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I've recently been struggling with a very strange problem in my writing: I can't find the main conflict in my novels. This has inspired quite a bit of thought and reflection on exactly what a main conflict is, but I'm still just as stumped, if not more so. I'm not new to writing, so this issue is quite baffling.

Backstory: To understand where I'm coming from, you have to know that I'm a plotter, meaning I plan my novels out almost to the scene before writing a word. It's a good thing I do, because it filters out problems like this before I run into them while writing.

In addition to this, and this is very important, I center my novels around a main message, or theme. Literally everything in my novel has a purpose. Nothing is random. Everything works to tell that message in some way. This isn't just some aspect of writing that I can change, either; this is how I write. I want my novels to have meaning.

Conflict: Until recently, I've always seen conflict as a struggle between two things, be they choices or just opposite directions/paths. Because I've been developing novels that seem fine but appear to have no main conflict, I've quickly realized this can't be the case. Because of this, I've arrived at the conclusion that main conflict would be more properly described as an obstacle in the way of whatever is trying to be attained: the goal (arrived at by envisioning a novel where the main conflict is to get through a maze). That still doesn't help me though.

The Problem: Based on the above definition, I was able to finally identify the main conflict of my current WiP. However, I am still unable to identify the main conflict of typical mystery novels.

When I was struggling to define main conflict, I used the example of a typical detective/mystery novel. The goal is to catch whoever did the crime, or maybe prove he's guilty. There's nothing really standing in the way of that, unless you count the detectives' simple ignorance of all the facts. And that hardly seems like it could be the main conflict to me. Obviously there are mystery novels with twists on the basic design where the main conflict is more obvious, but what about the generic typical detective/mystery story? Where is the main conflict?

Question: Either my understanding of main conflict is completely off (which I doubt), or there's something I'm just not seeing. Could you please explain where I'm going wrong here? Where's the main conflict?

Important Note: My novels seem fine, meaning they seem to have a main conflict. Because of this, I don't think the problem is a lack of main conflict. I think the problem is that I simply can't define that main conflict (which I need to do in order to develop it).

This question is slightly similar to this one. While the answer to that question was helpful by listing different kinds of conflict, I don't feel that it answered my question, as I still can't determine the main conflict of typical detective/mystery novels.


Answer: After some thought inspired by my own reflections and Lauren Ipsum's answer below, I believe the reason I can't find the main conflict in my example is because it does not have a theme. Every scenario I've thought of that includes a theme results in a definable main conflict.

  • I think you're over thinking it. As the author, you get to say the conflict is whatever you want it to be. The stories you're writing don't live in some nebulous Not Yet Told Story Land where they're just waiting for you to discover them. You make them up and write them down. It sounds like that while you're a plotter, you're also a bit of a discovery writer. Just embrace it and enjoy. – DoWhileNot Jun 24 '16 at 17:23
  • @DoWhileNot I considered adding a paragraph to my OP, and I decided not to. Based on your comment, I have now done so, under 'Backstory.' Read it to see my reasoning. See, for me the main conflict almost issomething that is waiting to be uncovered. I've created a process through which my theme alone tells me every major part of my story, and the main conflict is one of those parts. If it weren't, then it would not be telling the theme, and the entire principle would break down. Your comment is great advice. It just... doesn't apply to me in this situation. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 18:09
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This related answer may help you, but I'll expand more here:

I think it was J. Michael Straczynski, writer of Bablyon 5, who wrote that one could sum up "conflict" in three questions:

  • What does the character want?
  • What will the character do to get it?
  • What will someone do to stop the character?

As noted in some of the other excellent answers here, the Someone who is Stopping the character could be the character him/herself.

I'm not sure what you consider to be a message or theme, but let's say your message is "Work is important, but love is more so."

So your detective is assigned a case. And it's a really big case, Mr. Muckety-Muck got whacked and nobody knows who did it, and the superintendent is really breathing down your detective's neck to solve this before the Police Officer's Ball next week. Separately, your detective's husband has been feeling lonely and neglected, and has been threatening to pack up and go home to mom if your detective doesn't put some more effort into the marriage.

