Conflict: The heart of every story

When telling a story, you’ve got to have conflict in it. If there’s no conflict, you have a wooden story that starts nowhere, leads nowhere and ends nowhere. As E.M. Forester noted, “‘The king died, then the queen died’ is a plot. ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’ is a story.”

Forster’s quotation is apt because a good plot is about at least one character under adversity. Conflict typically arises from the characters’ perceptions, needs and wants. As each character has an urgent personal agenda, your plot really is a synthesis of its individual characters’ efforts to achieve their agendas.

Let us suppose that we are writing a historical fiction novel about a lone Roman legion stopping a barbarian invasion. The agenda of our hero, the Roman commander Gauis Camillus, is to persuade the Cauci tribe to join his legion so that they may hold out against the invading barbarians. The agenda of our villain, barbarian King Hagena, is to conquer the former land of the Cauci so that they have space to live as they face pressure from the expanding Vandi to the east. The Cauci’s Council of Elders’ goal is to stay neutral.

As these conflicting agendas intersect, each character faces adversity. For Gauis, the Cauci aren’t receptive to his idea, then finds his legion surrounded by Hagena’s advancing army. For Hagena, Gauis’ legion refuses to yield and at night raids his army’s supply lines. The Cauci council refuses to join the Romans even when Hagena begins to burn their villages. For the Cauci, they first feel the pressure of Gauis and Hagena and then watch both sides become increasingly violent toward one another on their home turf.

Types of Conflict
There are five primary types of conflict that your characters can face:
• Man vs. nature – When the forces of nature, such as storms, deserts and volcanoes, that hinder a character from achieving his objective. A thunderstorm that leads to a river flooding, for example, might delay Hagena’s army as they are forced to find another route to meet the Romans in battle.
• Man vs. man – When two individuals struggle against one another to achieve their objectives, such as Gauis and Hagena.
• Man vs. society – When a character or small group challenges the mores and values of their culture or its political institutions. Perhaps one of the Cauci objects to the Council of Elders’ decision and advocates joining the Romans.
• Man vs. God(s) – When an individual or a small group fight God or the gods. Possibly one of Hagena’s officers begins to question if his people’s god really favors them as they face setback after setback against the legion.
• Man vs. himself – When a character has an internal struggle because of conflicting desires, wants and needs. Maybe one of the tribunes disagrees with Gauis and finds himself struggling between loyalty to his commander and his inner belief that his men will needlessly perish if a different course of action were taken.

When developing conflict in your story, follow these guidelines:
• Maximize conflict by pitting two forces against one another – This either can involve opposites facing off (as with Gauis and Hagena) or involve an internal conflict.
• Every scene should present the main character with a problem – If this doesn’t happen, there probably isn’t much point to the scene.
• Conflict should allow the character an opportunity to change the course of events – Adversity alone rarely is enough to carry a story, though it may help create reader sympathy for your character.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.