Story Elements: Conflict!

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t a lot of good stories revolving around pacifists?

Any good story has to have conflict. Though honestly, as I sit down to write this it’s difficult to articulate why. The best example I can think of is the ‘Little Bear’ television program for little kids. I’ve had to watch a lot of episodes, and they are mind-numbing. Mostly I blame the incessant, bland, meandering background music. The other big problem is a glaring lack of conflict in most of the episodes. You just wind up thinking, “Why am I watching this?” Or more to the point, “Why is this story being told?”

If your story needs conflict, does that mean there has to be a big fight scene? Beowulf fought Grendel. Dracula finally got a stake through his heart. Rocky went the distance. Sydney Carton got hanged (okay, it wasn’t much of a fight, but someone lost…or did he win?). ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ is basically one long argument, though fortunately it never gets to physical violence.

Thankfully, especially for you pacifists out there, conflict doesn’t have to be obvious, external, fist-on-face (or tentacle-on-face, or fist-on-slime, or what-have-you). Generally, there are four types of conflict. Physical would be your character physically fighting against other men, women, children, animals, or natural forces (see above list). Classical refers to a character fighting against fate or the circumstances of life (think Film Noir). Social conflict means you’ve got a character struggling against ideas, practices, or customs of the group (Yentl). Psychological is, of course, my favorite and involves the internal struggle to overcome the enemy within.

Which type do you write the most? Do you only use one type of conflict in your stories? Is the conflict obvious or does it get lost in flowery descriptions of each and every bit of minutia? (That’d be me) Can you, would you, or should you try to layer in different kinds of conflict over one another? Does the conflict necessarily create or define a “right” and a “wrong”, a “villain” and a “hero”? Do you remember where you parked the car?

Just a few questions to get you thinking. Now quit thinking so much and get to writing! [see last post]

11 comments Posted 2009-10-22 Author: THX 0477


  • bluefish

    Sydney Carton got guillotined, not hanged. But that’s just me being a smart-arse.

    In related news: are you looking for a conflict, but can’t decide? Check this out:
    Supposedly it’s every conflict you can have in a story.

  • Raegan Dauterive

    Conflict is the essence of drama.
    It usually depends on what kind of story I write. If it’s centered around high school kids, then it would be the kind of conflict where the main character is dealing with one major conflict while taking note of everyone else’s drama. If it’s a story about a 30 something year old housewife, then I might have less small conflicts and just have it slowly lead into one big conflict that’s been there, but hasn’t been addressed yet.

  • Coccinella

    Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible, “Story”… I can’t say I understood how vital conflict is to any story, and why, and how, til I read that. Can’t recommend it highly enough, whether you’re in the domain of screenwriting or any other storywriting form.

  • Marli

    Conflict elicits the tension in a story. Like a good recipe you have to follow the rules.

  • Sam Ervin

    Ugh, Dickens.

    Perhaps, THX, conflict is required… but what’s up with elaborate descriptions, or simply stories that are hidden, and have a sort of “punch-line” at the end? Nothing too complex there.

  • Eloquent Mess {(LoA)}

    What? Punch is delicious. Especially with a little rum to spice it up. ;-)

  • Wyatt Aapr LoA

    Conflict is what makes you turn the page. Without conflict why would you read the tale.

  • Melia

    Sometimes I like to write a ficly that’s nothing more than an elaborate description of something. I don’t know why and I don’t mind if no one reads or comments or likes it. It helps me hone my skillz. But I do agree if you’re telling a story, conflict of some kind is required.

    Sometimes I like to layer it. Perhaps my main character is facing an inner conflict. Torment of some kind, anguish and he/she has to deal with it. Though layering lots of conflict in the confines of Ficly can be hard :) Or sometimes the conflict is blatant (heroine faces off with a horde of zombies).

  • Abby (LoA)

    hmmm…interesting discussion. There is no story without conflict perhaps because life itself could never be peaceful. I think it’s fair to say that most of us center our stories on our own lives or what we see around us. Children’s books rarely have conflict as a main theme (the very hungry caterpiller?) I think the shortest conflict you can have is verbal because it’s self explanatory.

  • Mackizme

    I definitely think conflict is crucial to any story. Internal conflict (psychological) is absolutely my favorite, because I think that’s what the majority faces daily. My second favorite is social conflict, because society can be so restricting, and social conflicts are many. Conflict is what makes the reader interested and want to read it. After all, without conflict we wouldn’t have rising action or climax or resolution or any of it.

  • RockPaperScissors

    My incredible teacher, Beth Guthrie, told it to us like this:
    Show and Tell.
    To have an interesting, flowing story, you must have both. I think this relates (sort of) to what we’re discussing.
    The descriptive junk is to make it pretty (like those rhinestones on perfectly fine tee shirt), the “telling” is needed to move the story along and answer “So what?”