Conflict, A Definition

Heart Bomb HiRes copy 2Conflict is the fuel for your story.

Conflict happens when . . .
two people who are attempting to reach goals they desperately need
cross paths in such a way
that they block each other from achieving those goals.

These people are not necessarily enemies, they may even be friends, and they’re not necessarily pursuing the same goal, but their needs put them at cross-purposes.

The key words for conflict are desperately and block.

The biggest misconception about conflict is that it’s two people bashing each other. That’s too simplistic. A strong conflict is one person trying to reach a goal that she desperately needs, and another person trying to reach a goal that she desperately needs. Story happens when their paths cross and they can’t get out of each other’s way.

Conflict 1

Jane’s trying to save the family farm because her ninety-year-old grandfather loves it and it would kill him to leave.
Sam’s determined to build low-cost housing for the homeless, and Jane’s grandfather’s farm is the only place that will work within the time frame he’s been given.
Jane doesn’t want anybody to be homeless, but she’s gonna save Grandpa no matter what.
Sam doesn’t want Grandpa to die, but he has a hundred families who desperately need safe housing.

They’re people who have goals they need desperately, they’re at cross-purposes, and they’re going to fight to the death. That’s conflict.

If you have a story opening that’s slow, chances are it’s because the conflict doesn’t start until Chapter Two.


For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

38 thoughts on “Conflict, A Definition

  1. Pam Regis says:

    Clear, useful, and true. The teaching trifecta. The “Troubleshooting” tip puts standard advice like “Start your novel on the day that everything changes” in context–and in the shade.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The Conflict Box really explains that aspect better, and that’s not for another month, which is annoying (one of the drawbacks of taking one concept a week).
      Basically, if they’re not on the same rope bridge, there’s nothing keeping them in conflict, they can just go in different directions to pursue their goals.


  2. deborahblake1 says:

    True story. I just had to toss the entire first chapter of the WIP because I knew *something* was wrong, and when I asked my editor to read it, that was her suggestion. At first I was completely against the idea…then I read the beginning of the second chapter without the first one, and realized the reader would never miss it. Dang it.


  3. Leigh says:

    I’m having the devil’s own time leaving a comment on wordpress–hopefully this time it will go through because I have dicked around with passwords for a hellishly long time.
    First: hell yes, I’ll read your monday blogs. I’ve learned so much from you. Last week, (beside the hell-yesses), I wanted to bring up this: I’m hoping that you’re thinking of expanding this into paid lectures similar to Michael Haugh’s and Donald Maass’s. I’d love to attend one of your day long workshops…They’d be fun and interactive, and the audience would learn big, big, big.
    Second: Distilling the conflict concept into two distinct bites (desperately and block) is genius. That’s going to stick with me. This section works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nope. Love to teach, hate to travel. I’d need to find a venue close to home and that would take work. And by “close to home,” I mean “ten minutes away.” I really hate to travel, possibly because I saw every airport, freeway, and hotel in the continental US in my 40s and 50s.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is exactly what is happening for my WIP in chapter 1. I threw in an aggravated ex flashback scene at the end of it and noticed the tempo changed immediately and sped up. So now to kill my darlings and rework that in. Really appreciate the mechanical, practical tip on chapter placement


  5. Helen says:

    One recurring question with conflict in romance: is it stronger when the heroine’s major conflict (a.k.a. dramatic goal) is with the hero? OR is the hero simply the complication, since he’s off on his own dramatic goal?


  6. ginjones says:

    I think you’ll get into this later, and the omission here is part of getting things down to small bites, but one thing I see a lot with writers struggling with the concept of conflict is that the cited goals for the characters aren’t actually goals, something that the protag/antag is capable of making happen if she works hard enough (save the dog/baby), but are more along the lines of wishes or dreams. Like, “The heroine wants true love (or happiness or world peace).” That’s not something that can really be MADE to happen, and it’s not something that necessarily leads to actions or that can really be blocked.


    • Concrete, specific goals. Yep.goals are on the schedule, too.

      I think it’s the drawback to this approach. The idea is to divide a complex subject (conflict) into easily understandable pieces that are a new way into the topic.

      So there’s Positive and Negative Goals coming up because that’s something that a lot of writing books don’t cover, as opposed to just doing “Goals” which you can find explained anywhere, but the first line addresses specific, concrete goals. The basic definition has to be there, but the approach should be from a different angle.

