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I've come to the recent conclusion that my writing lacks conflict.

This problem is especially hard for me because I don't like conflict in my own personal life, and am the type who doesn't usually start conflicts and when faced with one, generally just yields so that it will end.

And I think I've probably projected this onto my characters a bit - they don't usually get in arguments or disagreements which leaves the whole book with a monotonous tone that really needs fixing.

  • Is there any way to know when conflict should happen, so it doesn't feel too sparse or conversely over burdened with drama.
  • Why should conflict happen? Is there a trick or formula to creating conflict?
  • Once I've figured out when and why, are there any rules to actually writing it?
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Good question. I say so because I too struggle with this, for similar reasons. Even as a kid I would always feel frustrated when characters would argue and, even worse, split up because of these conflicts. Why can't they just talk it out and get along? I would ask. When the tension finally got relieved, so was I.

And even now, as an adult, I find it difficult to write it.

I'll start with the second bullet - why does it happen? Here are four reasons I find helpful in generating it in my own writing:

  1. Limited "resources" - when a resource is limited, people will argue and fight over it. Don't let yourself focus on the obvious, like limited food. Think more abstractly - limited time will cause different people to act differently ("John thought to himself, 'I only live once, I'm not gonna miss the opportunity to go on this adventure.' Jane, his girlfriend saw him go out the door and felt deserted. All she wanted was to marry him and raise a family")
  2. Pressure & different thresholds - different people have different thresholds for certain kinds of pressures. One person might crack under pressure while the other not, thinking that the first is overreacting.
  3. History - similar to the previous bullet, as a motivating factor for it, a characters history guides their decisions. Imagine two people sharing a prison cell, one who has been in prison a dozen times, the other for the first time. One might feel an urge to attempt escape, the other prefer to wait for the trial (which wants which? you decide...)
  4. Finally, and this is the deeper one, people have very different viewpoints and appreciate different traits. Does your character act from their gut, by instinct, or is he more cerebral? (see here for some ideas on this: http://www.personalitypage.com/html/four-prefs.html) An old wizard might value taking time to work things out in his head before acting, seeing an immediate response as rash. His young female apprentice might see such behavior as boring, uninspired and instead seek more immediate action. Neither is wrong - both traits are important, some just work better in some situations. But the conflict is born from the different instincts people have.

Regarding how often it should happen - I don't have a formula. I think eventually you need to allow the conflict to drive both the growth of the characters and the progression of the story. There is no point in adding conflict for its own sake. What I've found in my writing is that whenever I add conflict, great things happen, new avenues for my plot open up (I'm a discovery writer), the characters change and grow, and I can leverage that one bit of conflict for a chapter or two without any need for more.

Finally - I think the tricky part in actually writing it is that you will usually have to choose one character as your viewpoint character for that scene, and for him/her you can describe their feelings and thoughts. The question is how to (a) show what the other side is thinking and feeling, and (b) how the viewpoint character interprets it. Does he/she understand the conflict for what it is, or are they confused, seeing only their own side?

One trick you could use that might help - write only the dialog and raw action between them, and then add the viewpoint emotions. I find that focusing on the externals first helps me focus the scene and make it feel more intense.

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Conflict in a story arises from desire. The basic structure of any story is that the protagonist has a desire and there are forces or people who oppose their attaining that desire. The story proceeds as they attempt to fulfil that desire and face increasing obstacles leading to a moment of truth in which we discover just what they are willing to do to attain that desire, what they are willing to give up, how much they are willing to bleed.

Sometimes that desire is for something they don't have. Sometimes it is to retain something they do have that someone wants to take away from them. Sometimes in the course of the story they come to understand that something else matters more to them than the thing they thought was their greatest desire. But the basic arc of a story is formed by their desire, the things that stand in the way of that desire, and what they will do (or not do) to attain that desire.

Conflict comes from the forces that stand in the way of the protagonist attaining their desire. Conflict also comes when the protagonist must decide what they are willing to do to attain that desire, and the changes that may bring to their relationship with others. Conflict is not an incidental to spice up a story, therefore. It is of the essence of story. If there is no conflict there is no story because there is either no desire or nothing stands in the way of that desire -- or at least nothing that challenges the protagonist to stretch themselves to the limit to attain that desire.

