Written by JJ Barnes
Your story needs active conflict. Active conflict is when characters are in pursuit of a goal. If nobody is in pursuit of a goal, and there is no active conflict, your story will feel pointless.
I’ll explain how to write active conflict into every scene and why it matters for your story.
Your Character Wants Something They Don’t Have
Conflict is, essentially, when your characters want something they don’t have or can’t have. For the sake of your story, what your characters want should be something attainable, but there’s something in the way that they have to overcome in order to get it.
If your characters want something which they have no hope of getting, there’s no story there because they’ve got nothing they can work for and do in order to satisfy that desire. Your story is watching them work for their goals, and either achieve them or not, whilst somebody or something works against them to stop them getting it.
Scenes Without Conflict
It’s quite easy to go into a scene and forget to include conflict. When I first started writing, I would write characters having conversations, characters doing things, and they’d be going about their day to day life living. But there was no story. It was just following an existence. But following an existence without conflict isn’t entertaining. It might be believable in a general way, because not every moment of real life is filled with conflict, but it doesn’t make for an interesting story.
When you start telling your story, think about why you’re telling your story now in this character’s life. The reason you’re jumping into their life now is because of their conflict. It’s the thing they want right now that they have to try and work for. The story will have constant conflict because you’re following them trying to get it. When they get it, the story is over because the conflict has been resolved.
Day to day life isn’t conflict ridden like this, you’ll have moments of conflict, but for the most part people are going about their day to day life without some quest or story they’re being driven by at all times.
Finding Active Conflict in Ordinary Life
The only time you’ll need to find permanent conflict in ordinary day to day life situations is you’re writing a soap opera. In soaps, ordinary day to day life of going to the supermarket, taking your children to school, walking the dog in the park, going to your job and working, all have to be laden with conflict or your soap will get boring and people won’t bother.
But trying to find conflict in ordinary life in this way is why soaps are often dramatic to the point of being ridiculous and unbelievable, because there’s only so much conflict that can naturally occur in that situation, without pushing circumstances to the extreme.
Finding Your Active Conflict
Regarding stories that are told via books and films, the audience is jumping into a character’s life at that moment to witness a specific conflict. A specific story. The writer isn’t trying to chronicle day to day life because that’s not the point of the story, the story is following a character on something that isn’t day to day life because they’re trying to get something that changes their life.
A TV show that isn’t a soap, but still follows day to day life, will be built around a specific concept. Perhaps it’ll be a police show like Blue Bloods, or something supernatural like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That concept requires something called a Conflict Generator.
If you take the TV series Supernatural, the conflict engine is that they are looking to solve supernatural mysteries and travelling around to help people. You don’t watch Sam and Dean going to the bank or for lunch for no reason just because they’re living their lives. You watch them as they are on their mini movie style conflict each week. In Angel, Doyle, and later Cordelia, receives visions of the people they need to help. Scrubs has different patients come in with different heath needs. In Firefly, they have to keep getting different jobs that send them to different planets.
Behind the episodic conflict, you have the long form story conflict which is usually more soap opera style, which is the human relationships and the conflict between the characters that continues episode by episode as background to the episodic conflict.
Overall Active Conflict vs Scene-Level Conflict
When you write your story, work out what the conflict is overall, the thing your Protagonist is looking for and why they don’t have it. It can be something supernatural like monsters attacking, or something mundane like somebody looking for a new job or relationship. But there’s something your character wants, something they don’t have, and something standing in the way of them getting it that they have to overcome. That is your story conflict.
Then, in each scene, look at the people in that scene, work out what they want in that moment and work out why they can’t have it. Perhaps somebody wants to talk about one thing and somebody else wants to talk about something else, or there’s disagreement over the thing they should do. It can be anything as long as the characters in that scene have an unsatisfied want. If everybody has what they want, and there’s no conflict, there’s no story.
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