Writers in the Storm

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April 8, 2024

Are You Making This Conflict Mistake?

By Janice Hardy

You might be missing opportunities to make your conflicts stronger. 

Conflict is one of those terms frequently used as a catch-all for compelling storytelling, when it’s really just one aspect of what makes a strong story. We use it even though we really mean the scene needs a clearer goal, or more tension, or a better character arc, but saying “this scene needs more conflict” sums it up in a convenient—if confusing—way.

It doesn’t help that so much advice out there (mine included) describes conflict as “the obstacle preventing the protagonist from achieving the goal.” This is technically true, but also false. The obstacles in the way of the protagonist’s goal are the challenges that need to be faced, and usually, there is conflict associated with overcoming or circumventing those obstacles, but an obstacle in the way isn’t all conflict is.

“Stuff in the Way” Doesn’t Equal Meaningful Conflict. They’re Only Obstacles. 

This misconception can lead to stories that might look conflict-packed, but actually bore readers.

To be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with random obstacles, and they can make for some fun storytelling. Overcoming a random obstacle can show an aspect of the character or reveal a skill. Sometimes a scene just needs “something in the way” to achieve the author’s goal for that scene, and that’s okay.

The problem occurs when the majority of the conflict in a story is a series of random obstacles that do nothing but delay the time it takes for the protagonist to reach and resolve the problem of the novel. 

They serve no purpose and could be swapped out or deleted, and the story would unfold pretty much the same.

For Example:

  • Imagine the fantasy protagonist who must navigate the desolate wasteland to reach an oracle with answers she needs. While the wasteland could contain conflicts, if nothing has changed for the protagonist between entering the wasteland and leaving the wasteland, she likely faced no conflicts.
  • Picture the romance protagonists who always have “something come up” to keep them from kissing or getting together. While this might work once, or even twice if done with skill, the “near miss” is a contrived obstacle that doesn’t create actual conflict, because nothing is truly keeping the two lovers apart.
  • Consider the mystery protagonist who speaks with multiple witnesses and no one has any information to move the plot along. While speaking to people of interest is a critical part of a mystery, if nothing is ever gleaned, suggested, or learned from those conversations, they were only a delaying tactic and did nothing to create or affect the conflict. Speaking to one witness or twelve doesn’t change anything about the story or character.

It all sounds like conflict—overcoming the thing keeping the protagonist from achieving the goal—but it’s not.

What Meaningful Conflict Does Not Look Like

Let’s explore this further with my fantasy wasteland example:

Getting through dangerous terrain is a common trope for the genre. The protagonist’s goal (to reach the oracle) is on the other side of a set of trials and obstacles, and getting through that wasteland will be quite the adventure for the protagonist.

Say the protagonist’s first obstacle is that she must find water or she’ll die. It’s not easy, but she figures out how to get water.

She travels on until wasteland monsters attack. Again, it’s tough, but she’d prepared for this and fights them off and keeps going.

Then there’s a storm of some type, forcing her to face off against the elements. She hunkers down, waits it out, and emerges when it’s over.

Finally, she reaches a chasm she must cross. It takes effort, and she nearly falls and dies several times, but she gets across.

At long last, she reaches the end and consults the oracle and gets her answers.

At first glance, this sounds like a story with tons of conflict, right? But look closer…

1. Do any of these challenges intentionally try to stop the protagonist from reaching the goal?

Nope. None of those obstacles show anyone actively trying to prevent the protagonist from reaching the oracle. Any random person entering the wasteland would have encountered the same issues she did. It’s not personal, it’s just the wasteland.

And even though these obstacles seemed hard to overcome, were they really? Was the reader ever in doubt the protagonist would overcome them, or even be changed by them? Good conflicts come from a problem that creates a personal challenge to overcome, and one that matters to the protagonist. And my above examples don’t do that.

2. Does the protagonist make choices that change her view or force her to struggle to find the right path?

Again, nope. Nothing about the obstacles in my example challenges the protagonist mentally or emotionally. No hard choices were made to find water or beat a monster. There was nothing really at stake and no soul searching to choose the right path to the oracle. She just dealt with whatever appeared in front of her.

The scene would have been stronger if overcoming these obstacles required internal struggles, or caused a change in the character’s viewpoint or belief that made facing (and maybe failing) them matter to her character or growth. Readers would have cared more and been more uncertain about what might happen, because then the obstacles would have obviously had a point for being there.

