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Writing 101 – Conflict


(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Conflict is drama if Hollywood is to be believed. It is the root of all adventure, the spice in all romance, and the gut-wrenching horror in all…well, horror. Without conflict, ours stories wouldn’t really go anywhere. There would be nothing to disrupt the status quo of a character’s life and no reason to follow them further than the first page. We would invest nothing more in them than a passing glimpse, maybe even a mutual nod, before they vanished from our lives and our libraries forever.

A story without conflict is just an account of someone’s day and unless that person is the President of the USA, or some other make believe creature, that’s going to make for some pretty boring reading. Actually, it’d still be touch and go even then unless there was the threat of nuclear war or a crack team of North Korean special forces attacked the White House…oh, wait! That’s conflict.

We at Sarcastic Muse thrive on conflict. When we’re not at each other’s throats, we’re writing about monsters ripping out other people’s throats…actually that’s just me and Amanda…scratch that.


There are two types of conflict from which all others stem: Internal and External.

External conflict is the most common. This is a force imposed on the character from a source outside their own body. It could be man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. machine. The list is endless.

Internal conflict is an exerting force acting from within the character. It can be a compulsion, a shift in persona or outlook, or something as simple as a loss of memory.

Whatever form conflict takes, it will be the driving force in your story. It will keep your character searching for that pot of gold we writers know as resolution.

Using conflict

1. Pay attention to your genre

Some genres come with pre-defined conflicts. Crime isn’t crime without…well crime. Romance too has a number of preset and well used conflict types. These are great to get the old noggin-hamsters running but don’t let them confine you.

2. Conflict should have a purpose

Arguments for the sake of arguments are fun and all but they don’t make for great fiction. Likewise, unfathomable plots and non-stop action can easily lead to your reader getting lost. Use conflict to propel your story forward, but let the reader keep up.

3. Setbacks keep the pressure on

Just as writing begets writing, conflict is conflict’s playmate. Keep your characters permanently on their toes by placing stumbling blocks in their way. Torture them until such time as you decide to reward them (or not) with their much desired resolution.

4. Conflict should be natural

Conflict can be unexpected, it can be unusual, it can be something nobody ever imagined before, but it MUST be logical within the confines of the story world. The threat of human extinction by solar gamma radiation is a good conflict pit that against a femme-fatale scientist has all the hallmarks of a Tinseltown blockbuster. And yet, all that hard work goes out the window when you set it in Ancient Rome or even Brontë’s Yorkshire.

Okay, cards on the table time. I’m writing this post in response to a rather diabolical (no pun intended) movie I watched recently. I won’t say which but the plot involved the sacrifice of a family in order to expel a demon that was threatening a small town. Fine so far, right? It all falls apart when you discover that the demon in question was raised for the sole purpose of accepting the sacrifice. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the whole problem would have just gone away if they never raised the damned (pun intended this time) thing in the first place. This leads me nicely into my final point…

5. Conflict should not be easy to resolve

Make your characters work for it and even then, don’t always give it to them.

Do any of you have a problem with conflict in your writing? Any other tips you wish to share? Do you all agree about the demon thing?



Coming soon from Sarcastic Muse Press –  Jane Eyre: Mass Extinction by Chris Musgrave and the bits of Charlotte Brontë I could find.

18 thoughts on “Writing 101 – Conflict

  1. I used to have a big problem with it. Plotting ahead of time using the Hero’s Journey and a specific tool has really helped me ensure I keep raising the stakes, both for internal and external conflict. Great post!

    • Thank you. Using a template like the Hero’s Journey or a Three-Act Model can help you identify the potential for conflict in your writing, especially those related to the inciting incident.

  2. Having conflict come from characters helps as well. Even if there’s a natural or supernatural disaster, if the extent to which it challenges the characters is influenced by their own characters and the ways they responded at first then that makes the story feel more natural and complete, to me at least. Sure the flood is a natural disaster, but it wouldn’t be so bad for Jo if she hadn’t run back to save her favourite hamster, that sort of thing.

    • That’s very true. Humans are our own worst enemies and never more than when we attempt something we believe to be in people’s best interests. Most of the conflict in novels and in real-life has stemmed from some entity doing “the right thing”.

  3. First point is that I agree wholeheartedly that conflict as at the root of any piece of work we read or write. From a reader’s or writer’s perspective, it’s in discovering how characters overcome conflict (or succumb to it) that, in a way, helps us cope with the conflict in our own lives.

    Second point, which is more of an observation than anything else. One of the reasons I love the written word is that it allows you to delve deeper into the realm of internal conflict. This is not as easily accomplished in a screenplay, and it’s one of the main reasons I like to include this type of conflict in my own writing.

    Your tips on using conflict are succinct and make perfect sense. Thanks for sharing, I will be sure to refer to these in my next story!

    • Thank you, Dave. It’s true that the written word allows for a deeper exploration of character than a movie/screenplay/theatre performance ever can, but that can be a double-edged blade. If it is done well, the reader finds themselves absorbed in the character and thoroughly invested. If not, you run the risk of over-complicating your story or, worse still, losing your reader’s interest.

  4. I am an internal conflict kind of girl, especially when the external makes a real mess of resolving the internal. So much fun.

    • Internal and external conflict can enhance, build upon, or juxtapose each other to great effect. Conflict is best used in overlapping layers so that when the character’s mind has successfully resolved one, they are instantly drawn into the next. As with everything, the key is balance.

  5. Fantastic post, Chris. Your last bit of information is key: Never allow characters in a conflict off the hook easy. Good conflict is builds up over time and events. Quickly coming to a resolution is a let down and readers will feel cheated. I personally like torturing my characters and rarely allow a peaceful resolution.

    Guess that is why our kind goes for the throat 😉

  6. One day in 2002, while discussing the subject of conflict in literature, the teacher classified the sources of conflict into four categories: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Supernatural Force, Man vs Machine. I asked him if there can be a case of man vs himself but he said “no man is against himself”. Later, however, in 2007, I started writing a story about a man overcome with a burning desire to eat himself. So he starts by cutting his nails and eating them. And one day he ignores the nail cutter and chews them off with his teeth, tearing the tips of his fingers.
    I think that would be a case of Man vs Himself!

    Great post, Chris. Enjoyed.

  7. The best book I’ve read on this topic, one of the few books on writing I regularly recommend, is from Deb Dixon at Griffin Press ( POD) called Goal, Motivation and Conflict. It gives good solid examples from well known stories, like Wizard of OZ, and walks the reader through the nuts and bolts and relationships of the above story elements. It’s a short but intense info parked read.

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