Conflict in Storytelling

Awww conflict, the lifeblood of stoytelling. Without conflict and stakes, you don’t have much of a story.

On the surface, creating conflict seems easy. A dash of “Bad guys.” A serving of “Life and death.” And a pinch of “Forbidden Romance” and you’re good to go right?

Well the truth is that there are degrees to which conflict is helping your story (creating tension, sustaining tension, keeping us invested in the story) and ways in which conflict is hurting your story…The thing about conflict is it’s sort of like applying pressure to an injury, it must be targeted, intentional, and if you do it wrong it serves no purpose.

So what kinds of conflicts can become pitfalls to good storytelling?

  1. Unconvincing, low stakes conflict

Like I’m sorry your dog died and all, but it’s not really a very good reason for why your MC can’t go on a date with Mr. Hunk and find true love and happiness. Conflict needs to be convincing! I need to understand how and why something is a barrier to our MC’s happiness/love/safety/whatever it is they want.

To use my favorite example, on the cover of the Titanic DVD it says, “nothing on earth could come between them,” and of course unless you have been living under a rock we all know that the sinking of the ship does a pretty damn good job in coming between them (and some other conflict as well). It isn’t a leak in the roof, it’s a damn sinking ship where everything is on the line. The stakes are high and as a viewer we are convinced that Rose and Jack’s love and happiness and mortal peril are at stake.

Your story doesn’t need to include the greatest nautical disaster of all time to have sufficiently high stakes, but the conflict ought to be sufficiently convincing enough for the audience to care about the fate of the characters (give us a reason to think the ship is sinking!). We should never feel like whatever is keeping your character from what they want “isn’t really a big deal.”

2. Artificial Conflicts

Ah yes, the conflicts that may seem like big stakes at first glance, but under more scrunity are actually easily resolved. Examples of such are conflicts that could be resolved by having an honest conversation or making a certain decision.

This is a big issue in the romance genre. All too often the primary conflict driving the plot is a lack of communicaiton between two characters. While there are certainly valid reasons for why this might be a compelling barrier to happily ever after, for example one character is convinced that the other doesn’t love them back, any time the entire facade of conflict can crumble under a single conversation this is an artificial conflict that doesn’t truly hold any substance.

An example would be when we as the audience know two people are in love, but they refuse to talk about it for some unconvincing reason and we are forced to suffer while they grow a pair. This is not a real conflict, because nothing is actually happening. Nothing is actually stopping them from being together.

There is a difference between interpersonal conflict and the type of conflict that isn’t really conflict because it can easily be solved if one or both of the characters would just say what we both know they are thinking, and your audience usually knows this. Your readers are rooting for your characters so they can sniff out a weak ass excuse a mile away.

Similar to this type of artifical conflict is when the central conflict of the story is whether your MC will make a choice or not and no other factors are thrown into the mix. Essentially the story goes like this: MC has to make a choice. The choice is hard (or maybe it’s not!). They make it. The end.

The problem with this is that nothing is actually driving the plot. Nada. It’s all an illusion in which you think there is a conflict, but there isn’t because all the MC has to do is make the decision and boom conflict resolved. Avoid this pitfall by throwing other conflicts into the mix, such as new information about the reality of the decision is gleaned, or something changes the status quo.

Essentially, real conflict is driven by difficult resolutions that are hard for the MC to arrive at in which the status quo must change before the credits can roll.

3. False choices

If you have read a story with a love triangle in it chances are the conflict is a “false choice” premise. In this instance the MC must choose between two love interests. Seems like a great conflict right? Well it can be as long as this doesn’t happen: one of the the love interests turns out to be a shitty person and the decision is magically transformed into an easy choice, but in fact it is not a choice at all. No decision was even made, it was a false choice. By virtue of their shittiness one character eliminated themselves from the running.

The problem with this common romance trope is that it renders the MC passive rather than active. The choice is made for them and they are not required to grow, learn anything or challenge the status quo. Likewise, I am never truly convinced why the guy who gets the girl really deserved her? Isn’t he just “winning” by default rather than truly deserving her? Problems, problems, problems….

4. “The crazy Ex”

Okay similar to the “false choice” is the crazy ex. I fail to understand why so many romance writers fail to bring up exes as viable sources of conflict? They are either portrayed as “crazy” and therefore play no threat to the new love interest, or are nonexistant. I love the idea of a former flame being a source of competition for the MC, but it’s so horribly predictable and utterly boring when the ex is “crazy.” Symptoms of this might be: stalking, pettiness, jealousy, general bitchiness. The worst is when they are described as ugly in comparison to our MC, like okay why don’t we just type “the end’ and call it a day because we all know where this is going, what a snooze fest.

The worst is if you find out the ex is actually the villain. Like I get it exes are exes for a reason and everyone can probably relate to some kind of vendetta, but can they have an ex without them being an insane villain? Like geez, give the poor girl/guy a break.

The problem with this conflict is that it is so utterly predictably I don’t really need to read on. Okay we get it the new girl is hot and the old girl is a bitch, gee I wonder who he will pick???? Not only is this boring it is also problematic and rooted in tired, used-up cliches like “the popular mean girl.”

It’s 2021 and I expect nuanced and complex antagonists. I also expect that if an ex shows up I ought to find them to be a viable source of tension, not a loser hack who will be unceremoniously discarded in a few chapters when their true colors are reveled. You know this, I know this, don’t insult our intelligence by pretending the MC doesn’t also know this.

You must prove why the MC is worthy of the love interest, not just because they managed to be better than the crazy ex.

In Conclusion,

The key to good conflict is that there be more than one barrier to resolution, the resolution comes at a price, the conflict is convincing and the status quo is challenged. Conflict is a dish best served piping hot, with multiple servings reccomended. And extra points if there is a sinking ship, a missing diamond, true love, death and class struggles.

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Heather McBreen

Heather McBreen

Reading is how we explore our world and writing is how we inhabit it. On a journey to becoming a published novelist. Women’s fiction, rom coms, historical fic.