Conflict: the heart of every good story

In her excellent book Story Structure and Architecture, Victoria Lynn Schmidt PhD points out that conflict keeps a story going and a reader engaged. Loosen off the tension arising from conflict and you loosen the thread that ties the reader to the story. So keep it coming, tightening the winch with every turn. Start slow and gradually wind it up until the reader is almost shouting at the character to do something to relieve the tension.

That’s what you want but be careful they don’t then worry that you are playing with them. There is a fine line between keeping the story moving along, knowing the reader is fully engaged, and then dangling them on a line until they get fed up. The writer’s relationship with his or her reader is a tenuous one.

Conflict comes in many forms. Internal conflict, such as that between desire and values is one Victoria Lynn Schmidt mentions. Others she lists are conflicts with other people such as in situations where the hero battles against forces that are not normal or with nature. In paranormal conflict is usually about fighting with monsters of the mind, technology, or science. Other conflicts arise from a battle against fate and conflict where the hero battles against a group.

Whenever I am reading a manuscript by a student writer, there is one thing I always notice about the way they handle conflict. I am embarrassed to say, I was no different, so depicting conflict is never easy. We all know that we need conflict for the story to have movement and to draw the reader in and keep him or her engaged in what we’re writing. But when we try to write it, we are either timid and tiptoe around it or we bowl right in there, gloves off and start punching it out with all the gusto of a scene from a Muhammed Ali fight.

In fact, the best conflict is subtle. No shouting, no bombs tearing the sky apart and no fists belting into an opponent’s ragged and torn body. Instead a gradual build-up of actions, counter actions, and new opposing actions builds tension and drives the conflict to a satisfying climax.

Some writers start with people screaming at each other. The din is so resounding the reader has no time to find out what they are fighting about and whether the fight is worthy of his or her attention or not.

The best conflict scenes I have ever read are based on characters who step away from their safety zones and take a risk. The conflict arises from their attempts to normalise the situation either with another person or with the environment.

If you find yourself writing dialogue where people are shouting at each other, step back and take a look at what you are trying to achieve. This kind of conflict very quickly gets tangled up in itself and ends up being a verbal ping-pong game.

Regardless of the kind of conflict, the writer has to introduce it in a believable way. It has to have back-story and characters who would get into the kind of conflict the writer is describing.

Imagine neighbours at odds over the boundary fence between their properties. One (Dan) says it is a foot into his property and he has council plans that show this. The other neighbour (Steve) disputes the claim. An apple tree that fruits abundantly grows on the disputed strip on Steve’s side. He sells the apples every year and earns a bit of pocket money that way. The sensible thing would be for them the share the profits and the labour. But in such matters, who is sensible, especially when Dan’s daughter ran off with Steve’s son and they have not heard from either.

They could bellow at each other across the fence. They can build barricades and it can get completely out of hand with bulldozers coming in and ripping out fences then building new ones. This is an opportunity for a great deal of angst to spill blood on the page. But by taking this approach the writer is left with a circular process that starts at a high pitch and has nowhere else to go except down.

An alternative could be that the opposing parties meet in court, or join in a search for the son and daughter. Which of these three possibilities gives the writer the greatest opportunity to engage the reader?

The decision depends on what outcome the writer wants. Is this going to be a moral tale where both neighbours fight so vigorously both lose the apples because machinery mistakenly pulls the tree out? Or will this be a tale about how two warring parties resolve a conflict amicably? The battle is not really about the apple tree or the boundary, it is really about the son and daughter running away together….all the dreams each parent had for his child…gone. But do they ever recognise this?

There are many possibilities. What we do know is that at the heart of this story lies unresolved conflict. The reader will remain keen to the turn pages as the screw gets tighter and the tension builds.

The story may end when Dan finds Steve gazing out into nothing at midnight, with a full moon casting him in sharp shadows. Steve mumbles something about missing his son and Dan admits to missing his daughter. They reminisce about their kids and realise they must search for them and forget about quarrelling over the boundary. The conflict then becomes one of battling the unknown, authorities and fear.

There are many possibilities and they all begin and end with conflict at the heart.



Excellent blog. I do hope all members take time to read these blogs and maybe print them out as reference sheets kept to hand while they write. This a great one Suraya.