Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s the heartbeat of every great story, pumping the essential nutrients of tension, pacing, and change that animate strong plot and characters through their literary lifecycles. In short, it’s conflict that gives life to a story. By the same token, though, if there is no conflict in a story, it tends to limp along, stagnate, or die altogether—missing its most vital essence.
So, it’s time to take a closer look at this essential aspect of storytelling and evaluate its role in your writing.
What is conflict?
In basic terms, conflict is struggle. No matter the shape it takes, regardless of how unique or nuanced it looks, at its heart, conflict is always about a character’s struggle. That’s why it’s the essence of story, because struggle—for better or worse—is the universal constant of human experience. In literature, we usually classify this struggle in terms of internal and external conflict. And, more often than not, the internal and external conflicts of a story are somehow tied together, infusing the plot and characters with that delicious drama that readers crave.
Internal versus external conflict
Your story takes its characters from Point A to Point B along that winding road that we call the character arc, the proof that these people are different at the end than they were at the beginning. But what causes this change in a person over the course of a story? You should be able to list several events, a single catalyst, or some life-altering cataclysmic moment that propels your character. There’s one or a series of external struggles your character faces that gradually fashion them into that newer version of themselves. External conflict.
Just as there are obvious external conflicts that begin to exact change in a story, there are also internal forces at work. As characters grapple with their struggles, they learn something new about the world: they might change their minds about preconceived ideas, reject deeply held beliefs, accept uncomfortable realities about loved ones, uncover new truths about something they’ve always just taken for granted; some even reject enlightenment and choose to believe a lie. Like watching spectacular time-lapse footage, we get to see inside these characters’ minds and hearts as the landscape of their inner life evolves. Internal conflict.
Conflict gone wrong
As you were reading the section above, did you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? Or did you feel confused, not quite sure what I meant? Is it possible either external or internal conflict is incomplete in your story? Maybe you need to stop and ask yourself a few questions:
- Do my main characters have a clearly defined arc, perceptible change from beginning to end?
- Are there obvious external pressures acting on the central people in this story?
- Is it clear that my characters are undergoing an internal journey as they navigate the external changes in their lives?
If you answered No or I don’t know to any of these questions, stop and take a closer look at your story. Many a writer has stared blankly at the pages of their manuscript knowing something is “off”, they just weren’t sure what. Often it’s a lack of conflict.
Let’s look at a few examples to get you seeing through the right lenses. Read the following blurbs of three well-known books. Can you can spot the internal and external conflict?
“Jonas’s world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain … When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.”
—From Lois Lowry’s The Giver
“Just recovered from a grave illness, Commander Adam Dalgliesh is called to the bedside of an elderly priest. When Dalgliesh arrives, Father Baddeley is dead. Is it merely his own brush with mortality that causes Dalgliesh to sense the shadow of death about to fall once more?”
“Stalin’s Soviet Union is an official paradise, where citizens live free from crime and fear only one thing: the all-powerful state. Defending this system is idealistic security officer Leo Demidov, a war hero who believes in the iron fist of the law. But when a murderer starts to kill at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled. Now, with only his wife at his side, Leo must fight to uncover shocking truths about a killer—and a country where ‘crime’ doesn’t exist.”
—From Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44
These are just book blurbs, very short summaries of three very different stories, but even in these few words you can see the conflict, can’t you? You can already guess at the internal and external forces that press on these characters and their worlds.
Now, can you do the same with your story? Give it a try. In a few words, summarize the main tension at the heart of your book. Can you do it? Do you know what your characters’ central internal and external struggles are? If you’re having a hard time, there’s a good chance you’re missing that essential element of conflict.
Good news, bad news
So, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first, right?
The bad news is: If you’re missing central conflict in your story, you have more work to do. Please don’t try and get around this element in your book, you’re doing yourself, your characters, and your readers a disservice. What if Romeo and Juliet came from perfectly amiable families who always got along, and the two not-so-star-crossed lovers lived happily ever after? It would not be the same story and vital lessons would go unlearned, by characters and readers alike. You get the picture, so on to the good news …
Now that you’ve identified your problem, you can fix it. And I promise you that as you start to put pressure on your characters, the story will open for you in dramatic and astounding ways. It will change the face of your story and your own journey of learning and growing alongside your characters.
Good news: the work is so worth it.
Finding conflict in a story
So, how do you infuse conflict into a story that’s lacking this essential element? Simple: Go back to the basics. What is your protagonist’s Point A? What is his status quo, or her everyday life like? What happens from there to propel your protagonist into a journey away from that business-as-usual starting point? Another way of approaching the question is, what is your protagonist’s Point B? How have they changed from Point A? If you can see the change over time, you’re only one step away from figuring out the catalyst to that change. Soon you’ll see the pieces coming together, a new picture unfolding. External conflict.
Now, how do your characters feel about what’s happening to them? What parts of their identities, beliefs, worldview is challenged by the changing forces around them? What’s changing inside them? Just as your characters have an external arc, they also have an internal arc, so go back to your Point A and Point B. Examine the change and map out their journey. Internal conflict.
It’s a simple exercise that will put you well on your way to infusing your story with the much-needed conflict it’s lacking.
Conflict is the heart of any story. Sometimes it’s big and bold, coming in explosions and carrying a body count, sometimes it’s so quiet and suburban you barely recognize it. But, no matter its shape, conflict must always be present in narrative. Without it, the other elements of your story stand around, unsure of how to move, how to fit together; the prose is confined to character sketches devoid of movement and life. Pay attention to the internal and external struggles of your characters, ensure you’re fully exploring the conflicts of their world, and you’ll send them on a journey of change—not only for them but for yourself and your readers too.
How has conflict breathed fresh life into a story you’ve been struggling with? What techniques have you used to identify and strengthen your characters’ internal and external conflict? Let me know in the comments.