Conflict: The Key to a Good Story

Photo credit: Philippe Put on Flickr
In order for a story to exist—or at least be worth reading—it must contain conflict. A story without conflict is like food without flavor—it's bland, boring, and hardly enjoyable to consume.

The root of all stories lies in conflict: from the story of Adam and Eve (a man and woman are told not to eat from the tree of knowledge, but a snake tempts them to do so anyway) to Romeo and Juliette (boy and girl from opposing families fall in love) to more modern stories like The Lord of the Rings (a young hobbit sets out to destroy an evil ring that many more powerful than he would kill to possess).

So what is conflict? Here's's definition:

When it comes to writing, conflict generally comes in two forms: internal and external, and the most interesting stories have a fair mix of both. To recap, internal conflict focuses on psychological and emotional discord (i.e.: the more Frodo wears the ring, the less he wants to destroy it—but he must in order to save Middle Earth) while external conflict operates on a more physical level (i.e.: Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo).

While the balance between the two and the amount and intensity of the conflict will vary a bit genre to genre, it's important to incorporate some kind of conflict or build up to a conflict in every scene.

Now that's not to say that there needs to be a gun-slinging psychopath attacking your characters on every other page. What I mean is in order to keep the story progressing and your readers interested, there needs to be some form of conflict—internal or external—throughout the story. In chapter one it may be something minor, like your protagonist is on his way to a job interview that could change his life and his family's negative opinion of him as a moocher, but a dangerous blizzard has hit early that morning and the terrible road conditions are making it impossible for him to arrive on time. During the climax it may be something much more significant—like a high-stakes wrestling match on Mount Doom that ends with a lost appendage and a tumble into a very active volcano.

There's no question that every story must contain conflict—and with the right mix of internal and external discord, you'll have the start to a great story on your hands.

Which if the two does your story rely on—internal or external (or both)? Do you have a preference writing or reading-wise between the two?


Esther Spurrill-Jones said...

In our culture. But not in Japan.

Margaret Alexander said...

I see this as a very important part of storytelling that many authors miss. When the conflict starts to die down, the interest dies down, and you get filler. It's just so dull and annoying to read. Yes, it may be wonderfully written, but for a reader it's a snore fest. Of course, every page can't be high on conflict, these scenes have to be selected and presented at the right moments, with the right build up. Still, I feel like behind any story that's worth telling, there's an underlying conflict that begs the story to be told. I love to write a healthy balance of both internal and external conflict, I think those are equally important, and the internal conflicts can be very fun to write. Great post, Ava!

John Chapman said...

Without conflict of some sort there is no story. Even non-fiction benefits from it. I think the key is to consider how the story could be summarised in a single paragraph:

[Protagonist] who finds himself/herself in [situation] from which he/she tries to free himself/herself by [goal]. However, the [antagonist] wants to stop [protagonist] from this, and if successful, will cause the [protagonist] to experience [disastrous result].

Here’s an example of its use:

When a young girl moves to live with her father in a small town in Washington, she meets the boy of her dreams. He has a dark secret which she discovers. In doing so, she finds herself at risk of death from people like him. She is rescued by her new boyfriend, but still is at risk from others like him who want to kill her. She knows that all will be solved if she shares her boyfriend’s secret, but he is reluctant to allow this since he fears it will turn her into a monster.

Recognise the story?

Ava Jae said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful answer, Margaret! I agree completely about the interest in a story fading when the conflict disappears--it's one of the reasons that we writers are purposefully mean to our protagonists. You also make a great point about balancing conflict within the WIP--naturally there must be highs and lows or else you risk exhausting your readers (or worse--boring them).

Finally, I also agree that internal conflict can be extremely entertaining to write. :)

Ava Jae said...

Hard not to recognize Twilight. :)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, John! That's a really great example of how conflict reaches into the very core of the story.

Robin Red said...

Wow, I didn't have a lot of internal conflict until the latter half of my WIP. It was minor in the beginning, but because my protagonist was driven by a single goal, which she accomplished midway through the story, I needed a way to push her back into the fray by giving her an internal struggle. Still working on it.

Ava Jae said...

I've found that I really enjoy writing internal conflict because you can incorporate it into nearly any situation, and it's often more difficult to overcome than external conflicts. Both are necessary (and fun to write, IMO), but in my experience, internal conflict can be particularly interesting to experiment with.

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