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Conflict theory

What is conflict?

An actress being stalked by one of her fans.

A man wants to climb Mt. Everest but is afraid of heights.

A woman wants a big family but her husband hates kids.

With my latest WIP, I came to the realization that my conflict isn’t strong enough, neither internal nor external, despite the fact that I thought I had it all worked out ahead of time. Because of that, I’ve been struggling with where to take the storyline.

Even BLIND FURY, which I think has pretty good internal and external conflicts, has been dinged for carrying a single conflict for too long. Clearly, I needed to get help. Happily, I found some.

Maybe these are brilliant, or maybe they were in the right place when I needed them. You know that rule that I have to be exposed to an idea or concept a number of different times and in multiple ways before it clicks for me? (Not that I think I’ve mastered it…) Conflict wasn’t any different.

First, I found a helpful blog post by Holly Lisle that helps you brainstorm three types of conflict: internal, external, and (what I’d consider a subcategory of external) interpersonal.

The internal is the character against himself. That mountain climber afraid of heights.

The external is some outside force or event that he must deal with. The killer weather he encounters half way up the mountain.

Interpersonal conflict is about people standing in the way of the hero’s goal. His wife who sabotages his plans because she’s afraid he’ll die on the mountain.

I especially liked the addition of interpersonal conflict because it crystallized the notion that not all antagonists are evil villains. Often, they are well-meaning or have understandable reasons for the things they do.

The second source of conflict gold came from a presentation Susan Meier gave at my RWA chapter’s retreat last year (I listened to the archived recording), called Let the Conflict Tell the Story. It was especially helpful for me because it focused on conflict in romantic fiction.

According to Meier, internal conflict is what’s keeping the hero and heroine apart, despite the attraction between them. It stems from incorrect core beliefs each of them has that prevents them from thinking this person is “the one”, or that has them convinced that they’ll never marry anyone.

It could be as simple as “she’s rich and I’m a blue collar guy”, or “all men cheat so there’s no point in marrying one”, or “office romances never work out”.

Meier defines the external conflict as what’s keeping them together. For example, they inherited a house together, or they’re both assigned to the same murder investigation, or she’s being stalked and he’s her bodyguard.

In order to make the change from can’t be together to happy ever after, the characters must grow (character arc!) and change their core belief. The story then, is taking them through the changes step by step from slowly realizing what they believed was wrong to deciding that this person is the love of their life.

With a few bumps and a black moment along the way. 😉

Okay, let me stop here and say that, yes, this is obvious and simple. But to me, that’s what makes it so valuable. We can get so bogged down in the fine details of writing craft that sometimes it’s hard to break it down into it’s most basic concepts.

Like Robert McKee's +/- idea I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Meier had much more to say on the subject of conflict, all illuminating, so if you write romance/romantic elements and you ever get a chance to take her workshop, do it!!

And above all, never stop reading, listening, or learning. You just never know which book, seminar, or class is going to provide the missing puzzle piece in your writing. Good luck!

Photo Credit: BLACK-FACED IMPALAS © Nico Smit |

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  1. Reply

    You do nice tidy digests. Thank you. This is a print-it-out-and-keep-it post for me. I especially appreciate the “not all antagonists are evil villains.” Well meaning people who get in the way could be a good strategy to layer in conflict. I’m guessing they could simply be aggravating by personality type or create conflict through human error.

    Seems to me they don’t have to know or care what is going on with the hero. Just get in the way. Hero is trying to get to the hotel before his love leaves for California. The cab driver jabbers through the turn and has to drive around a NY city block. Of course he never stops talking. I wonder how many times I have seen that or it’s variation in a movie, felt the tention and never realized what the writer was doing.

    I’m guessing as long as the tention is native to the circumstance it should work

    “Blind Fury… dinged for carrying a single conflict for too long.” Question. Was that single line of conflict specified in the comment? If not, have you been able to identify what the editor was referring to?

    Again, excellent reference post and thank you for sharing the editors comment.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Curtis! I definitely could have gone on for days on this topic. 🙂 I agree that some tension could come from a character who doesn’t know or care what’s going on with the hero, and that works especially well in comedy, and sometimes suspense. But, I also think that when you have a mother trying to keep his son out of the Army because she’s afraid to lose him, or a child interfering with a romance because he doesn’t want to lose his single parent’s attention, the stakes are much higher and more compelling.

