larger plot. For instance, allies don’t always have to get along. If your hero and her best friend both need solve a mystery, they might have different ideas on how to go about it. These differing views can cause conflict that might play out into even greater plot twists (can you say “foreshadowing best friend betrayal?”). These smaller conflicts can also be used to defy reader expectations in the same way red herrings keep mystery readers guessing.  

Obstacles are also good conflict builders. Does your hero need a special key in order to unlock a mystery? (Insert “information,” “spell,” “person,” or “tool,” here instead of “key.” And insert “find true love,” “slay the demon,” or “win the contest” in place of “unlock a mystery.”) Don’t make that key easy to find. Put obstacles in their way. I like to think of mini conflict like a chase down a busy street between a cop and a perp. Does the perp simply run? No, he topples garbage cans and vendor carts to block the cop’s pursuit. He might take a hostage or run through a busy restaurant. The cop might need to stop and ask bystanders for help. All these scenarios become obstacles for the hero. They are mini conflicts that build a scene. 

Look at each of your scenes with a critical eye. Does something change for better or worse? Is there build-up, climax and resolution? Is everyone always in agreement? Can you find obstacles to heighten the hero’s conflict?

Micro conflict is tension created through beats of emotion and stylistic choices that deepen point of view and create mood. These tiny conflicts are what make your writing sing because they look at the world in a new way. Metaphors are a type of conflict. They mash two ideas together to produce something completely new. 

Emotional beats are another way to introduce conflict on a micro level. “Beats” is one of those buzzwords that gets bandied around a lot but can be hard to pinpoint. Often when I’m editing, I ask the author to add one line of internal thought or reaction that heightens the scene and lets the reader feel the emotion from the hero’s point of view. That’s a beat. They are little timeouts in a highly charged scene. Beats can be hard to grasp, but here’s an example (beat is in bold):

I was outmatched. He had eighty pounds on me and four inches of reach. But I wouldn’t go down without a fight. He struck. I ducked, rolled and kicked his weaker leg. He didn’t fall, but I had a moment of advantage, enough to launch an attack. My fist flashed out and…hit the palm of his hand. Just like that, he caught me. And squeezed. My bones screamed, and he grinned. Gods, but he had the most beautiful blue eyes! And then I jerked up a knee. The grin faded.

The beat is that one moment where the hero stops to take in an stray detail. Notice that the detail is emotionally charged and, in this case, it also works in conflict to the fight scene. 

Mega conflict? 

It could be argued that plotting over a series of books requires an even bigger scope of conflict. Maybe this could be called mega conflict or super-macro conflict. In the end, names aren’t really important. What is important is to never rest on your laurels and think a story, a scene or a paragraph is “good enough” until you’ve explored all the avenues of conflict.

Next time, we’ll look more deeply into this layering with internal and external conflict. Be sure to sign up for the Castelane Newsletter so you don’t miss out on more great resources for writers.

The fall is a busy time for books. Everyone wants to get their book to market before readers start filling those Christmas Kindles in January. So if you have a project in mind—cover, eBook, editing, paperback design or a need for publishing coaching—don’t wait for the last minute. I am currently reserving spots for November. Contact me today to talk about your publishing project. 

If Kim McDougall could have one magical superpower, it would be to talk to animals. Or maybe to shift into animal form. Definitely, fantastical creatures and magic often feature in her urban fantasy stories. So until she can change into a griffin and fly away, she writes dark paranormal suspense and romance tales full of witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, yetis and maybe even a gargoyle or two.

Kim McDougall is the author of the Hidden Coven series and Revise to Write, Edit Your Novel, Get Published and Become a Better Writer She is also a publishing coach and book designer at Castelane, For the Prose.

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