Any writer knows that conflict is necessary in a story to keep a reader engaged. But what is conflict and how is it created, met, and overcome? The answers to these questions have a lot to do with how well received your stories will be.
What Conflict Is Not
Violence. Crafting blood-spattered scenes of opposing forces (could be armies or individuals) battling one another is not conflict. Violence is the progeny of the conflict. Why are they battling? That is the conflict. And there has to be some specificity to it, not just “This army seeks to take over that army’s kingdom”. Why do they want to take over and how is this pertinent to your POV characters?
The same goes for arguments, personal rivalries, and social “shoving around”. A scene may be set around an argument between two characters or a school kid being bullied by classmates, but the fact that your characters are upset is not conflict. Why are they upset? What is the root of the trouble, not its outcome. That is your conflict.
Building Toward Conflict
Rarely will you want to open your story with a brash statement of the story’s main conflict. You want to build up to the heart of the matter by filling in details about your main characters, their lives and what has led to the main conflict.
Some authors do this by putting their main characters in a bad situation, then they make it worse. Then they make it (somehow) worse yet, so that there seems no way they could escape or resolve the situation. But they do; somehow. Often almost by magic, some overlooked bit of the story pops up to provide the release they need.
Personally, I don’t care for this treatment. I much prefer a believable battle be fought and won. I do not revel in the suffering of others, even imaginary people. Some suffering is needed to establish the conflict as real, but I prefer a slow build-up to the primary battle and resolution. This may involve some dancing around: gain some, lose some, but being crushed by the opponent again and again before a miraculous victory is not my idea of a satisfying read.
But that’s just my opinion.
When Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobie discover a recorded message from Princess Leia inside R2-D2, the story’s conflict is introduced, but not fully revealed. From here it builds in steps as Luke becomes more involved. The conflict is not that Leia needs rescuing, although that is part of it. The conflict is not that Darth Vader is a bully, although that is part of it. The conflict is not that Alderon has been destroyed, although that is part of it. The conflict is revealed with the words, “That’s no moon!”
The protagonists set about rescuing Leia, dealing with Vader, and getting the Death Star data to the Rebels: small victories along the way to the resolution of the story. Yet there is still tension on this journey because the primary threat still looms over them and there are obstacles (battles) to overcome along the way.
In crafting your story, you want to build up toward revealing the big threat, then set about resolving it in a believable way.
Sub-plots and character interaction contribute to the tension, but need to be related to the main conflict. Don’t get too carried away with these or you muddy the waters and make the main story hard to follow.
Mini-goals also play a big part in maintaining tension. In the example used above, the first goal is “rescue Leia”. But to do that, they need a spaceship. Second goal: hire a ship and pilot who can get them to Leia. They also need to deliver R2-D2 to the Rebels … which proves problematic when the planet they were headed for is blown up. But they do rescue Leia, and she knows where the Rebels are, so it’s all good.
Now the Rebels have R2-D2 and have found a way to destroy the Evil Empire’s planet killer … but said planet killer is rapidly approaching their location to wipe them all out, including our team of protagonists.
Quite a dance going on here.
The final conflict builds as the Death Star prepares to fire on the Rebel base while the Rebel fighters are fighting with the Death Star’s defenses to get into position to capitalize on the station’s one weakness.
All is resolved in an explosive victory brought about when two of our protagonists resolve their personal issues and work together for a change.
Sub-plots and character interaction play in the tension, but don’t get in the way of the story. The story’s tension builds and ebbs and builds again as mini-goals are accomplished and new elements are brought to light and new obstacles pop up.
Use scene-specific goals to build toward the main goal, but they must tie in with the main goal.
Use obstacles to these mini-goals to maintain tension/conflict. These obstacles should set up the mini-goal (and its obstacle) for the next scene of your story.
Insist that your protagonists grow as they meet the challenges they face. Failure to grow and change with the story makes for a “cardboard” character. Make them real and believable by allowing them weaknesses that can be overcome as they face and overcome their challenges.