      As far as BLIND FURY, the agent identified the conflict that went on too long. It was the main one where the hero didn’t want to tell the heroine the truth about what happened to her brother. I didn’t understand what the agent meant at the time, but now I’m thinking I probably needed to introduce new reasons to keep him quiet because the original reasons weren’t strong enough as the circumstances–and the H/H relationship–changed.

      At some point, I’ll go back through that MS and analyze it.

  2. Maura


    Another great post, Gwen, and quite timely for me as well. I have been feeling so stuck on my ms lately that I am barely working on it. This post and the link to Holly’s has given me a fresh way to tackle my story and characters. Thanks a million!!

    • Reply

      Glad it helped, Maura! This is why I share. I figure if I’m struggling with a concept, someone else probably is too! Good luck with this MS!

      • Reply

        This is a good place to say this. What you/we are doing here is exactly how people interested in achieving actually learn. Believe it or not and no fair laughing, the method followed here is exactly how a gifted and talented class in education works. The students have tons of involvement in the teaching process. In many cases they teach each other.

        There are many odd things about the process of writing and learning the craft. One of the strangest is the not so subtle belief that we can learn only from a guru or a master. Not so. A class of gifted and talented students i.e. the motivated who want to learn, can blow your mind with what they come up with.

        Keep sharing. Maybe do a series on conflict by way of revisiting Blind Fury. Exploration and discovery is how we got this far. Take us further.

        • Maura


          I agree, Curtis, So many people think that those who have been published have all the answers. Not so. And I think we can all agree that there have been many published authors who could benefit from a good craft class or two (or twelve), while many other excellent writers are still waiting for the call. I have learned many things along the way from both “professionals” and “amateurs” and have come to realize that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of what their actual title may be. I love being part of a group full of active participants. If you are involved and stimulated, how can you not learn?

        • Reply

          I agree, Curtis. We can learn a lot from each other, which is part of why I like sharing these topics on my blog. I invariably learn something from one of the commenters, as well as from the act of organizing my thoughts on the subject.

          I’ll consider sharing what I find on Blind Fury. Thanks for the suggestion.

          And, Maura, I agree that a published author is not always a good teacher. Not everyone can explain or even understand their own processes, even if they are great at doing it.

  3. KM Fawcett


    Great post, Gwen. I just sent revisions back to my agent, so now I’m ready to begin the next project. I need to do more plotting and planning beforehand this time. If I can get the conflicts right before I start, I’ll be so much better off. Thanks for these references, I’ll definitely check them out. Also looking into buying Scrivener and will have to check out your posts on that. 🙂

  4. Reply

    Thanks, Kathy! I definitely need to get my conflicts and character arc solid before I start writing. I’m trying to get it done for the next book so I’m ready to start writing when NaNo hits.

    Good luck with your next book! I hope you like Scrivener. You might want to check out the 30-use free trial. Also, if you’re doing NaNo, Scrivener usually has a coupon for NaNo winners. So use the trial, then purchase in December with the coupon.

  5. Reply

    Oye. Yes, this is a great post, and definitely a keeper for me. The whole interpersonal conflict thing is a lightbulb moment! Thanks! 🙂

  6. Reply

    This is one of those “duh” moments for me. As in “Duh, this makes so much sense, why have I been struggling with this?”

    Thanks for defining “conflict” in a different and more understandable way.

    • Reply

      Glad it helped, Rebecca! I felt the same way after listening to Susan’s seminar.

      I think, like anything, the concepts seem simple after someone breaks them down. But it’s hard to see all the bits and pieces that go into a whole work, so don’t beat yourself up over it. If writing were easy, everyone would do it. 😉

  7. Reply

    For those who’ve been following along with the conflict posts, I found a good recap of this in Leigh Michaels’ book ON WRITING ROMANCE. Hers was one of the first books I read when I started writing, and obviously a lot of the information didn’t stick. 😉

    Anyway, borrowing/buying the book might be easier than trying to find a Susan Meier seminar.

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