Writer Basics: Conflicted over Conflict?

15 May

by Marilyn Campbell

The simplest definition of conflict is “two dogs with one bone”. Without any push-pull, will she-won’t she and impossible choices, a story would be far too simple to hold a reader’s attention. A story about a man and woman meeting at a dance, instantly falling in love, getting married and living happily ever after may be very nice but it’s never going to be called a “page-turner” by a reviewer. However, make the man a prince looking for a bride, the woman a commoner who attends the dance in a glamorous disguise—with the help of a fairy godmother but against the orders of her wicked stepmother—add a midnight deadline and you have all the conflict needed to create a classic romance. Likewise, a detective who solves a murder without facing any danger or having anything interfere with his investigation is never going to attract an audience of mystery fans.

Although the length of the story dictates the complexity of the conflict, even a short story can be made intriguing by the introduction of a physical obstacle to the main character’s goal or a difficult decision in his or her mind. The first is referred to as an external conflict, in which the protagonist must solve the problem by interacting with his environment. For example—

A bomb is set to go off at noon next Sunday in an unknown location in Chicago.

With this setup a variety of scenarios would naturally arise but to truly hook the reader, it is necessary to give her something with which she can personally identify. The secret of the superior manuscript is that it not only holds the reader’s interest but makes her care about the problems of the main character. This is where an internal conflict comes into play.

A newspaper reporter named Joe gets a note from someone supposedly involved with the terrorist group that planted the bomb. Minutes later, he returns home to discover that his wife, Sue, has gone to their secluded cabin in Wyoming, where there is no cell service. Her note states that the marriage is over unless he joins her there immediately to work out their problems. Joe loves his wife and knows he’s been putting his job before her. He wants to fly to her and make amends, give up being a reporter and finally work on the novel he’s thought about for years. But this lead could win him a Pulitzer Prize. He could even be instrumental in stopping a catastrophe.

In mass market fiction, both the external and internal conflicts should be believable and of interest to the average reader. Equally important, the worries or fears that prevent the character from moving forward should be rational. In relationships, if two people don’t get together because of a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up in a one-minute conversation, the reader is liable to get annoyed with the author.

Once you have determined what internal and external challenges your characters will face, they must be smoothly woven in and out of the overall plot. Sometimes, the trickiest part to good conflict writing is having the internal and external problems being faced, dealt with and resolved alongside each other at a fairly equal pace.

So go ahead, torture your characters, put them through hell and angst, make them cry, fret and scream. Just don’t let them get to the happily-ever-after without having to work for it.

Here’s wishing all your conflicts are in your writing.

4 Responses to “Writer Basics: Conflicted over Conflict?”

  1. shannonemmel May 15, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Marilyn is absolutley right, but now I feel REALLY guilty about my last couple of Blogs that were just for fun and NOT very informative.

    Therefore, I am very CONFLICTED…Do I just keep having fun with the blogs, or focus on the craft of writing?

    Geez! Now the pressure is on…Only 7 short days to come up with something blog-worthy.

    What about my WIP? How will I ever keep my head in the realm of Vampires, Shapeshifters and Witches (Oh my!) AND do a blog?

    Then there’s the day job–
    And my family, and O M G!


    I think my head is going to EXPLODE and it’s raining so I can’t go to the beach to “unwind”.

    Danger and doubt loom around every corner.
    Decisions and sacrifices MUST be made to solve this dilema.

    What will I do?!!!!!

    Tune in next Sunday for a new episode of, “As the Blog Rolls”



    Seriously– Conflict IS what drives our characters, our stories and ultimately, US, to greatness.

    Without it, there is no sense of accomplishment and no satisfaction at the end of the day…or the story.

    As for me? I’m pretty sure the house cleaning will be the sacrificial lamb this week. 🙂

    Happy Sunday everyone…And thanks again, Marilyn, for an excellent reminder that conflict is a critical ingredient of good writing…no matter what we write!

    • Marilyn Campbell May 15, 2011 at 11:34 am #

      You crack me up! Don’t you dare start giving practical advice on Sundays…you’re much too creative! But DO give up the silly idea of housecleaning.

  2. Nara May 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    I love conflict. I get to torture people without going to jail.

    Great post, Marilyn.

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