Conflict and Trouble

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A lot of stories have slow starts because their writers confuse trouble with conflict.

Trouble is what happens to all of us, usually daily.  Things go wrong, we make mistakes, others screw up and we have to clean it up.  Trouble is part of life.

Conflict is a struggle between two people who both want goals and who are blocking each other.  Conflict is a battle, a war.  Conflict escalates because both sides push back.  Conflict is a specific struggle between two people, the escalating action of which moves the story forward.


Jane’s alarm clock doesn’t go off, so she’s late for the presentation that’s going to get her that promotion.
Because she’s running late, she doesn’t check her gas tank, and she runs out of gas.
Because she’s out of gas, she has to run the last mile to her job, and she arrives looking like a disorganized mess, too out of breath to talk.
Jane loses the promotion.
Jane’s alarm clock doesn’t go off because her rival, Nemesis, snuck in the night before and turned it off.
Because Jane’s running late, she doesn’t check her gas tank which Nemesis drained on her way to work, and she runs out of gas.
Because she’s out of gas, she has to run the last mile to her job and arrives looking like a disorganized mess, which Nemesis points out by saying, “Poor Jane, you look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”
Jane says, “Nemesis, you are one vicious bitch” and punches her.
Jane loses the promotion.

Trouble is great for adding complication and stress to your protagonist’s and antagonist’s lives, but trouble can’t fuel story because there’s nobody to push back and escalate the action.

Conflict, not trouble, is the fuel that powers your story.

TroubleshootingThe key to identifying your conflict problem is to find your antagonist.  If he’s sitting around not doing much, or if you don’t have an antagonist, you may have a lot of trouble, but you won’t have conflict.

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

29 thoughts on “Conflict and Trouble

      • I don’t know ‘Into Thin Air’, but couldn’t this kind of story be an internal antagonist? The protagonist insists he’s capable of conquering the mountain, but he’s in denial of his vulnerability. Maybe he feels he has to do such impossible things in order to be accepted, or that he/human beings don’t have the limitations other people think they do.

        There’s story potential in triumphing over the odds, I think. Or being cut down to size, I suppose. (I like happy endings.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s where a lot of those situate themselves, but you still need an external antagonist to shape the plot. Otherwise the setbacks are bad luck and bad judgment, nothing that can escalate a story plot.

        You always come back to the same problem: He knew the mountain was high when he set out to climb it. He starts his climb and it’s still high. He has bad luck and it’s still high. He makes a bad call and it’s still high. The plot is still moving in a straight line.

        Next week is protagonist and antagonist (I think) and the week after that is internal and external conflict (I think), so we’ll keep talking about this.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Leigh says:

    INTO THIN AIR was a recounting of an event Krakauer personally experienced. It’s not fiction, it’s a riveting recount of terrible trouble. Gave me goosebumps:-)
    I liked this section, Jenny. You’re putting into words stuff I understood on a hazy instinctive level.
    That being said, I’m really looking forward to reading your antagonist/protagonist section because I’ve always found creating credible and sustainable conflict between the two to be a real balancing act. If the antagonist is too strong, she runs the show, but if she’s too weak, the story runs out of gas. And then there’s the issue of having a protagonist being seen as reactive versus proactive…
    Yup, I’m going to look forward to the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So to relate this post with the one from last week (the protagonist and antagonist must want the same thing), could it be extrapolated from your example that Nemesis wants the promotion Jane is seeking? Similar to the conflict in the movie What Women Want, in which the Helen Hunt character is thwarted from keeping her new position by the Mel Gibson character (who really thought he would be promoted to that position).


    • No, no, look at last week again. The protagonist and antagonist don’t have to want the same thing. They just have to be on paths that block each other.
      It may be that Nemesis is seeking revenge for Jane eating her yogurt out of the company fridge.
      It may be that Nemesis wants to discredit Jane so she can make a move on the co-worker Jane’s been courting.
      It may be that Nemesis wants Jane unemployed so that Jane will be forced to take a job with the person who’s paying Nemesis.
      It could be any number of things. The simplest is probably that she wants Jane’s promotion, but it could be anything.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. carolc says:

    Oh, this makes so much sense! Thank you! I’ve always had trouble with conflict and these posts are making it so clear.

    And please put that bit about Nemesis goals in your book somewhere – you could probably see the light bulb flashing on over my head for miles. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Just a thought, because you say “conflict is the fuel for story” in the previous post too, and it’s important, but it’s also more vague than my literal brain can really comprehend. I’m wondering if there’s something else you can use to summarize the conflict paragraph, something that’s more clearly different from “a part of life.” Something like “conflict is intentional,” perhaps?

    You may have something better, but I’m just thinking that these TL:DR bits are so short that you may not want to be duplicating a line that’s good but was already said in the previous lesson and that doesn’t — at least to literal brains like mine — show how conflict is intrinsically different from trouble.

    Many writers will argue that trouble IS fuel for story. (I don’t agree and obviously you don’t either, but you’ll hear it argued), so it seems too vague for the shorthand takeaway for the lesson. At least for me, the difference has to do with intent and escalation and bobbing and weaving, which you do mention in the lines leading up to that “fuel for story” conclusion. It just doesn’t seem as concrete as the bolded “trouble is part of life” line and also doesn’t seem to be essentially the opposite of (or distinction from) being a part of life. If that makes any sense. I’m rambling now. I’m traveling, and I’m fried.

    Or maybe it’s just me, and others get more meaning from the fuel reference.


      • ginjones says:

        What about: “conflict is an escalating struggle between two people”? That gets in the focus on struggle and people, and “escalation” is sort of the definition of moving the story forward.

        Just a thought.


  5. Susan says:

    This post was a lightbulb moment for me as a reader. I’ve been reading a novel by a popular romance writer, and it seems like everything is in place – a hero and heroine that you want to fall in love, good dialogue, likable secondary characters – and yet I’ve been vaguely bored throughout. After reading this, I realized that there is absolutely no conflict in the story. It’s a quiet story about two nice people finding love, but without some sort of conflict running through, it isn’t quite enough for me. I hadn’t realized how important that aspect is in a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. If any of you got a “Romance Conflict” post in the mail, it’s a mistake. That’s a draft I’m working on, and I hit publish by mistake. Wipe it from your minds. Thank you.


    • Peggy Larkin says:

      Glad to see I didn’t hallucinate it! I’m reading blogs from an airport lounge at the crack of dawn, after having packed my bag around 2am, so it’s good to have outside confirmation that I didn’t dream a new post by mistake.

      (The dancing elephants, on the other hand…)


      • I’m so sorry about the airport lounge.
        The best thing about having a rare blood disease is not being allowed to fly. If this ever spontaneously clears up, I’m not telling anybody.


  7. I’m madly working on an event, sending email flurries, scheduling meetings, participating in meetings, answering questions, in general sending myself crazy. I needed the extra help of a phantom post to send me to that state of mind called Detached. Thanks, Jenny, for being so helpful.


  8. idahostorm says:

    I’ve read so many of your novels and I can see that you make this happen in them, but what are the steps to build the “perfect” intertwined romantic conflict? What are the seeds? How do you nurture them? How do you know which tendrils to prune? How do you build on that foundation to reach the perfect conflict with these two characters?

    I realize you may answer these questions in the book and that you are just sharing the openings – I’ll be looking for it.

    BTW: I love your (and Michael Hauge’s) Conflict Lock and use it in my writing…but I can see that I am not quite “THERE” yet. Still working toward the goal despite trouble and conflict.


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