Conflict in Writing


Conflict is an integral part to writing a story. It is said that variety is the spice of life, but conflict is the engine of fiction. Conflict propels a story and turns pages.

Conflict is absolutely necessary. Without it, all you have is a linear narrative. It’s something dry, and also a boring point “A” to point “C” traverse. How dull would Harry Potter’s life be, without some guy named Voldemort? I doubt that there would have been seven books (and eight movies) if that had been the case. Much less two, plus all the book sales and box office receipts.

For that matter, imagine how much less enjoyment a reader would have gotten trying to get the One Ring to Mordor, without conflict.

Or, what about drama? Drama is another face on the dice of writing. To use another metaphor, drama sometimes is the stage paint that the actor named Conflict wears. Dramatic screenplays are just another way to dress up conflict. Go to a high school drama class production. Right there. Take a look at the earnest young actors trying to hide their trepidation with anticipation and smiles. That is conflict. Granted, some of it is stage fright, and therefore not part of the script, but if they put that into their acting then guess what? The conflict drives the plot and motivates the show.

Example One:

Bob stepped out his front door to go to work. He was dressed in his good suit. He turned to lock his door, then got into his car. He drove off.

This is serviceable and gets the job done, but it’s something many people do. It’s boring in its monotony. Let’s give old Bob some problems. He’s got to get to work. I’m sure he can handle them.

Bob stepped out his front door to go to work, still upset about the argument with his wife. She had caught a credit card statement listing a bunch of charges at his brother’s new strip club. She had pointed out that the ten dollar charge from the bar wasn’t so much a problem, but there was no explanation for the ATM withdrawals. He didn’t want to say why and risk sleeping on the couch for a month. Bob’s refusal to tell her just made her more mad, and she’d stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door. A click announced the door was locked. After a few minutes of trying to cajole her into opening the door, he gave up and left for work.


At least he’d been able to shower and get his good suit on. Breakfast was a no-go now, so he’d have to stop at a drive-through somewhere. He put his key halfway in the lock, and suddenly sneezed. The force of the sneeze caused his hand to clamp on the key and bend the key.


Bob stared at the bent key. He could lock the doorknob from inside, but what about the deadbolt? He muttered curses under his breath, and looked around for something to straighten the key out with. He found a suitable rock after a few minutes, and laid the key out on the concrete. Bob pounded the helpless key with the rock, chipping flakes off and marring the shine on his nearby shoe. Finally, the key was mostly straight, but scarred from the impacts of the rock.


He eased the key into the deadbolt, and after several wiggles, he managed to get it to lock. The doorknob refused to take the abused key, and he gave up. For now, the deadbolt was enough. Bob threw the rock into the bushes, and got into his car. It took several tries for the engine to turn over and crank.


“What is going on here? What else is going to go wrong? I don’t want to call a cab to get to work!”


Bob looked to see that he’d left the headlight switch on after coming home from the strip club last night. The battery was very low, but it finally cranked. He breathed a sigh of relief and let it run for a few minutes to start charging up the battery. He glanced at his watch and saw that he was running behind. He had to get going if he wanted to get breakfast before work.


As he drove off over the hill, his wife rushed out the door.


“Bob! Come back! You forgot your phone and your wallet!”



Yep. Poor Bob. Heckuva day for him. It would really suck if he passed a speed trap on the way to work.

Humor can have conflict. Here it probably is camouflaged as jokes and whatnot, but if you’ve ever read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain, you can find conflict. I won’t detail the conflict in this one – except to say when the frog gets an “enhancement,” things change. The stuff that happens after that provides a natural progression to the story.

Also, there is satire, parody, and other things that one might not think that conflict would exist. However, in these cases, think about what’s being referred to – and there’s your conflict.

In Patrick Rothfuss’ excellent “Name of the Wind,” Kvothe has all manner of conflict, both internal and external. The things that he has to deal with, plus the clashes between the internal conflicts and the external conflicts (a conflicting conflict of conflicts drastically causing conflicts, if you will) all open up paths for the story to flow that otherwise the reader wouldn’t see. You know, like Bob. Poor guy. He should have just sent his brother a nice card on opening day.

I have deliberately broken a rule of writing in this piece, and re-used the word “conflict” many times, instead of shuffling through synonyms. In this case, I’ve applied the maxim “repetition breeds clarity” in the hopes than when you write, you remember to throw in some conflict to bedevil your characters.

Next up, inspiration for writing.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele


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