Every Scene Needs Conflict

 Every scene needs conflict by Leslie Watts via writership.com

Conflict is a primary ingredient of stories and scenes. Although we love it when our own lives go well, a story without conflict has no narrative drive or unanswered questions. 

We may pick up a story because we're interested in the premise, but we stick with it because we want to see how it turns out. A question arises within our mind in the beginning hook, and we want the answer. Without conflict, we may have a series of events that are connected, but not a true story.

The same is true for scenes. Conflict isn’t the only thing needed to make a scene work, but it’s a necessary component. In this post, I explore why we need conflict in every scene, how to check whether you have enough, and how to amplify it if you don't. 

Every scene needs conflict

Every story needs conflict, but what about individual scenes? They absolutely do. Why? For the same reason. Conflict drives a story because it puts the protagonist’s wants and needs in jeopardy. The reader wonders will they be successful in pursuing a smaller goal. If it's a cakewalk, the reader’s interest will fade, and they will put the book down.

Every scene?

When I say that every scene needs conflict, an oppositional voice inside me asks, every scene? Yes.

Scenes are mini-stories that must abide by the Five Commandments of Storytelling to satisfy the reader and meet their expectations. The progressive complication, commandment two of the five, is a major obstacle between the character and their scene goal.

If you ask Robert McKee, a master screenwriter and the author of Story, he’ll tell you that a scene is “an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of the character’s life.” He’s packed a lot into that sentence, but here’s what I want you to take away: Characters act in the face of conflict to create change.

Conflict must be substantial because people resist change and often prefer to be deeply uncomfortable. Steven Pressfield wisely notes we resist “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower.”  Adequate conflict, however, can get us moving. In this respect, our characters reflect their breathing counterparts.


The oppositional voice within me wonders, has there ever been a great story written with scenes that lack conflict? Yes. But that is the wrong question to ask. Were those stories stronger because they had scenes that lack conflict? Is that what makes them great? I’ve yet to see one where that’s the case.

As writers who hope to connect with readers and tell stories that delight them, there is so much outside our control. Even though we can share our stories without securing the permission of a traditional publishing house, we still can’t make people buy, read, or love our books.

What we can control is the time and care we take in revision. We can make sure each story has the elements necessary to meet our reader’s expectations—should they offer the privilege of their money and time. Skimping on conflict should not be our goal. Instead of resisting story form, we should focus on innovating what makes a story great.

Once that inner voice accepts that conflict is our friend—at least as far as stories are concerned—we need to check our work and add conflict where necessary. You’ll be glad to hear that it’s a relatively straightforward process.

Creating conflict in a scene

When we understand what our point of view character wants and why they want it, we can assess the conflict in a scene and augment it as necessary. To illustrate, I’ll create the skeleton of a scene with William, a young naval captain. He experiences smooth sailing on his first cruise, but then something happens to disrupt the status quo: the sailor on watch in the crow’s nest spots an enemy ship on the horizon.

That’s the inciting incident, and when that happens, William can’t help but think of something he wants, in other words, a goal.

Character Goals

Goals can be of achievement (the character wants to make, do, or become something) or resistance (the character wants to stop or resist something). Another way to classify goals is to think of them as gaining possession of something, relief from something, or revenge for something. Keep in mind that a goal should be specific, concrete, and immediate.

A goal includes a decision to act, which should be clear enough that you could imagine the character performing action that would bring it about.

William might wish to slip away unnoticed (resistance or potential relief), or he might hope he can catch the other ship for the opportunity to take it (achievement or possession). He could want to sink the ship, especially if it’s Joe, who has sunk several merchant and war ships from William’s country (revenge). William will do his duty, and pursue the enemy ship to take it as a prize and its crew as prisoners for trade. He orders a change of course.

Opposing Forces

Next, we check and add opposing forces, if necessary. Conflict can come in different forms and levels. Forms of conflict include the following

  1. Extra-personal: conflict with something other than another person, like a country or the environment
  2. Intrapersonal: a conflict with another person or people
  3. Interpersonal: conflict within one’s self

William’s goal is to capture the enemy ship, so

  • William has extra-personal conflict with Joe’s country because, as a nation, they keep sinking and taking ships from William’s country.
  • William could experience interpersonal conflict with another person on his ship.
  • William could experience intrapersonal conflict if he felt a duty to do one thing and the personal desire to do another.

You could look at it from the point of view of the opposing force:

  • Someone could want the same goal: Perhaps Henry, William’s countryman is the captain of another ship in the area, and he would like a share of the prize money.
  • Someone could want a contradictory goal: The captain of the enemy ship wants to avoid being caught and boarded, but might also want to take William’s ship.
  • Circumstances could interfere: The wind could change and give either Henry or the enemy captain an advantage over William; key personnel on the ship could be killed or injured in the battle.

In addition to forms, conflict has levels.

  1. It can be contrary to the character's goal,
  2. contradict the goal, or
  3. take conflict to the end of the line (also known as the negation of the negation).

William’s goal is to capture an enemy ship, so

  • A contrary conflict could be that the enemy ship sinks, and William’s country is deprived of its use.
  • A contradiction could be the enemy ship’s escaping to continue capturing and sinking the ships of William’s countrymen.
  • The negation of the negation could be William’s ship being sunk or taken.

The level and form of conflict should be appropriate for the scene. For example, intensity increases as we move toward the climax of the story. The opening scene doesn't need a lot of intensity (you wouldn’t start with the negation of the negation there), but it’s useful if you can find a way for the conflict in that scene to mirror or be a milder version of a bigger conflict that comes later.

Conflict can manifest in several different ways, including

  • fighting
  • disagreements
  • bickering
  • obstruction
  • personality clash
  • power differential
  • environmental conditions

If our scenes lack conflict, we have lots of choices available to fix them.

