Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Conflict IS NOT...

You’ve probably heard this before, but a story without conflict isn’t a story—or rather it’s a boring story. You must have conflict throughout the plot. BUT in order to do that, you need to understand that not every little argument is a conflict. Let’s take a look at what conflict is not.

Conflict IS NOT:

-an argument between two character UNLESS the disagreement escalates to an emotional change (like she doesn’t love him anymore or can’t be with him any longer), someone is threatened, or reaching the character’s goal is at stake either because of the squabble or what happens afterwards.

-a protagonist who lives her life without any choices, problems, or dilemmas. She needs these things because she should make mistakes and learn from them in order to grow. If everything is easy for her, there’s no reason to read the story. The reader can assume everything will work out for the protagonist.

-behavior or actions that are not caused by the character’s motivations to reach her goals. Always keeps the goals, motivations, and conflicts in mind. That’s what’s driving your story forward.

-a protagonist who doesn’t care about conflict or doesn’t react to it. Without adversity, there is no story.

-a situation where the protagonist or her goals are not at risk and there’s little at stake. In your story, the stakes must increase as the protagonist overcomes obstacles in her way to achieving her goal.

-a plot where the main story question doesn’t cause complications for the protagonist.

-predictable outcomes. While SOME outcomes will be predictable, like in romance where we know the hero and heroine will be together in the end, we still need some elements of unpredictability. How and when will the hero and heroine find their way to each other? What has to happen before they can confess their love?

Basically, conflict gives the reader a reason to read further. She wants to see how the hero will overcome this obstacle and how the heroine will reach her goal. Make that happen, but not by having the hero and heroine bicker throughout the novel. That’s not true conflict.

As a freelance editor, what I see most often is when a writer uses arguments between the hero and heroine and believes this is conflict. The characters fight about silly little things just so they have a reason to bicker and not get along. In this case, the author believes the resolution to the conflict is the magical moment when the hero and heroine realize they love each other and that their fighting was silly, so they decide to get along. Or they realize the reason they fought was because they were trying to keep an emotional distance and now that they want to be together, that’s no longer the case. This doesn’t work because people don’t analyze relationships like that. Well, maybe writers and psychologists do, but most folks don’t, so the story becomes unbelievable. Not to mention it would be pretty annoying to have to read about little squabbles all throughout the novel.

Have you used any of these non-conflicts from my list and believed they were conflicts? Or have you read a story where the author seemed to use one of these examples as her main conflict? What’s the best example of a non-conflict that you’ve come across?


  1. In the book I'm about to revise, I think I DO have a couple of these situations I'll have to weed out. Thanks for the tips!

  2. HAHA! I think I see that in movies a lot--the whole "we hated each other but decided we love each other instead" thing. Drives me nuts! It's one thing to grow into each other (You Got Mail) but it's another to fall in love just because you're both there (Han and Leah). Of course, with Star Wars, it's not really intended as a romance, since there's real conflict in other parts of the show, but still...

  3. Well said. People commonly think conflict is just fighting or disagreement. In fact, it's a process leading to a change or resolution.