Basics of writing

Conflict: The key to all fiction

From Rick:

As writers, we’ve all heard that you need conflict in fiction. An often heard statement in writing workshops is that “Without conflict there is no story.” In a future blog, I’ll be talking about the difference between a story, an anecdote, and an essay, but one requirement of a story is CONFLICT.

So, exactly what does that mean? There’s a good book out by Debra Dixon called Goals, Motivation, and Conflict that’s become something of a classic among writers. Now, I will give one caveat here. This book is geared toward genre fiction, and it’s written from a romance writer’s perspective. The reason I issue this warning is that some literary fiction (and even some genre fiction) may have problems fitting into this mold. So, while it’s an excellent book, and the advice is excellent as well, it’s not one-hundred percent applicable to all fiction.

Before we continue, let’s define what we mean by “conflict.” One approach to story structure (the one Dixon uses) is to begin with the MAIN CHARACTER having a GOAL. His (or her) motivation is to achieve that goal. CONFLICT arises when something or someone interferes with that goal.

Let’s look at some familiar examples.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Dorothy’s primary goal is to get back home. Her conflict is that she doesn’t know how, not at first, and once she does know, she has to overcome obstacles put in the way of her achieving the goal. Note as well that she faces multiple forms of conflict. In order to get the Wizard’s help, she has to get the Witch’s broom, which, as she comes to learn, means killing the Witch. By the way, note that the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion all have their own goals and conflict.

In the Harry Potter books, in each book Harry faces different goals and conflicts, and it isn’t until near the end of the series that we learn what Harry’s final–and most difficult–goal is.

Another definition of CONFLICT is “the agenda of one character clashing with the agenda of another.” We see that as well in both the Harry Potter books and The WWizard of Oz. Not every type of conflict comes from the main character. Remember that Harry’s initial goal is to get away from the Dursleys, a simple enough goal, although he has no idea at that point how he’ll do that. The story ramps up from there as when he learns that he had a far more complicated problem (and goal) than what he imagined.

For those of you who like breaking things into categories, the nature of the conflict a character encounters can be broken into three broad ones:

–Man vs. man. (both the examples used above) This is the most common type of conflict seen in fiction because it encompasses most hero-against-villain stories, which tend to be the most popular in genre fiction.

–Man vs. nature. Moby Dick is one classic example, as is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, although it could be argued that both of these are really man vs. self. Personal adventures stories often fall into this type of conflict (Robinson Crusoe). We can also lump some of the Greek and Roman myths in here as Man vs. god(s), such as The Odyssey. Some would say this is too broad a category and that man can’t really be in conflict with Nature because Nature isn’t a sharply defined entity.

–Man vs. self. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, as well as many psychological stories that have the main character struggling with himself.

Some literary critics would add a fourth category.

–Man vs. Society Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, White’s Charlotte’s Web, Adams’ Watership Down (even though the protagonists are not “men.”)

I’d been planning a post on conflict for a while, but a recent article in “Daily Writing Tips” prompted me to do it now.


(This is an excellent blog for writers to subscribe to.)

In this article, the author, Mark Nichol, breaks conflict types into seven categories, but we could easily push these seven into the three or four above. Still, they provide a good way of examining the various types of conflict in a less broad sense, and I’m not sure which category I’d put Man vs. Technology into, so perhaps it belongs in one by itself. However, in his Man vs. Supernatural category, he presents no compelling examples that belong in this separate category. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (it’s proper title), is really Man vs. Self, and The Birds is Man vs. Nature. And every vampire, zombie, werewolf, or ghost story I can think of falls into Man vs. Man or Man vs. Self.

What you should take from this discussion is that CONFLICT is key in a story, whatever that conflict might be, and that any story can have more than one type of conflict. Conflict can be external or internal, and the best stories often have both. Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz certainly does.


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