There is no character arc, deeper meaning, or satisfying ending without conflict in a story. Everything we love about fiction hinges on a protagonist wanting something that he or she cannot have, and doesn’t know how to get. If you’re looking to tell moving, relatable stories yourself, you must learn how to create conflict in a story.
Everything we love about fiction hinges on a protagonist wanting something that he or she doesn’t know how to get.
Think of the most memorable protagonists in fiction, or your favorite fictional character. Is there a story if they don’t have conflict? Sometimes, there’s a big showdown with an antagonist (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.). Or, especially in literary fiction, the protagonist might need to overcome their own deficits to grow as a person (Jane Eyre, Things Fall Apart, Giovanni’s Room, etc.). Whether the conflict in a story is external or internal, it drives the story forward—otherwise, the protagonist would have no story for anyone to write about.
Although the story with no conflict exists (and we’ll look at examples!), most works of fiction require conflict to succeed. So, let’s examine conflict in literature. We’ll examine the different types of conflict in a story, providing examples of each and, for writers, offering advice on how to create conflict in a story.
First, let’s define this crucial element of storytelling. What is conflict in a story?
What is Conflict in a Story?
At its most basic, conflict is the clash of opposing forces with a character’s own pursuit of a goal. The character must overcome these opposing forces to achieve the goal. These opposing forces might take on numerous shapes, and might even exist solely within the character’s own psyche.
In storytelling, conflict is the clash of opposing forces with a character’s own pursuit of a goal.
Most stories begin with a basic premise: a character wants or needs something; there are certain obstacles standing in the way of that character’s goal(s); that character does not know how to overcome those obstacles. These are the elements of conflict in a story, because that character repeatedly encounters different obstacles as they try to achieve their goals, which culminates in the story’s plot.
For example, consider the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, which has both internal and external conflict. Sethe, the protagonist, miraculously reconnects with her daughter Beloved, whom Sethe killed so that she would not endure the horrors of American slavery. Beloved soon becomes the antagonist of the story, feeding on all of Sethe’s attention and starving Sethe of her family, her health, and her livelihood.
Sethe’s external conflict is with Beloved, who drains Sethe of the life she’s built for herself. Sethe also has to contend with the horrors and aftermath of slavery. Internally, Sethe must overcome her guilt, shame, and self-hatred regarding the sacrifices she had to make for her family, and come to accept the loving embrace of the Black community that she forsakes for Beloved.
Before we move on to more conflict in a story examples, let’s dive deeper into external and internal conflict.
What is external conflict in a story?
External conflict refers to any conflict that a character has with another person, place, or thing. These are the conflicts Man Vs. Man, Man Vs. Society, or Man Vs. Nature.
External conflict in a story: Any conflict that a character has with another person, place, or thing.
If a story has external conflict, then it must also have an antagonist. Even if the antagonist is not another person, it does present some sort of obstacle to the protagonist’s goals, and its interests directly counter the interests of the protagonist. It is an actively opposing force.
What is internal conflict in a story?
Internal conflict refers to the challenges that a character presents themselves. This is the conflict Man Vs. Self.
Internal conflict in a story: The challenges that a character presents themselves.
Often, the protagonist must overcome certain flaws to achieve what they want. Those flaws might be related to their personality—egotism or narcissism, for example. They might also have to overcome certain flaws in their way of thinking, such as self-hatred, insecurity, or fear of others. These flaws usually sit in the character’s blindspot, and their continued inability to address those flaws is what allows the conflict in a story to get worse and worse until the inevitable, explosive climax.
To further understand the relationship between conflict and plot, take a look at our article on Freytag’s Pyramid. For now, let’s look at some conflict in a story examples.
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Conflict in a Story Examples
The following examples come from published works of literature.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Main character: The narrator and protagonist is unnamed, though the ending suggests her name might be Jane.
What she wants: Her freedom and health. The narrator is taken to a colonial mansion for the summer, where she is supposed to rest and recuperate from her illness. She wants to get better, but she also wants to make her own decisions and to write, both of which her husband forbids her to do.