So your character now wants two things, which happen to be in opposition: (1) to find and catch the killer (2) to spend more time with/attention on husband so he doesn't leave.

What will the detective do? Take hubby to dinner but keep fielding phone calls? Stake out a suspect but also trade texts with hubby? This balance can keep seesawing.

The boss will want to stop the detective from being distracted (or maybe not, if the boss is really sympathetic). The killer wants to stop the detective from catching her. The husband wants the detective to stop working and come home on time for once.

To resolve this in favor of your message, at some point the detective would have to choose between catching the killer and doing something important for hubby, and chooses hubby in some way. Or maybe the killer is caught and the detective quits and they both move to mom's city.

You may be going at this backwards with your current work. If your message or theme is the central point, then you have to define that first. The conflict then becomes what gets in the way of the characters realizing or embodying that message.

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    After posting this question, I was considering that last paragraph myself. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the reason I can't define the main conflict is because my example has no theme. I honestly cannot think of a theme that would result in the goal being 'catch the bad guy.' They all result in 'catch him to accomplish something else,' which is obviously a totally different goal, meaning the conflict depends on what the theme is. You might have something. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 21:47
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    @ThomasMyron Just to play devil's advocate: your character could be "the officer who has never closed a case," and is desperate to prove him/herself. "Catching the bad guy" would literally be the point just to prove s/he could do it at least once. But I'm nitpicking. :) – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 25 '16 at 1:35
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    In that case the novel would probably be a character story, where the inner conflict takes the place of the main conflict. Problem solved! :) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 25 '16 at 2:02
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Excellent question, to which you have partially provided your own answer, though you don't seem to realize it.

You said:

The goal is to catch whoever did the crime, or maybe prove he's guilty. There's nothing really standing in the way of that, unless you count the detectives' simple ignorance of all the facts. And that hardly seems like it could be the main conflict to me.

And yet it is. It just doesn't seem "grand" to you because genre novels (in our case, detective novels) are quite stereotypical in their structure and without any great depth in character development. Let's take a look at narrative and character theory, and we'll get back to your example.

A solid narrative has a central goal that some characters (and chiefly the protagonist) tries to reach. Other characters (and chiefly the antagonist) tries to inhibit the MC from reaching the goal. In genre narratives this is usually straightforward. For example, a "good" detective tries to find the truth and arrest the "bad" murderer, who tries to cover his tracks and throw the detective off. Things get more complicated in, say, literary fiction. Picture this scenario:

A man is plagued by his past fears and refuses to see the truth about his current situation. A friend of his tries to convince him to get out of the quagmire. In narrative & character theory terms (assuming these two are the major characters and the narrative is heavily built around this element) we have indeed a protagonist and an antagonist; someone who wants to stay away from the truth (that is his goal) and someone who wants to pull him out of this "goal".

So, to get back to your example. As I said, the detective's goal is to reach the truth. The antagonist (presumably the murderer, or some other character with motive to distract the detective) tries to keep the detective from reaching the goal. There's a conflict there. Even if there was no antagonist (a rather rare occasion for detective fiction) there is - narratively speaking - a clash precisely between the detective and his ignorance (in a way, his own self).

As a general piece of advice, I could suggest that you ignore the connotations associated with the words protagonist, antagonist, conflict, goal etc. In narrative theory, a conflict is not always a bad thing; an antagonist is not always the protagonist's enemy; a goal is not always a "good" thing for a MC to achieve. Particularly in literary fiction

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My two cents! Which cost me significantly more after this morning's referendum result, mind you...

What's conflict?

Conflict exists when one desire is opposed to another.

The opposing desires can belong to two different characters:

  • Batman wants to punch Joker in the face
  • But Joker wants to not be punched in the face

Or the opposing desires can belong to the same character:

  • Batman wants to save Rachel Dawes from the bomb at Location A
  • But Batman wants to save Harvey Dent from the simultaneous bomb at location B

This definitely won't end well. Oh goody.

