Monday, 1 November 2010

What about conflict then?

According to the kids when I was teaching drama, conflict was people shouting each other down.  Seems to work for Eastenders too.  But conflict isn't simply one view opposing another.  It goes deeper.  There has to be a goal involved.

A frequent problem in manuscripts I assess is uncertainty about the goals of the main character.  If you haven't got that, you won't get conflict.  You can't have a character tossed about from pillar to post because of outside opposition and call that conflict.  Real conflict comes from opposition hitting against what your character wants and is trying to achieve.

You also want to think with exterior and internal conflict.  What flaw or lack within them stops them from getting there?  That's opposition too.  Of course you will have opposing forces - other characters who want something else, the forces of nature or circumstances militating against the goal.  But balance this with the character's own uncertainties and traits that also work to prevent them reaching the target.

In drama, you automatically look within the character for what is stopping them from making it.  Clues are in the script.  What they say about themselves, what others say about them and to them, and stage directions.  In fiction, you are working from the inside out.  Your character develops as you write and from inside their head you tell the reader their fears and insecurities as well as creating the external forces that oppose them.

The point is that conflict from within impels your character to dig down deep inside the core of themselves and find the inner resources to overcome their flaws and fears.  The best superheroes show us their own vulnerabilities before they vanquish the baddies.  So it should be with your fictional hero.

A simple guideline.  What does this person want?  What within them stops them going for it?  Who or what external force is going to work against them?  Answer these questions and you've got worthwhile conflict.


  1. What a great post. I have a very useful book --Audition by Michael Shurtleff. It's for actors but invaluable for writers too, and has a great chapter on conflict.

  2. Thank you, Janet. I just think there is so much crossover, it's no wonder actors write and writers act.

  3. Very useful, Liz. Conflict is surprisingly hard to grasp. You'd think it would be simple!

  4. Simple when you know how, like everything!