At the same time this means that you don't have to do a thing to create conflict in you story. If you have the basic elements of story: the desire, the forces that oppose that desire, and the character of the protagonist who pursues that desire, conflict will inevitably fall out of character's pursuit of their desire.

Multiple characters may have their own story arcs, and sometimes the conflict may arise from the interference of one character's pursuit of their desire with another character's pursuit of their own desire. Multiple intersecting story arcs are often the sources of conflict in a complex work, but the basic formula is always the same: desire creates conflict between the protagonist and the forces that oppose their desire.

So, to your specific questions:

  1. Is there any way to know when conflict should happen, so it doesn't feel too sparse or conversely over burdened with drama? -- Yes, conflict is the result of desire. Establish what your hero's desire is and what forces oppose that desire. Then start them on the quest to achieve that desire. The result is conflict. (At each step in the story, the hero will logically try the least costly thing they think might work, so conflict escalates through the story as they try more and more costly things, culminating in the highest cost they are willing to pay.)

  2. Why should conflict happen? Is there a trick or formula to creating conflict? -- Yes, conflict is a result of desire and its frustrations. Find the desire. Find the reasons why that desire cannot be achieved. Bingo. You have conflict.

  3. Once I've figured out when and why, are there any rules to actually writing it? -- No, conflict is a natural consequence of a hero pursuing their desire in the face of opposition. Find the desire, find the opposing forces, and march your hero forward. Given that your protagonist wants X, and given who they are, and given the the antagonist wants Y, which is incompatible with the protagonist attaining X, and given who the antagonist is, what does each of them do next.

  • I feel like your answer was directed more toward 'general conflict' and not 'character conflict' like I specifically wanted, however it was still exceptionally educational and I feel I learned a lot from it, so thank you for that! Take my +1. – Celesol Feb 4 '17 at 1:08
  • @Celesol, all conflict is character conflict. Did you have something more specific in mind when you used the phrase "character conflict"? – user16226 Feb 4 '17 at 1:12
  • Ahh, I suddenly see the error of my phrasing - I meant conflict between characters (as in two or more), not just conflict in general. Sorry about that! – Celesol Feb 4 '17 at 1:14
  • Right, so conflict between characters comes from desire as well. But in the these cases you have to consider the desire of both parties. Characters are in conflict because their desires are in conflict. One person attaining their desire means the other person not attaining theirs. So again, you start with the desire, and the way that each person pursues their desire, and then put them on a collision course in which both desires cannot be achieved, and the conflict is what falls out of that encounter. It should be easy enough to write once you know exactly what is driving it. – user16226 Feb 4 '17 at 1:27
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conflict is always created when 2 people have a difference of opinions. There is no magical formula or "trick". It's a natural part of life and society. To be without conflict means nothing grows, nothing improves. Everything stays status quo because no one has an issue with the way things are. Conflict is easy to generate.... 2 girls like the same guy, 2 guys like the same girl. 10 people are trying to get accepted for a job that has 1 opening. Competition brings out conflict. A teenager has to choose between sneaking out to go to a friend's party or staying home as their parents instructed. Again conflict within 1 person is created. Do you choose pasta or chow mein? again an internal conflict is created. It is hard to give advice without knowing your story.

You need to think about what is the overall goal of the story. I hate watching sitcoms/tv because they lack a broad story but rather each episode is a story separate from each other (for the most part) without an ending until the producers decide to take them off air. Is your goal that the MC get's accepted into a top college? Then maybe MC struggles in a critical class needed to be accepted or they don't have enough life experiences like in the movie 21.

Conflict doesn't always mean a fight but rather a road block that hinders MC from getting to the main goal. Maybe MC wants to play basketball but is not good enough to make the team. They have to practice to be good enough. Maybe along the way in that story, they get a BF or GF who distracts them from their practicing which creates a side conflict and they have to choose between them or practice.

Get creative, think of the goal or objective of the story and then think about all the things that could prevent the MC from achieving that goal. These conflicts can still easily fit into your "no fighting" mentality. You just have to approach from a different definition of conflict.

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