Of course, those come from a big-budget action movie — they're concrete and external to the characters to hopefully better illustrate the point. But good fiction will also build conflict from desires which are internal. More subtle or emotional. (Say, 'I hate endangering Aunt May, but I have to fight crime because of my Uncle-Ben guilt.')


Where should you use conflict?

Your story should have conflict, and your individual scenes should have conflict.


At a story level, conflict might be

  • Dick Punchman P.I. wants to stop the killer
  • But he also wants to save his marriage

Wait! Those aren't opposed. There's not necessarily any conflict here.

  • Dick Punchman P.I. wants to stop the killer
  • But he has to be less obsessed with work to save his marriage

Much better. Now we're ruining his life. Mmmmmm...


At a scene level, conflict might be:

  • Dick Punchman wants information from Sultry Broad #14
  • But she wants to see him punished for putting her boyfriend in jail

Two desires, check. Opposed, check. Completely dumb? Also check! But it's a conflict. Woohoo!


How should you use conflict?

There are two considerations, as I see it:

  • Watching characters resolve conflict is satisfying
  • Scenes which don't have any conflict are boring

In the example above with Sultry Broad #14, if Dick finds a way to give them both what they want, then that act of problem solving is satisfying for us as readers; you've got a potentially compelling scene; but don't then continue it for fifteen pages if you've just resolved the only conflict. Either close the scene, or sprinkle in more conflict to keep us interested.


I think your headache might be...

And I might be completely wrong here, because, of course, I don't really know what I'm talking about. But I think you're potentially getting tied in knots because you're thinking of conflict as a single absolute to be identified for the book, then ticked off. You're cooking a meal, and you need to choose the meat — will it be chicken or duck or lamb? What's your 'main conflict'?

Instead, think of conflict like the spice. You need some here and there. Make sure every part of the story has enough — taste it, and if it's boring, add more — but don't stress about what is 'the spice' of your dish. It's about multiples and degrees, rather than an absolute.

  • HI, and thanks for taking the time to create such a long and detailed reply. Unfortunately, I have two major points of disagreement with it (I'm the one with the question though, so feel free to ignore them). Firstly, I don't think conflict is always between two desires. You can have a book about getting out of a maze. The conflict is between the desire to get out and the maze itself. No one wants to stay. My second point is your spice analysis. I do believe that you need a main conflict. The story needs to be about something, and for those without theme, that thing is usually a problem. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 21:40
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    You're welcome, of course. Not unfortunate, don't worry! I'd see escape as a goal, and the maze as the obstacle/problem to be overcome/solved. There's no conflict inherent in navigating a maze, any more than there's conflict inherent in threading a needle. Just 'having a task to do' doesn't create conflict. The moment — and I think this makes sense if you consider the normal meaning of the word in English — the moment you have a conflict is the moment everybody can't get everything they want. That's why I'd personally focus on opposed desires as the root of it. – Cakebox Jun 24 '16 at 22:18
  • If you're happy with how you understand conflict, for the love of God ignore all of this, you don't owe me attention! But if you're struggling to define it, I think that might stem from conflating conflict with the other things above. – Cakebox Jun 24 '16 at 22:19
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    On your other point, same goes: distinguish 'conflict' from 'problem'. Take a really basic problem: Doris needs to stretch her legs. There is notionally a story there, and it's certainly 'about' something — her going for an afternoon walk — but there's no conflict, so it's just a boring story. Until she's ambushed by a writer with obnoxious opinions about terminology and has to battle him to the death, obviously. – Cakebox Jun 24 '16 at 22:26
  • Hmm... you raise some interesting points. Good food for thought. Oh, and if I see that writer, I'll be sure to take him out. ;) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 23:01
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As others have said, the main conflict is what the main character wants and can't get.

But I think the point that needs making here is about what plot is. I think it is all to easy to get into the habit of thinking of plot as a kind of history. You can meticulously develop an imaginary history and write it down, including lots of conflicts, without actually creating the kind of conflict that drives a story arc.

So I would suggest looking at plot this way: Plot is what stops the main character from getting what they want, and eventually, grants it to them or permanently denies it to them. The function of plot is to first frustrate and then reward or punish the protagonist. Nothing else.

