Conflict: Twist the Knife Slowly

Conflict: Week 3 of Re-visioning Your Story

Violence is not Conflict. It is not action. It is not bickering, or worry, or dreams, or traveling. Unfortunately, many seasoned and novice writers mistake one or all of those things for conflict.

Why is conflict so difficult for the writer? Because human beings naturally shy away from conflict. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes outright dangerous. But conflict is essential to storytelling for as Robert McKee says in his book, Story, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”:

So, you ask, if conflict is not action, violence, bickering, etc., is conflict an obstacle? Well, yes and no. An obstacle can present your character with something he must overcome, but if it does not present a dilemma, your reader may not care.


In How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, the authors give what I believe is the best definition of conflict I’ve ever read. “The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no.” Someone or something is saying no to your character.

Yet, compelling conflict is more than someone saying no. It’s more than an obstacle; it’s something that creates a dilemma. A dilemma arises when a character desperately wants or needs something and must make a choice between two actions he’d rather not do in order to fulfill his desire.

Types of Conflict

Many how-to-write books tell you that there are five Basic Conflicts: man against society, man against man, man against himself, and man against nature. Editor, Jessica Page Morrell, slices up conflict a little more finely in her book, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. Ms. Morrell includes four more in her list of Basic Conflicts: man against the supernatural, man against fate, man against machine, and man against God. Labels like these are helpful to some. Perhaps these labels smack a little too much of English Lit class to you. You wonder how labeling the conflict in your story as man against society helps you as a writer. It is a tool. Figuring out which basic conflict fits your story boils it down to its essence. You then use that to take the measure of every way in which you express the conflict in your story. If each of your conflicts fit into that same Basic Conflict, congratulations, you have built a consistent goal and conflict structure for your story.

In addition to the Basic Conflicts, there are two Conflict Types that are important to understand. These are Inner Conflict and External or Outer Conflict. When a character experiences an Inner Conflict her beliefs, attitudes, habits, and values are challenged to the point that she will change. External Conflicts are those that can be seen, felt, or heard. The most satisfying, engaging full-length novels have protagonists who face both Inner and External Conflicts.

Every Scene a Conflict

You know that a story is constructed with scenes and you’ve likely developed a definition of what a scene is. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll use Dwight V. Swain’s definition. A scene is “a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.” Mr. Swain goes on to say that a scene’s structure includes a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. (We’ll talk more about disaster in another post.)

Every scene must have a conflict. And conflict must be sharp, like a knife. The more intensely your character wants something, the more intensely someone or something says no, the more your reader will care. But it’s a balancing act. If every scene contains a conflict of the same intensity your story becomes melodrama or worse, boring. How do you keep conflict sharp but not melodramatic? Include conflicts that are of varying importance. Make your character choose which goals and conflicts he will act upon. These choices will reveal your character’s beliefs, values, attitudes, and habits piece-by-piece to your reader.

Your Assignment

This week you will read your manuscript again. As you read, take notes about the conflict as it is written on the page. Write only in your revision notebook or file. When you write a note about a particular issue, it will be helpful to include the manuscript page number in your notes. Do not edit your manuscript. Editing will come in due time. For now, you are deconstructing your story so that the work of revision will be more efficient and effective.

You Know the Knife’s Too Dull When

  • Your character is worrying.
  • Your character is arguing. An argument is not conflict unless there is an ultimatum issued or choice made.
  • Your character had a dream. Conflict in a dream is not immediate.
  • Your character does not have a clear goal.
  • Your character is not desperate to accomplish his goal.
  • Your character’s goal is not introduced early enough in the scene (or story).
  • No one opposes your character.
  • Your character does not have a choice to make.
  • All the choices your character makes are of the same intensity.
  • There is an easy way out for your character.
  • Your character does not act on getting his goal (make a choice).
  • The action (conflict) takes place ‘offstage.’
  • Your character does not care deeply about the outcome of this act.
  • There are no consequences to your character’s actopms.
  • There is no doubt as to whether the character will get what he wants.
  • What the character wants or needs is not consistent with her overall story goal.

To Sharpen the Knife of Conflict

  • Give your character clearly defined goals.
  • Make your character’s goal be the key to his happiness (at least in his eyes).
  • Give your character a dilemma involving the two types of conflict: Inner and External.
  • Give your character tough choices that define and reveal who he is.
  • Make certain the conflict forces your character to take action.
  • Make the choices, the action, your character takes be clear choices that lead to more difficult choices.
  • Give him choices that are equally bad.
  • Decide what is the worst possible thing that can happen to your character, and make it worse.
  • Show precisely how hard this is for your character.
  • Make your character change or make a sacrifice in order to fulfill his goal.
  • Make the first goal and conflict of the story related to the final goal and conflict of the story.
  • Make the conflict of your story appropriate for your target reader.

Recommended Reading

If you are still having difficulty with understanding or evaluating conflict in a story, I recommend you read Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer and Robert McKee’s Story.

Thanks for spending time with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d love to hear about your story. What Basic Conflict is your story about? What are your character’s Inner and External Conflicts?

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1:Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: above

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together


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