Written by JJ Barnes
A conflict engine is a story device that generates a new conflict in every episode of a series.
In your story, the “Conflict” is the central plot that is running from the inciting incident through to the climax. It is how you motivate your Protagonist and Antagonist to become active and go after something they want and don’t have. Conflict drives your story forwards. It keeps your story active and entertaining.
If you’re writing a series, you will tend to have an arcing conflict that carries you from episode one through to the series climax. That could be the Big Bad in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or a budding romance between two characters in Friends.
However, for a successful series, you need more than just the long form conflict. Something needs to happen each episode to tell a short mini story, a mini conflict. For this, you need a conflict engine. In this post, I’ll explore what one is, why it matters, and how to create one.
Why Does Conflict Matter?
Conflict is why your story exists. You don’t join characters at just any point in their lives because there’s no reason to. The rest of their lives shape them as part of their backstory, but they’re not the reason you’re jumping into their lives right now.
Without conflict, your Protagonist motivated to go after something they want, your story has no purpose. Characters just ambling through life and not really wanting or doing anything is boring. A character who is surrounded by interesting events but isn’t motivated to accomplish anything for themselves is dull.
When you set about writing your episodic story, think about what your character wants over all, that’s your long form conflict. That will forever be present with them but isn’t driving them moment to moment. Then think about what they want each episode and why. That will be your episodic conflict, and it’s this you need an engine for.
What Is A Conflict Engine?
To have episodic conflict, you need something that causes it. It’s not natural or believable for people to encounter episodic conflict in day to day life. Soap operas try to accomplish this anyway by constantly having characters in pursuit of increasingly ridiculous and nonsensical story goals, because if they’re not actively in pursuit the story will become dull. However, without a REASON for that conflict, it’s just weird and unnatural melodrama.
A conflict engine is how you force episodic conflict into your story in a believable way. It gives your characters something short term to discover, pursue and then resolve. It’s a reason for each episode to exist, and each story to be told.
Examples Of Conflict Engines
In Bones, the conflict engine is the murders that have to be solved. Each episode involves the discovery of a body, the investigation into how that person died. The resolution of who killed them and why. Over this hangs the long form story about whether Bones and Booth will ever get together, and any series long villain such as Gormagon.
In Chuck, the conflict engine is The Intersect in Chuck’s brain giving him flashes of crimes and criminals in action that the CIA have to stop. The characters in Firefly need to get a new job to be able to earn money to stay alive. In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, they live on a Hell Mouth that attracts demons and monsters to Sunnydale for them to fight.
How To Create A Conflict Engine
When you’re looking at writing a series, work out what it is built around. Whether you need them to live somewhere that draws conflict to them, such as a Hellmouth, or do a job that pushes conflict upon them, such as detectives, the conflict engine is the framework.
Who your characters are and what they want can be told out in the long form story. They want to fall in love, or find their freedom, or get a better life for themselves. You follow them on that quest, show how much they want it and why. But work out what is keeping your audience hooked from moment to moment.
Artificially construct a reason for your story to be happening in their day to day life. The long form conflict is the reason your audience invest in who these people are. Episodic conflict is what keeps them entertained as they wait for it to happen.
Whatever it is, it needs to be reliably believable that every single episode, something is happening that you can tell a story about. A dead body to investigate, a crime to prevent, a job to complete, or a monster to fight. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as something is going on for your characters to be occupied doing.
Keep It Entertaining
Remember that the main purpose of your story is to entertain. You can do more, break hearts or give moral lessons, along side your story, but the reason your audience show up is for entertainment. Give them something fun to watch, something entertaining to experience. Every episode, something is going on to catch their attention and hold it, and everything else plays out around that frame.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose