What’s Your Problem?


Photo courtesy of Ryan McGuire

Conflict is an essential ingredient of a good story. I’d go so far as to say that without conflict there is no story. It catches the reader’s imagination and makes them ask themselves, ‘What would I do in this situation?’

So how do we define conflict? Conflict isn’t necessarily simply an argument or a confrontation.

Internal conflict.

This could be as straightforward as your heroine’s guilty ponderings on whether to stay at home and look after her baby rather than sending him to a nursery or an agonising decision to be made when a dying wife asks her husband to turn off her life support. Or perhaps a father has to decide whether to tell the police his son is a drug dealer?

External conflict.

Causes of external conflict might be as great as a tsunami or other force of nature, a motorway development scheme planned to run through your back garden or being stuck in a mile long traffic jam when you need to collect a sick child from school. Perhaps Hurricane Doris is whirling towards your home, destroying everything in its path? The car won’t start and when it does, you can’t find one of the children. He’s disappeared into the storm to look for the family dog. Should you drive away or stay and risk the lives of your other children while you search for little Jimmy?

Conflict plays on a reader’s emotions while he struggles alongside his hero to decide what to do. We want the reader to experience fear, anxiety and hope. The stronger the emotion, the more likely he is to root for the hero and keep on reading to the end of the story to discover what happens.  Nothing should happen too easily for your hero because without the conflict your story will be plain vanilla. Conflict forces change and without change you’re hero will never reach his goal.

The more complicated the conflict is for the hero, the more complex your story will be. There should be no straightforward answer or your reader will become impatient. Why doesn’t the hero just walk away from his domineering girlfriend, for goodness sake?

For maximum impact layer both internal and external conflict together in a story.

A hero’s choices should be hard and whatever he chooses to do, he will sacrifice something that is important to him. For example, if John accepts the fabulous new job offer in Jeddah, will his new wife come with him? She’s recently set up her own thriving business in a local town and has always said she could never be an ex-pat wife without a challenging job of her own. But this job would take John right to the top of his profession, bringing him all the opportunities for advancement he’s ever dreamed of. What would you do?

To sum up:

  • Conflict drives your story forwards
  • Develop complex choices for your characters
  • If there is a conflict between two people don’t make it a black and white choice
  • Pull on your readers’ heartstrings to make them really care what happens

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