External conflict: The narrator’s husband, John, does not take her wishes seriously. He is often patronizing, and assumes her sickness is simply a case of “temporary nervous depression.” John’s treatment of the narrator, and her refusal to be tied down, makes this story an early example of modern feminist literature.
The yellow wallpaper is also a source of external conflict, as the narrator finds it both hideous and mesmerizing, and it has a great impact on her mental health.
Internal conflict: The narrator does not know what’s best for her, on account of the many mixed messages she receives from her husband. She also fights against herself to be drawn into the yellow wallpaper: at first she finds it hideous, but the longer she stares, the harder it is to resist some weird magnetic pull in its design. This continues on until she believes that a woman is hiding in the wallpaper, trying to get out, only furthering her internal conflict, as she doesn’t know whether to help the woman or to question her own sanity.
Analysis: These conflicts drive the story forward: the narrator rejects the help of her husband and leans into her own mystical relationship with the wallpaper. At the end of the story, she thinks of herself as the trapped woman newly freed from her imprisonment. On the surface, it seems like the narrator has succumbed to her psychosis; but, considering how neglected she was by the people around her, it’s better to say that the narrator was forced into this psychosis, and could only find freedom in insanity.
“Sticks” by George Saunders
Main character: The unnamed narrator’s unnamed father.
What he wants: This is left open to interpretation, and masterfully so. Saunders presents a complex character in alarmingly few words. What we know about the narrator’s father is that he dresses up a pole in the yard based on his reactions to events. We also know he is an austere, ascetic person, who restrains himself and others from pleasure and is relentlessly economical. Could the pole represent his need for self-expression? Perhaps what he wants, more than anything else, is to be heard and understood—but he’s never learned how to accomplish this.
External conflict: While not explicitly stated, the story suggests that the father’s austerity gets in the way of his relationships. The narrator “found the seeds of meanness” from his own childhood within himself; before the father dies, he adorns the pole with the word “FORGIVE?” It seems as though the father’s behavior pushed away everyone he loves, and came to regret it after his wife had passed.
Internal conflict: This is also not explicitly stated, but the father has two competing behaviors. The narrator describes his father as being a mean, meticulous person; clearly, he seeks to control his household. But the father also has a need for self-expression, and to be loved. While this story does not have an antagonist, the father may be the antagonist of his own life.
Analysis: The narrator’s father is unable to express himself or show kindness. The reasons for this are never established, though much of these personality traits can be mapped to masculinity. Regardless, the father is conflicted between his need for control and his need for companionship. When his wife dies and he has no one around, his pleas grow desperate, but he can never express those pleas verbally, just adorn his pole in increasingly frantic attempts at human connection. The narrator’s reaction is one of indifference, because he only tells us that his father died and they sold the house, erasing any trace of the father’s mean-spirited life.
“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
Main characters: George and Lydia Hadley, parents to Wendy and Peter. They live in a Happylife Home, a house which automatically caters to their every need and comfort. The home includes a nursery, where the children can dream up anything they wish and experience it as though they were there—for example, the African Veldt.
What they want: George and Lydia want to feel more secure in their home. They are beginning to feel uneasy with every need automatically taken care of. They also worry about what the nursery might be doing to their children. Things are the most stable they have ever been for the Hadleys, but something still feels unstable.
External conflict: The Hadley parents and kids don’t get along. The kids have been spoiled with their every need being met instantly, and they’ve become very attached to the nursery—so much so, that the veldtland they spend so much time in makes the parents nervous. Additionally, the children do not like that the parents don’t give them everything they desire, so they’ve begun to view the house more like a parent than the parents themselves. The conflict reaches a boiling point when George decides to shut everything off.
Internal conflict: The Hadleys are at odds over how to run their own household. Are their kids spoiled because everything has been handed to them? Could it be that a life involving work and discomfort is more meaningful than a life in which everything is handed to you?