      And the other aspect is that “Goals” under “Conflict” will be different from the “Goals” under “Character,” etc. Craft topics for writing are so interlocking that uou don’t have consecutive topics as much as you have interlocking gears.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The cartoon is great and immediately portrays conflict and possible looming disaster. The uniqueness of your illustrations (cartoons) draws the reader in. The cliche a picture is worth a thousand words comes to mind.

      From a purely technical standpoint web pages need balance. Too much text and too little white space and/or lack of graphics is problematic. User Interface designers emphasize that readers of web sites have short attention spans, read through the first few lines of a web page and then skim the rest. Your page is laid out well with great balance of white space, text and graphics. You make learning fun.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a visual, hands on learner. The cartoon helped me grasp the concept immediately. It also reinforces that they have concrete goals that push them out on the bridge, not ‘soft’ hopes or traits. I enjoy knitting and a good cup of coffee. Neither would get my butt out there.

      Liked by 1 person

    • cleo says:

      Once I actually noticed the dog and baby, I thought the illustration was helpful, but it took me awhile to see them and therefore to get the point of the drawing.


  7. carolc says:

    Clear and succinct. As someone who still struggles with conflict, this is very helpful. The cartoon is great; it illustrates and reinforces the concept in a way the text cannot. Whenever I think about conflict now, this cartoon will pop-up in my mind – a short cut that leads to the whole concept. I’m not expressing this very well, but, at least for me, the cartoon is the glue that will make the words in the text stick.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Kelly S. says:

    I like the cartoon & it makes your point clear. Once I understood, by seeing the dog & baby, my next thought was why don’t they turn around and each save the one they can & why can’t they carefully pass each other? These two need to work together & both will achieve their goal.

    The concept was well explained.

    I like the troubleshooting graphic & tip.

    (Not a writer)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of possible reasons:

      There’s a time lock, they only have thirty seconds, so they don’t have time to negotiate, they both have to lunge.
      There’s a threat that says only one can survive, either dog or baby.
      They’re both control freaks.
      Betty’s afraid of dogs.

      The point of the rope bridge is that they can’t pass each other. It’s a rope bridge. (Too narrow and unstable.)


  9. Leigh says:

    I liked the visual. You have stakes (baby/dog), you have high risk (swaying rope bridge), and you have urgency (get the freak’ off the swaying rope bridge before it pulls an Indiana Jones).


  10. S says:

    You have to have conflict on every page and in every conversation – does this definition cover that too? If you have ‘desperate’ and ‘block’ on every page doesn’t it become melodrama?


    • You need conflict in every scene; that is, every scene should have a protagonist and antagonist that arcs a conflict. But conflicts come in different intensities. You plot the intensities so that they arc throughout the entire plot, which is where pacing and escalation come in.


  11. robenagrant says:

    This is an excellent explanation of conflict, and the cartoon is perfect. I recently ditched an entire first chapter for lack of conflict, then wove the main events from chapter two throughout the story…so story starts now at the original chapter three. Where it should. 🙂


  12. This looks great! I love the cartoon — (-: I’ve seen these ladies before, and they are great. But in this case, the rope bridge really illustrates the life-and-death nature of conflict. I love the troubleshooting tip, too.

    Realizing that conflict was the engine of the story, not just something put in for drama and thrills, revolutionized my writing. I think a lot of beginners are fuzzy on conflict.


  13. bendhighdesert says:

    Hi Jennie: I also wondered why the women didn’t just turn around and rescue each other’s loves. You could draw the two women straining against each other — as if in an embrace, each desperately trying to reach around the other — rather than fighting. Because on a bridge like that, a big scuffle is just going to get them dumped in the crevasse, and they probably understand that. (Did I take this too far? : )

    Excellent explanation of conflict. Personally I think it’s hard because you have to see both characters’ points of view, and sympathize with them both, even as they are locked in battle and behaving badly.


    • It’s a cartoon to capture the idea of “desperately” and “blocking.”
      So while you can come up with suggestions of how they could cooperate, I can come up with reasons why they wouldn’t, and it’s all kind of moot because it’s really just a visual mneumonic.

      It is important to see the antagonist’s POV, to understand why he or she is blocking the protagonist. Sympathize, possibly not, but understand. The antagonist in Daredevil was beautifully drawn; I didn’t sympathize with him in his crimes, but I understood why he committed them.


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