CONFLICT--The "Why Not"

By Michelle Jean Hoppe

    Conflict is defined as a competitive or opposing action of incompatibles; or a mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external or internal demands.  In the literary sense, Conflict is a mechanism that sparks all stories.  It fans excitement and creates drama. 

    Conflict is NOT two pampered pooches and one bone.  Conflict is two hungry strays and one bone. It is the reason your character can't have what he wants. It is the obstacles or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his goal.

   Now that we've defined it, how do we create it?

   Before you know your conflict, you must know your goals and motivations for each character--the 'what' and 'why' of everyone.  A success for one character should be a setback for another.  Paths and goals must intercept, thus ensuring that your Goals, Motivations will collide to create Conflict.  

    "But" naturally triggers conflict.  For example: The hero wants to rekindle a former love, but can't because the heroine is engaged.  They each have a goal and motivation, and these will collide, creating conflict.

    Clearly outline your conflict before you start to write.  This enables you to focus on scenes that advance the plot.  Within your scenes, you can foreshadow and create tension by knowing what's at stake for each character. 

    The essence of conflict is in the antagonistic force.  If portrayed larger than life, it becomes an intolerable threat.  Create a force your protagonists must overcome, because if they never face hardship, are never in danger, or never struggle, they're going to be boring.  Don't go overboard with too many problems, though.  The reader will stop believing after a while.

    Conflicts test your characters.  Those who are tested experience character growth.  Cowards and courage make for great conflict.  Think Indiana Jones.  Does your character hate snakes?  Put him in a snake pit.

    Make character's choices conflict-laden, not stagnant.  When a character faces a major choice, there's usually conflict because the choice is not easy.  Each time you highlight the choice, you highlight the conflict.  At some point, a choice has to be made and the characters may have to go against moral beliefs.  But be careful. Your choices should always be appropriate and in keeping with the character. 

    Don't use heavy emotional conflicts in lighter books.  You can create strong conflicts which will keep the hero/heroine apart emotionally without them being heavy.  Lighten the conflict by reducing the impact one degree.  For example, abuse is a heavy emotional conflict.  But by having the heroine's sister abused, instead of the heroine, you've removed the impact by one degree, so you've lightened the conflict, yet kept it strong.

    Think of your character at war--either with themselves or with others. And then chronicle the war until there is peace. 

   There are two kinds of conflict--Internal and External

    EXTERNAL:  This is the conflict easiest to understand and create.  It is outside forces, physical entities.  It is your villain.  Your setting can even create instant conflict.  Think darkened alley, courtroom, jail cell.  Each has its own connotation, and suggests conflict before even meeting the characters.  In Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the setting is a country house--but not just any country house.  It's on an island with no escape, and a murderer on the loose. 

   Create a setting where conflict can flourish. 

    INTERNAL: These are the emotional roadblocks.  Think back to the dogs. You have two hungry strays.  Let's complicate it and make one a male stray and one a female with a pack of puppies.  They fight over the bone.  The stronger male wins.  Then he sees the female's pups.  He has second thoughts. 

   The External conflict here is.....the fight.

   The Internal conflict here is......the male's moral code.  He's hungry.  He wants to eat the bone he won.  But that would mean letting the puppies starve.

   So how do we build this idea into the story?  Think in blocks.  Let's start at the beginning.  Your first scene should be a hook.  Start at a point where something is happening!  Make it interesting.  Get the reader's attention.  Present a problem and the reader will want to see how it is solved.

    For example, in my Golden Heart Finalist entry, TEMPTING FATE, the heroine is sneaking a child through London's alleys.  The hero sees her, but lets her go on her way.  She thinks she is safe, until he appears later at the same dinner party.  The stakes have just risen.  At first, the heroine was only concerned with whether or not the child would be safe.  Now she has to worry about whether or not the hero will reveal her secret.

   As the story progresses, it relies on a developing conflict (or conflicts) to generate interest.  Conflict should build or change, not remain constant.  It should escalate.  Don't start your story with a riveting conflict in the earliest stages (other than opening hook).  You want to build up to severest action. 

   One way to escalate conflict is to keep adding uncertainties to the resolution.  For example, in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, the original conflict is opposing families or gangs.  It is complicated by a love interest between opposing sides.

   When creating individual scenes, begin with something interesting, something dramatic, to establish the conflict.  Then stop at a point where the reader doesn't expect it.  Satisfy yourself that the reader is intrigued, but don't give away the answer or explanation.  However, you DO have to answer at some point, whether it's the next page or the next chapter. 

   Conflicts should not just spring out of nowhere.  The hero can't announce halfway through the book--I don't want children just because I don't.  If goals and motivations aren't there, neither is conflict.  The reader must know those goals.  Lay a foundation, then escalate.  Move from vague hints to the concrete.  Introduce obstacles, each more difficult than the last.  Introduce clues.

   This brings us to the ending. You want to maintain conflict as long as possible if you want the story to have impact.  Don't glide to an end, especially in a suspense.  Hit a wall, then break through it.  The way the story ends is the final impression you leave with the reader.



Conflict is about character.  Emotions are important.  Motivation is important.  All the conflict in the world won't matter if the reader doesn't care.  So how do you make the reader care?

   A happy ending is a given in a romance, but leave your reader something to think about, something to take away.


Conflict, Action and Suspense by William Noble, Writer's Digest Books, 1994.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon, 1997.

These books are available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.


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