Analysis: The nursery’s animated veldtland drives the conflict of this story forward. The parents fear that the veldtland represents some sort of dark, psychological shift in the children, and what’s more, the land itself terrifies them. The children, it turns out, have indeed felt mothered by the house itself, to the point where they want to reject their own parents. Each character’s reaction to the nursery builds a slow-boiling suspense that results in a painful moment of recognition (anagnorisis): the lions of the veldt are feasting on animations of the parents’ bodies. And the parents themselves are next.
The Story With No Conflict
Can a story exist without conflict? It depends on who you ask. Most writers will agree that this is impossible: a story cannot exist without conflict, because a story exists to chart how people react to conflicts. The story with no conflict seems self-contradictory.
Indeed, most novels and short stories have tension and suspense. Otherwise, what else will pull the reader forward? Conflict in a story makes the story possible.
Nonetheless, there are at least two exceptions to this rule.
The first exception is microfiction and flash fiction. Now, many pieces of flash and micro do still have conflict. But, with so few words, and in such experimental genres, there are instances in which micro stories don’t have clearly defined internal and external conflict.
For example, read this micro piece: “Between the Earth and Sun” by Kalyn RoseAnne. Technically, there is conflict, but it occurs before the story begins. The narrator clearly has an internal conflict regarding their relationship to their hometown, but the story describes what happens after this has been resolved. In this instance, conflict isn’t driving the story forward, it’s the backstory—though, of course, it still makes the story possible.
The other example is the Eastern story structure Kishōtenketsu (起承転結). Kishōtenketsu is a story structure that does not necessarily rely on conflict and resolution. It is composed of four acts, each of which are embedded in the word Kishōtenketsu:
- Ki: Introduction
- Shō: Development
- Ten: Twist
- Ketsu: Conclusion
The Ki is where we learn who the characters are. The Shō deepens our relationship to the characters: where they live, where they come from, what their dreams are, how we can relate to them.
The Ten complicates the plot. Now, this complication, or twist, might involve some degree of conflict, but it often relies on external circumstances that the characters simply react and adjust to. For example, a perfectly acceptable Ten would be that a man’s village is suddenly attacked, and he has to hide with his wife in a forest. Technically, this is conflict, but the characters are not struggling with anything internally, nor are they confronting their external situation.
The Ketsu shows us how the characters react to the Ten, usually involving some kind of growth and departure from the characters we met in the Ki and Shō.
This story structure can be found in East Asian storytelling, particularly stories from Japan, China, and Korea. Some Studio Ghibli movies exemplify Kishōtenketsu, such as My Neighbor Totoro.
Neither of these examples are perfect representations of the story with no conflict. A character is always reacting to a less-than-perfect situation. But, these examples showcase what a story can be when conflict is not the engine driving the story forward.
How to Create Conflict in a Story
A great story builds conflict and tension in every line. Characters should always be pursuing something they desire and can’t have, whether because of external circumstances or their own internal flaws. As you write and edit your fiction, keep these 5 tips in mind for creating conflict in a story.
- Focus on motivation. What drives each character? Why do they get out of bed each morning? What goals do they pursue? Even small, simple goals, like “wanting a vase” or “being thirsty,” can lead to surprising conflicts.
- Think about fatal flaws. Most characters have some internal problem that prevents them from achieving their goals (hamartia). This problem sits in the character’s blindspot: they don’t realize they have this problem until it’s (almost) too late. What flaw does your protagonist have, and why can’t they acknowledge it?
- Link flaws to contexts. Often, a character’s flaws are the result of their upbringing and sociopolitical context. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, cannot advocate for herself because of society’s sexism. Considering context adds more depth to each character.
- Let your characters make mistakes. Characters should not be perfect, and an author rarely agrees with every decision a character makes. A character’s fatal flaw should force them to make bad decisions. These bad decisions build tension and bring us towards the climax.
- Create relationships between internal and external conflict. Internal and external conflict are usually related to one another. In “Sticks,” for example, the narrator’s father is an unkind, miserly control freak (internal) who cannot communicate his feelings (internal, fatal flaw) and thus pushes away everyone he loves (external).
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