Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 5, 2019

Why the Word “Conflict” Frustrates so Many Writers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

“Not enough conflict” is a phrase I’d wager most writers have heard at some point in their journeys. It’s a complicated term that encompasses more than just a single event in a book, yet we often use it as if a novel has one conflict. We also use it to mean things that aren’t actually conflict, but are closely tied to conflict, which makes this even more confusing for newbies and pros alike.

This contextual ambiguity has led to many writers banging their heads against many keyboards and swearing at many screens after a critique. “I haveconflict!” they cry. Yet…dothey? And more importantly—is it the right conflict?

To save any more writers from bruised foreheads, let’s look at some reasons why conflict can be a hard concept to grasp, and what we can do to make it easier on ourselves.

People Often Mean Tension When They Say Conflict

I think this is one of the main reasons writers struggle with conflict. A lack of tension can feel like a lack of conflict in a scene, because there’s nothing to make readers worry or even care. So, you might get feedback such as, “This scene lacked conflict,” when it really just lacked tension. 

Conflict and tension are so intertwined they’re often confused. Scenes lacking one frequently lack the other, because without a choice to make or a problem to overcome, there is no tension. But a lack of tensionis connected more to nothing in the scene that makes readers worry or anticipate about what will happen next than it is to a problem to overcome. 

Conflict Means Different Things to Different Writers

As a hard-core plotter, when I think about conflict, I think about the things that make it tougher for the protagonist to resolve the plot problem. But a romance writer likely thinks about the personality quirks and hang ups keeping the two lovebirds apart. A literary writer often sees the internal struggle the protagonist needs to overcome to be happy.

And we’re all right—as it pertains to our chosen genre and writing style. 

But each of us might critique a manuscript and say, “this lacks conflict,” because what we’re looking for is different from what the author is aiming for. There’s not of lot of internal conflict in a Lee Child thriller, and not a lot of fast-paced plotting in a Diane Setterfield literary novel. Yet both write satisfying novels for their readers.    

We tend to think about conflict in the way we or our genre uses it. Different genres have different conflict needs. 

Conflict Means Different Things in the Same Book

This is what can really make a writer rip their hair out. Conflict is a catch-all for multiple “problems” in the story. It can mean:

The core conflict:The main problem in the book and what the protagonist needs to resolve by the climax of the novel.

The scene conflicts:The problems in an individual scene that must be resolved for the plot to move forward.

The external conflicts:The problems a character faces that must be overcome or resolved in order to move forward. 

The internal conflict—character arc edition:The inner struggle the protagonist is going through that results in them being a better and happier person in the end.

The internal conflicts—scene edition: The struggle to make the right choices in a scene when presented with a problem.

The obstacle conflicts:Things in the way that aren’t actually conflicts, but problems to deal with in pursuit of a goal.

Most of these will occur in every scene, and they will differ from scene to scene. Only the core conflict and the main internal character arc conflict will be a singular issue. The rest of the conflicts are because those two main conflicts are mucking up everything else.

All of these situations fall under “conflict,” and have specific functions in a novel. Which is why…

Not All Conflicts Are Created Equal When It Comes to Plotting

Anyone who has had a strong character arc and internal conflict story they just couldn’t write has run into this issue. Internal conflicts are not plot. Only external conflicts can create plot, because only external conflicts give the characters something to do. Action = plot. 

But internal conflicts help make those external conflicts mean more, because they force the characters to make hard choices about what to do. If the outcome in every scene is obvious, there is no conflict. Internal conflict can also create the necessary tension when the scene’s problem is merely on obstacle in the plot. 

There Are No Rules to What Makes a Good Conflict

Conflict is dependent on so many other factors that it’s nigh impossible to state “This is what you should do” to create a good conflict. This is why one romance novel about choosing between two lovers grips readers, and another makes them yawn. It’s not about the choice, but the characters and what their lives are like and how they’re struggling with something in those lives that gets readers to care.

How You Can Ease Your Conflict Frustrations

Luckily, it’s easy to solve a conflict-confusing dilemma—simply educate yourself about the different types and uses of conflict. You’ll then know which types are appropriate for which scenes. That way, when someone isn’t clear on what they mean, you’ll have some context to work with to help you figure it out.

Also understand the types of conflicts your genre uses, as well as the genres your critique partners write in. This will help you identify any conflict bias in your feedback. You can also ask the critiquer to clarify what they mean so you have a better sense of what (if anything) needs to change.

Conflict is about keeping the protagonist from what they want (and need), and forcing them to work for their goals and making readers care if they achieve those goals or not. It’s making them choose the right path to take, and making that choice difficult. 

But it’s also about creating situations that test a character and gives them something to do to make the plot (and story) happen. It’s giving them agency to be the masters of their story, and force them to earn whatever reward you dangle at the end of the book.

What you put in the protagonist’s way is more than just “what’s in the way” between the protagonist and the end goal. Make it a challenge, make them earn it, and make the payoff worth all that work to get there.

If you’d like more examples and a deeper discussion of how to create conflict in your novel, I suggest my book Understanding Conflict (And How It Really Works). I go into a lot more detail about the types of conflict and how to use them.

Have you struggled with conflict? Do you have any questions about it? Any other tips for those still struggling with it?

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfallfrom Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy seriesfor adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 

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12 comments on “Why the Word “Conflict” Frustrates so Many Writers”

  1. Wow. NOW I know why I squirm when conflict is mentioned. Thank you, Janice, I never thought about all the different types of conflict! Now, if I can just add more of them....

    1. It's a tough element of fiction for sure. It gets easier when we think about it as the hard choices characters have to make and not as battles to be fought. The word itself often makes us think "fights" when that's only one option.

  2. I recall a workshop given by Deb (GMC) Dixon where she said, "It's all about choices. Just make sure the choices are between "It sucks" and "It's suckier."
    Good post.

  3. Thanks for the great article! It surprises me how many writers don't realize that while conflict and tension are closely connected, you can't keep one and toss the other. Recently I assessed a manuscript for a new writer and described the difference like this: Conflict is the fight you're having with a loved one as you're having it. Tension is that uncomfortable feeling you get around them after the fight is over but you haven't made up yet. In real life, you can have one or the other during a disagreement but without both that disagreement really doesn't exist.

    Thanks again!

  4. I heard Donald Maas say "there must be tension in every scene." Later, a fellow writer in a critique group said, "Donald Maas says there must be conflict in every scene." At that moment I realized the important difference between tension and conflict. Yes, tension in every scene, but not conflict necessarily, unless you're writing a Tom Clancy thriller. Fear, uncertainty, depression, nervousness, anger etc are all forms of tension. Tension can be created by references to weather, beaten down buildings, even something as basic as posture. Arguments, fights, war, backstabbing etc are forms of conflict. My book (since published) got a whole lot better once I understood this. Great post, Janice.

  5. […] There are many intertwined elements that propel our story forward and keep readers turning the pages. Jami Gold looks at drive vs. focus to define our story, Roz Morris has tips to write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions, J.J. Hanna suggests letting your antagonist drive the plot in the saggy middle, K.M. Weiland untangles the relationship between plot and theme, and Janice Hardy explains why the word “conflict” frustrates so many writers. […]

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