By this reasoning, any part of the imaginary history that you have created that does not serve to frustrate and then either reward or punish the protagonist is not plot. If you can't find the main conflict in your plot, therefore, it may be that it is an imaginary history rather than a plot.

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There is nothing wrong here it just feels you don't like your conflict to be nerve gripping and mind boggling. I understand your concern and find it very genuine cause as long as you don't satisfy your own nerve you won't be happy about what outcome will be.

I know you never asked about probable conflicts but I wrote them cause I feel you are not happy with your present conflict. And I swear on god I don't want to feed my ideas in your plot, it's your story altogether and will always be. But here is what I feel strong conflicts can be

  1. Lack of capabilities from the detective
  2. Hidden agenda of detective behind the veil of ignorance
  3. Highly skilled criminal
  4. Criminal with a legitimate motive and people who are helping him to delay the trapping (maybe for a period of time and after that it won't be a crime anymore and/or the purpose of these people is served)
  5. Loopholes in the process
  6. Any side plots which derail the detective from doing his job
  7. A mystery woman (I always like them maybe they are all what I fascinate about) or choose a man if you may please.
  8. Anything that you feel is worthy of keeping the outcome/catch/confession delayed.
  9. Amazing idea, the criminal confesses in first chapter itself but the circumstances make the evidence disappear hence causing the delay in justice or maybe the crime never happened (you'd be hating me by now)

Hope this helps in anyway. Good luck with your project.

  • Those are all great conflicts, but they aren't the main conflict. Those are all twists or sideplots - variations on the main conflict. The main conflict is the struggle to accomplish the goal despite ___. It's not a matter of adding a new conflict in, because the main conflict is already there. I just can't find it. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 18:32
  • @ThomasMyron you've got my nerves now, add me to the list of people who are desperately waiting this book to be out. As I see you've got a conflict and you can't find it, maybe re run through the entire script by yourself or by your confidante with skills would help. – a25bedc5-3d09-41b8-82fb-ea6c353d75ae Jun 24 '16 at 18:39
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    Fortunately I did already find the main conflict of my novel. It was a matter of realizing the protagonist wasn't trying to prove that he was right, but was instead trying to prove that he wasn't wrong. Big difference (no, really). Right now I'm just trying to figure out why I can't define the conflict of my example, because that indicates that there's something I don't understand about main conflicts in general. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jun 24 '16 at 18:41
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Honestly, I think you might be overthinking it and trying to use improper abstraction to understand detective fiction. So instead of explaining conflict in typical detective fiction, I'll use an abstraction I find more convenient, which should be broadly applicable to understanding the conflict if you wish. Hope it helps.

thesis

The society we live in is ordered. When things that blatantly violate the accepted order, there is some agent of chaos that breaks the accepted rules of society causing it.

antithesis

A blatant violation of social order, a crime, has happened, but no agent responsible for it is known. This leaves the order incomplete and threatens with descent to chaos and anarchy.

synthesis

The responsibility for the violation of order is properly assigned, natural order is reaffirmed by completing the cause and effect, chaos and anarchy staved off.

what it means

The main conflict of a typical detective fiction is essentially the compound of three separate but closely related conflicts. Explains why it can be difficult to explain as a single main conflict.

thesis - antithesis

We want to believe that the society is ordered and secure, but crimes that endanger the order and security happen. Society wants order and that rules are followed, but some will wish to break the rules, set themselves above the rules, which violates natural order. There is unsolved crime.

antithesis - synthesis

The conflict between powers that threaten order and ones that seek to restore it. Assigning responsibility and avoiding responsibility. It is more difficult to write detective fiction unless there at least appears to be someone who tries to avoid responsibility.

thesis - synthesis

We want to believe that society is naturally ordered, but in fact constant effort is required to stave off chaos. Great detectives are generally deeply committed to order, but their function is to reaffirm the rules after they were broken, not to follow them. So there is often a degree of creative interpretation of the rules, of seeing beyond the rules to their actual purpose.

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