From a larger story standpoint, the external challenges (physical problems) didn’t do anything to affect the plot or character. Similarly, the internal challenges (mental or emotional problems) didn’t exist. This series of obstacles were just things in the way. They provided no conflict to the goal, even if they did provide obstacles to the goal. Reaching the oracle wasn’t hard, because no matter how difficult those obstacles might have seemed, they caused no struggle or challenge to the protagonist on a physical, mental, or emotional level.

And that’s the difference between conflicts and “something in the way” obstacles.

Obstacles vs. Conflicts

Remove any of these obstacles and the protagonist consults the oracle exactly the same way, because the obstacles did nothing but kill time until the scene could occur.

Which is an easy way to find obstacles vs. conflicts in your scenes. 

Conflicts involve struggle. They’re about facing a challenge and having to decide what to do about it—and there are consequences to making the wrong choice and losing (and, remember, death isn’t a real consequence, as protagonists rarely die). 

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever have an obstacle in your story. They’re a perfectly useful way to add a little excitement or interest to a scene, as long as you also have true conflict in there as well. 

If the wasteland protagonist was uncertain if seeking out the oracle was the right thing to do, or she doubted her ability to traverse the wasteland alone, and she made choices to do this that had real consequences, then they might be perfectly fine. They might trigger some deep soul searching about her choices, or make her realize she was risking more than she wanted to for the answers, or prove to her that she wasn’t ready for something, and that would have serious repercussions for her future. 

And thus, those obstacles become more than just “stuff in the way.”

Just a quick heads up before the end…I’ve just started a daily writing tips email, sending story-based writing tips four times a week. They’re quick, fun tips that take just minutes to read, and you can use right away to improve your writing. You can sign up for it here.

Have you made this mistake? How often do you use obstacles vs conflicts on your scenes?

About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones. 

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her ebook, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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14 comments on “Are You Making This Conflict Mistake?”

  1. This is a valuable post, Janice. You've made it very clear what the difference is between conflict and obstacles. I now need to check my current WIP to ensure I have conflicts, not just obstacles.
    Thank you.

  2. Excellent points, Janice. You've clarified it well. I used to ask how does this conflict make things harder for the protagonist. I think from now on I'll ask is the Conflict intentional and does it force a change to the protagonist's struggle?

  3. Love this post, Janis. I'm a believer in the concept that win or lose, every obstacle the character faces should lead to some kind of personal growth. The may learn from reaching their current limits (which will hopefully change going forward), or learn that they are capable of more than they thought they were.

    A meaningful conflict is a learning opportunity, even if they character learn they are not cutout to handle the current situation and must seek help.

  4. I find Donald Maass' The Fire in Fiction a wonderfully convenient way to create tension and conflict. He details 14 different situations, points out where the conflict comes from, and gives examples. I use them as a template/checklist to write every scene - don't have space for many obstacles because it gives me so many ideas of places for conflict I might have missed.

    It's amazing how many details you can turn into something even better and more interesting for the reader. Much of it comes from exploring the inner conflict in the pov character caused by the many implications of the circumstances - because I stopped to think.

    The chapters about other craft basics are also solid and full of ideas. Many levels up from beginner.

    1. Maass has a lot of good info on writing 🙂 Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's Conflict Thesaurus is another good one.

      The options are endless when you really get into your character and story and learn more about both.

  5. Excellent post, Janice! 🙂 This is an issue that I struggled with for many years. My attempts at plotting largely felt like filler that happened to or around my characters but ultimately didn't mean anything in the greater scheme of the story. What finally helped me get a handle on it was the idea of causality - the obstacles encountered and choices made in Act 1 affect how those in Act 2 play out, which affects those in Act 3, etc. That everything happens to, or because of, the characters affects subsequent events, either plot-wise or character development-wise (preferably both, of course!).

    Plotting is still my weakness (I'm all about the characters) but thankfully I no longer let that stop me from writing. Just last month I finished revisions on my 90k novel, which is something I never thought I'd be able to accomplish!

    1. Thanks! You got it 🙂 Causality is a great way to look at it, too. The protagonist causes the plot to happen through their actions and choices.

      Grats on the revision! That's awesome 🙂

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