If Storytelling was a car, I’d say the plot and character are the wheels - directing the whole thing left, right and forward ,Theme is the power system, going through the entire vehicle affecting all components, and conflict is - obviously - the engine.
Truthfully, I drive a vespa and don’t know much about cars, but I am confident that the conflict is what drives the story, and what makes a story. Without a conflict, a story is just a situation, an anecdote.
Conflict is the basis of all stories, you can see it even in the Bible - Eve wants an apple but it’s forbidden, Jonah doesn’t want to be a prophet and is eaten by a whale, Cain’s jealousy of his brother reaches a breaking point - conflict, conflict, conflict. It’s the reason the story is happening, it’s the main event.
Here’s what I believe many writers miss about conflict
Conflict isn’t just a problem the hero needs to solve, it’s a dilemma that relates to a character’s flaw. It needs to be specific to your hero’s weakness, so it challenges him\her otherwise, it’s random. Conflict has meaning, it enables the hero to have an arc.
For example, Finding Nemo forces the hero, Marlin, to face his greatest fear - the ocean and the unknown. If his conflict would have been finding love, then there would be no story.
How do you make the story conflict as intense and meaningful as possible? There are a few things that I see that make better conflicts - and better stories:
Connecting the external conflict with the internal
The internal conflict is really the arc. Marlin learns to let go, Simba learns responsibility etc. the hero needs to be emotionally tormented by the external conflict. The external struggle is what helps him grow. If the problem they need to solve doesn't affect them mentally, you’re losing conflict intensity.
In The Dark Knight, Batman’s only weakness is his morality. He has one rule - he doesn’t kill people. This makes the Joker his biggest challenge, since the Joker has no rules, and no limits. There’s no way for Batman to defeat him other than killing him. This makes Joker Batman’s greatest conflict. It’ll force Batman to make impossible decisions and re-evaluate his beliefs about what sort of hero he needs to be to save his city.
Linking the internal conflict to the external and vice versa makes the conflict even more meaningful and the story more cohesive, because of the circularity. The outside problem affects the hero emotionally, he struggles and then acts on it, which creates more problems. You see this a lot in Breaking Bad, since it’s heavily based on Walter White’s character’s arc. It also helps create character driven plots.
Making sure the conflict keeps changing
A dynamic conflict isn’t just more entertaining, it’s necessary to keep the story alive. When the conflict evolves, the drama intensifies. Think of Katniss, going into the arena, just wanting to survive, forced to kill other teens in the games, then losing Ru, then falling in love with Peeta, only to discover by the end, one of them must die. The conflict is never just avoiding the fireballs and hornets. the conflict (both the external and the internal) changes and intensifies with every scene.
You can do this by raising the stakes (like in the dark night when Rachel is kidnapped and suddenly everything becomes personal), or changing the hero’s goal (with Katniss it’s to escape, then to avenge Ru, then save Peeta, etc.)
Creating organic conflicts
This is all about making sure the conflicts come from sources that are organic. No coincidences, no accidents, no deus ex machina (the ONLY exception to this is the inciting incident). Organic conflicts come from either characters’ decisions that make perfect sense of the world (not only to that specific character, but specifically at that point in the story, if they could make that decision all the time - then why now?). They can also come from consequences of previous decisions made, or from world building.
I don’t see this in enough books\movies and that’s a shame because it really changes the emotional effect of the story, on a subconscious level.
The Hunger games is a perfect example - the initial conflict is made by the world building - the dystopian society of Panem and like I said only the inciting incident can be a coincidence - Prim’s name is called in the reaping. Everything after that is either a result of Katniss’ actions or people around her, and every decision makes 100% sense, it’s exactly what that character would do in that situation - it’s organic: Katniss needs to drive the careers away, she succeeds with the hornets, but gets stung, she manages to blow up their food, but then Ru is killem. All of which makes sense, it’s not random or unexplainable.
Organic conflicts make for stronger, more meaningful plot points that actually level up to your readers' intelligence. Readers are smart, they’ll forgive a plot point that isn’t logically loyal to the story, but it’ll register.
Make sure you are writing an actual conflict - a dilemma that your hero needs to solve that hits hard and close to home, that challenges the most problematic parts of his\her personality.
Write a conflict that is internal as well as external, Write a conflict that is dynamic, that doesn’t stay still, that goes through an evolution.
Finally, try to link all conflicts to organic sources that are never arbitrary.
I hope this was helpful. There isn’t a formula of course, these are ideas I gathered by observing what I feel works. if you liked these ideas, I have a detailed writing guide\workbook specifically crafting great story conflicts, you can download it for free here: https://www.maayanwrites.com/free-stuff
I hope you stay safe, and in the meantime, happy writing!
Meet Maayan Sulami
Maayan is a writer and podcaster, working on two debut novels. One is a light romcom the other a dark thriller. She feel the balance between the two genres basically defines who she is as a person. She loves storytelling and analyzing great stories which is what she talks about on her podcast, and she honestly believes she could’ve been this generation’s Lorelai Gilmore if she was just a little taller.