Got Conflict? It makes a Story Strong!

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(Okay I have to start out by begging your pardon for the corn-tastic play on the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign. I couldn’t help myself. Smile)

Today I’m talking about conflict in your story (once again referencing the fab Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict).

So just what is conflict?

Conflict is the reason a character cannot achieve her goal. It’s the thing that stands in her way. And it’s absolutely necessary in a story. A story without conflict is boring with a  capital “B”. No one wants to read about characters who get everything they want. We want characters to have to work hard for their happy ending, just like we have to.

On the other hand, too much conflict can get overwhelming. The heroine’s mother dies, her dog gets run over by a truck, her son is kidnapped, the hero is wrongly accused of murder: at some point it may become too much for a reader to handle. That’s the point where the reader puts the book down and walks away. (And lest you say this never happens, just recently I put down a story without finishing because all the conflict was stressing me out. At a certain point it was no longer entertaining. My own life is stressful enough.)

So what kind of conflict should a story have?

  • External conflict: there definitely needs to be some of this, whether it’s a bad guy or bad luck.
  • Internal conflict: sometimes the heroine gets in her own way. There are emotional roadblocks that stop her from achieving her goal, and she will be forced to face her demons. Stories with a lot of internal conflict tend to be very deep and powerful.

Some hints for creating good conflict within a story:

  • Petty squabbling between characters is not conflict. If there’s a real problem between the characters, that’s one thing. But if they’re just arguing for argument’s sake, that gets boring pretty quickly. It doesn’t take the story anywhere.
  • A misunderstanding between characters (for example, the heroine sees her boyfriend leave his ex-girlfriend’s house early one morning and assumes he spent the night with her) is a weak conflict. Readers tend to become frustrated if it becomes the whole basis for the story. (Have you ever read a book where the characters have a simple misunderstanding that could be cured by honest communication? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Why can’t they just talk to each other?)
  • You can use your setting to heighten conflict, such as a thriller written in a creepy old town.

Do you have a favorite novel that expertly combines internal and external conflict? If it’s one you wrote, please do share. Smile

I really loved Larissa Ione’s Pleasure Unbound. Not only was the hero in the throes of a life-altering change (external conflict), but it was one that was sure to prevent him from  running his demon hospital (his ultimate goal). Unfortunately the only way to prevent this change was to bind himself to someone, yet the woman he wanted was adamantly opposed to being claimed due to past circumstances, and he didn’t want to force her (internal conflict). That’s some strong internal and external conflict.


10 thoughts on “Got Conflict? It makes a Story Strong!

    Kate Tate said:
    December 17, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Question time: External conflict is a given, and is often related to one of the internal conflicts, though not necessarily. Is it necessary to have the same degree of internal conflict between both lead characters? For example, can HERS be simply “It’s the wrong time to start a relationship…but I’m so attracted,” while at the same time HIS might be “I have a deep hurt inside from a past event and that’s keeping me from being worthy of this woman?” Each internal conflict would interrupt the process but in different ways and on different levels.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 17, 2010 at 8:59 am

      Kate, I don’t think it’s necessary or even possible to have the same level of conflict between the hero and heroine. Those varying levels of conflict would still serve to add depth and emotional richness to the story.

        Kate Tate said:
        December 17, 2010 at 9:03 am

        that makes a lot of sense–if they had the same level of internal conflict that would be one of those put-it-down books for me. but it’s realistic for people to have some second thoughts that would provide for their own more minor level of conflict (even if it’s “what’s wrong with this person?”)

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        December 17, 2010 at 9:07 am

        I’m totally with you on this one, Kate. If both characters are extremely emotionally withdrawn, I’m just going to start thinking they need major therapy. Ruins the experience for me. At least one of them needs to be thinking they’re might be a chance between them.

    Maeve Greyson said:
    December 17, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Great post! I’m going to make it required reading for my hubby. I was telling him about one of my WIP’s and he kept asking me, “Why are you torturing your characters?”


      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 17, 2010 at 9:08 am

      Thanks, Maeve! Yeah, non-writer friends and family don’t seem to get it. 🙂

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    December 17, 2010 at 9:56 am

    You do write the best posts! I always read them from start to finish. I use both internal and external conflict – the heroine and/or the hero must change something deep inside in order to make the relationship work – this post is like an extension of your post on setting goals for your hero and heroine.
    Perhaps the heroine has been burned in relationships and is done with men, but then out of the blue, she meets someone who possessed those qualities she’s been searching for…yet she just doesn’t want the commitment because her history has been painful and she’s afraid. Internal conflict. Meanwhile, someone is out to kill her for reasons unknown to her – external conflict. 🙂

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 17, 2010 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Julia! I do the same with my writing. Internal and external conflict. Characters must always grow and change to meet their goals. 🙂

    Molly Evans said:
    December 17, 2010 at 11:41 am

    One of the best books I’ve read with clear definition of conflict is Lucky’s Lady, by Tami Hoag. It’s one of her first big books and it was just wonderful. Think I need to dig that out again!

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      December 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm

      Ooh Molly, another one to add to my list! (At this rate I’ll be dead before I get through that list.)

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