Why writers need conflict, and how to write it

One of the key ingredients of any novel – or, indeed, any piece of fiction – is conflict. It’s the glue that holds readers to the story.

One of my bookshelves...
One of my bookshelves…

Conflict in all its forms explains the ‘why’ of the plot – gives meaning and place to what is happening. It helps readers identify with the characters.

All conflict has to tie in to the characters, one way or another; it’s how we learn about them, and it’s how they learn what they need to progress through the story.

Conflict takes many forms. It can be conflict between characters: people who don’t get along, or who have different points of view, and who argue. Usually it’s argument over direction needed to resolve a plot problem.

Conflict can also be between the characters and the environment – as in Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.

Ideally it is a mix of both.

Conflict also creates the dramatic tension you need to keep readers hooked. The trick is to gauge it: conflict is a powerful tool for creating the rising waves of dramatic tension that drive readers into your novel. But don’t start with the big explosive tension – start small and build up. Plot it on a chart first. Useful questions include:

  1. What does this conflict do to advance the character arc? What do we learn about the character from the nature of the conflict and the way they resolve it?
  2. What is the scale of this conflict-point? Is it appropriate at this part in the plot?
  3. How does this conflict interact with other conflicts?
  4. If it’s a character conflict (like an argument), how does it interact with the plot? If it’s a plot conflict, how does it interact with the characters?

Without conflict, attempts to make things dramatic reduce a story to ‘The Perils of Penelope’ – serial dangers where the only point is the danger itself, which doesn’t drag readers along.

That happened in Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) where he tried to inject drama into the ‘Professor explains’ sequence at Teabing’s house, by having an assassin sneaking up on them. This was melodrama. And very silly.

Don’t do it that way, OK?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “Why writers need conflict, and how to write it

  1. Very good post. The other issue with injecting “drama” into infodumps by having a background dramatic event is that, well, then you’re stuck with that dramatic event.

    Case in point, I recently tried to spice up an infodump by having the informant be on the run and poisoned-about-to-collapse. Worked great for the scene. Problem is, now I’ve got a half-dead character on the run, and the MC can’t just go and abandon them, can he? Cue plot derailment. Again.

      1. Yes, exactly. Although I seem to drown in replanning to the point that I barely get to actual writing. Really looking forward to your infodumps post!

    1. Yes – that’s always important. What the writer thinks they have written and the way others receive it are two different things, and a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ commentary can often show up what’s needed to bring the two together.

    1. Thanks. Yes, conflict is essential. Without it the novel could be used as a high school English text with which to bore teenagers who would rather be anywhere but the English Lit class, but I can’t think of any other use. ☺

  2. Excellent points. Every story needs a conflict of some kind. Even the flash fiction I write needs conflict to keep the story spicy and interesting.

    1. Absolutely. It’s a vital part of fiction. And, in point of fact, non-fiction, though few nf authors seem to realise. The ones who do usually hook into a far wider audience than their peers.

  3. Within the story is essential, as you say. I also like to extend it outside the story by forcing the reader into a conflict with the characters. I often use Hannibal Lecter as an example of a character we should dislike, but can’t because of the strength of his personality. Giving the reader a moral quandary I think pulls them into another dimension and draws them closer to the story.

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