Why Conflict Drives Story

why conflict drives story by jerry jenkins

Life without conflict equals bliss.

My wife and I have been married more than half a century. We’re not only lovers, but we’re also friends. We like each other and look forward to reconnecting every day.

Naturally we don’t agree on everything, but if a disagreement becomes testy, we actually compete to see who can be the first to clear the air.

That’s a beautiful way to live and love—in harmony.

Like most people, in daily life, I try to avoid conflict. I hate confrontation. I like to get along with people, and as a person of faith, I also try to follow the biblical admonition to “be at peace with all” and to consider others better than myself.

And so I repeat, life without conflict equals bliss.

Hearing about a wonderful marriage like Dianna’s and mine may warm your heart, but would you want to read about it?

Not for long, I’m guessing.

I’m also an author, and I know for a fact that a story without conflict bores.

Readers love conflict.

It keeps them on the edge of their seats.

Conflict serves as the engine of fiction. The more the better.

That doesn’t mean you need a world war or even hand-to-hand battles — unless they fit.

Sarcasm, passive-aggressive comments, or personal betrayal can work just as well.

Many different types of conflict can spice up your story.

Any time your story stalls, just inject conflict and watch it come to life.

So the next time your story stalls or seems to fall flat, you may find characters who are agreeing on most everything. Boring!

Have one of them say something nice and cordial, like, “Nice day, isn’t it?”

Then have the other say, “Oh, sure, you’d say that.”

The original character—and your reader—will likely recoil and wonder, Where in the world did that come from?

Pick up the dialogue from there and discover what the problem is. That’s conflict. That creates tension. And that results in page turning.

How to Best Use Conflict

The two types of conflict — internal and external — are self-explanatory.

Internal conflict is a battle with one’s own demons and sense of self-worth.

External conflict is the obstacle or challenge your character faces — what he or she wants or needs, the stakes, and what stands in the way.

Internal and external conflicts naturally often influence each other.

For example, if a mountain climber’s best friend dies in an avalanche (external event), he may struggle to climb again himself.

5 Types of Conflict

1. Man vs. Self: An external event may cause the conflict, but the battle is within.

2. Man vs. Man: The classic Hero vs. Villain.

3. Man vs. Nature: A struggle to survive a hostile or dystopian environment, the elements, animals, or a cataclysm.

4. Man vs. Society: Your protagonist may battle the government, society, authority, or a special interest faction.

5. Man vs. Supernatural: Popular in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, your characters may face aliens, werewolves, zombies, or wizards.

How to Create Believable Conflict

If success comes too easily for your main character, readers will not be satisfied. Avoid this by asking yourself:

1. What does my protagonist want more than anything?

Make sure the stakes are high enough to carry an entire novel. If your character desperately wants a promotion and doesn’t get it, that can be interesting, but it won’t likely carry a book-length story.

But if he must find a job or lose his house, and perhaps his wife, that’s big.

2. What or who stands in the way?

Loads of obstacles should make success seem almost impossible. Mega-bestselling novelist Dean Koontz advises that everything your character does to try to alleviate his obstacles should make them only worse.

His only caveat is that every escalating challenge should be plausible and not the result of bad luck or coincidence.

3. What personal flaws in my character make success difficult?

Readers can’t relate to perfection. Weaknesses create internal and external conflict and make your character identifiable and accessible to the reader.

4. What internal struggles need to be overcome?

Is he facing fear, battling depression, trying to conquer self-doubt?

5. How will your main character ultimately win?

What will lead to a satisfying conclusion? How will your character grow? What will he learn? This is the way to build in takeaway value for your reader.

Don’t Fear Conflict

Some writers are so averse to personal conflict that they avoid writing about it too. Trust me, that may well serve as the death knell to your publishing prospects.

Anytime your story stalls or feels flat, a lack of conflict is usually the culprit.

An injection of conflict builds the tension needed to keep your readers turning the pages.

About Jerry Jenkins

Jerry Jenkins has been steeped in the craft of writing for more than 40 years. With 21 New York Times bestsellers, over 200 books, and over 73 million copies sold, he has become one of the most commercially successful writers of our time. Jerry’s from-the-trenches perspective on how to achieve success is quite the opposite of a conventional approach. He espouses working fiercely and with discipline and leaving the results to the marketplace.

Visit his website for writing tips, guides, and courses at JerryJenkins.com.

And check out his blog post, “Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters” to learn more about conflict.



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