Dictionary.com gives a nice suite of possible answers:
1. a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
2. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
3. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
4. a striking together; collision.
5. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.
6. Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.
So, conflict is a bad thing, right?
Here’s a writer’s definition of conflict: The lifeblood of any story.
And why is that? Because Real Life is, on the whole, boring enough. Sure, we get our fair share of conflict in our day-to-day life, but it’s ours, it’s boring, and for the most part, we just want it to go away.
Fiction is different. In fiction, if you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. You have a random series of events that are almost guaranteed to lull your readers into a deep sleep – or have them throw your book at the wall in frustration. Either way.
But readers read fiction to escape Real Life! If they want their conflict to go away, and if their lives are boring, why don’t they want to read about someone who has a perfect, interesting life where everything goes right and all is rosy?
One word: jealousy.
Well, there might be other reasons too, but personally I’m not going to sit down and invest my time and effort into something that’s going to make me want to throw it against the wall and scream, “But life’s not like that! I hate you, you perfect person! Stop showing me up!”
Fiction has to be real.
If it sounds like I’m contradicting myself here, then you’re obviously paying attention. Well done. I am. Fiction has to be real, but real life is boring, real conflict is boring, but stories must have conflict? Excuse me?
The thing is, we read because we don’t know something. We don’t know how the book ends, or how the girl gets the guy, or how the town makes peace with the monster, or whatever. There’s something there in the story that we don’t know. If there wasn’t any conflict, if there wasn’t any tension, it would be too easy to know everything; conflict keeps us guessing, and guessing keeps us involved as readers.
So, we want conflict in our writing. But here’s the thing: there are different types of conflict, and they do different jobs, and if you’re lacking in one department no amount of conflict in the other department can make up for it.
At the uppermost level, conflict can be divided into external and internal conflict. External is where, say, a meteorite is discovered to be right on track to demolish the demon home world, and they have to do something about it if they plan to survive.
Internal conflict is where the head honcho demon can’t decide what to do, because if he takes option A, everyone except his family survives, and if he takes option B, the entire planet is obliterated – except his family.
What to do, what to do?
It is precisely this question that will get and keep your readers interested. And something I’ve learned from personal experience – you can’t get away with using only one type of conflict in your story. For it to seem ‘real’, for it to have depth, it must have both types of conflict. My first ideas for TBAEO (a closet novel) suffered from too little external conflict. My first attempt at Search (another closet novel) had far too little inner conflict.
Both resulted in stories or ideas that felt thin, sparse, and either confusing (because the characters weren’t reacting to their situations) or boring (because they spent all their time whinging rather than acting).
So, where did this post come from? In two weeks time a group of us will be doing our own version of the tv program ‘Thank God You’re Here’ as part of an all-day youth event. In planning the improv scenarios, I’ve discovered that in many ways, it’s just like writing a story. To keep it moving and amusing, you need conflict. In this case, the easy way we developed to create conflict was to take a person in a position of responsibility and have them fail at that responsibility.
And on reflection, that’s not a bad way to approach a novel too :)
If you want to know more about the different types of conflict, Holly Lisle’s ebook How To Write Page Turning Scenes delves further into this concept.