Back to the Scene

Ideally, from a story point of view, when William orders a change of course to pursue the enemy ship, a series of obstacles will appear. Because we know what he wants (to take the ship intact and the sailors alive) and why he wants it (he believes it’s his duty), we can think of appropriate obstacles or progressive complications to make it really hard for him to get what he wants.

This series of obstacles should get progressively worse until William reaches a point of no return and faces a dilemma between two bad choices or two good but mutually exclusive ones.

When William gets close enough for the enemy to spot him, he recognizes the name of the ship and knows that Joe is the captain. Joe and his crew are fierce and strong fighters. William’s officers and men are visibly shaken.

Just as William’s guns are in range, the wind changes, which gives the enemy ship an advantage. Everyone knows what it means when they lose the weather gauge. Even so, William’s crew fires their canon faster and maneuvers the ship more quickly, thanks to training he made them do (in an earlier scene).

But just as William is about to close in on the enemy ship, Henry’s ship sends a distress signal because it has run aground on a reef. William must decide whether to pursue the enemy or help Henry and his men. His duty is clear, though he feels conflicted. He lets the enemy ship go and offer’s aid.

If William had sought his goal to take the enemy ship and won the battle without friction, with only one obstacle that he easily overcomes, with a series of similar obstacles of equal difficulty, or without facing a dilemma, then a scene with these events wouldn’t contain enough conflict. The good news is, I know how to handle it, and now I hope, you do too.

This is a long discussion, so pat yourself on the back for making it through and bearing with my nautical scene. Once you understand how conflict works and what variables are, you can hit your protagonist where it hurts him the most, which will hook your reader and help them become attached to your characters to provide a great reading experience.

If you have a question relating to scenes, let me know in the comments or write to me at hello@writership.com. One of the best ways to become a better storyteller is to master scenes. We're offering the 7 Day Scene Intensive to help you do just that. 


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9 Steps to Creating Writing Goals in 2018

 9 Steps to Creating Writing Goals by Leslie Watts at Writership.com

It’s useful to create writing goals and perform regular reviews any time of year, but the transition from one year to the next is a natural time to think about what we’ve done in the past, how we feel about it, and what we want for the future. Understanding what has worked and not, paves the way for intentional decisions about how to spend our time, which is a good plan for getting what we want.

Setting Goals: Your roadmap to keep you on track

I don’t know any writers who have more time than they need to do all they hope to do. Our days are full, and distractions abound. It’s easy to let ourselves drift and react to what comes our way. Though we can’t control everything or even most things, we can take charge of how we think about our circumstances and what we choose to do.

Thinking about our circumstances in a beneficial way begins with a clear picture of what is. Unless we take stock periodically, we won’t have an accurate picture of how we spend our time, what we’re capable of, and how we can be and do better.

Performing a regular review and creating effective goals is a great way to stay on track. Because it’s not easy to stay focused on what’s most important, I need a roadmap that takes into account where I am right now and where I want to go. 

I've done the process I outline below for more than ten years. I tweak the questions and prompts occasionally, but the main structure, which I’ve adapted from Your Best Year Yet by Jinny S. Ditzler, hasn’t changed. I’ve added elements from Pick Four by Seth Godin, and The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth.

I use writing practice, as described by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, and record my answers with a fast writing pen and fresh notebook. I set a timer and write on each topic or question for at least ten minutes (if I’m on a roll when the timer goes off, I keep going).

If you feel resistance to this idea, I understand. I’m not a naturally organized person, and I grew up in a chaotic household. I tried this only because people I trusted suggested it, and I keep doing it because it works. The more I do it, the better my life becomes, and that includes writing, business, and my personal life.

Before we get started, let me be clear about one thing. I use the term goals, but this is not about comparing ourselves to other writers or striving for external definitions of success. It’s about figuring out what we want and how to move toward it.

Step One: Take stock. Make a list of all your writing accomplishments from the last year.

Before deciding how to spend our time in 2018, we need a clear picture of how we spent our time and what we accomplished in 2017. If you’re anything like me, you complete a task, cross it off your list, and move on to the next one. I don’t pause to acknowledge what I’ve accomplished.  

My year-end review ensures that I make this list at least once a year. And here's why it’s important. If you don’t know what and how much you’ve done in the past, you don’t really know what you’re capable of doing in the future. If you’ve underestimated or overestimated, that’s useful information. I’m always surprised by how much I’ve done in a year, even though I spend plenty of time thinking that I haven’t done enough.

If you set a goal last year and fell short of the mark, you still have items to put here. How many words or pages did you write in pursuit of your goal? How many blog posts and social media posts? Not all writing projects are created equal, but writers tend to take care with their words. This all counts and should be recorded.

How many books did you read that have helped you as a writer? Everything we read can add to our knowledge of the craft, serve as a positive or cautionary example, and helps us become stronger writers.

Step Two: Find the Secret of your success. How did you get all this done?

The writing projects and other tasks we finished last year didn’t simply happen, even though it might feel that way. No matter how you feel about the writing you’ve accomplished, you made choices to get it done. How did you make that happen? Did you create a regular habit or set up your environment to avoid distractions? Did you prioritize writing by scheduling it, rather than leaving it to chance? Did you find an accountability partner? It’s okay if you don’t know for sure, or if you were winging it. You probably remember a few tactics that smoothed the way for your writing.

Step Three: Acknowledge your disappointments. List everything that didn’t work out as you hoped.

Chances are, some of what you hoped to accomplish last year didn’t happen. It’s likely that you wanted to work on more projects than you had time for. Even if we keep our tasks manageable, unexpected events arise that take time and attention away from writing. We have disappointments, and one way to move past them is to recognize them.

Make a list of everything that didn’t work out. Where did you fall short of expectations?

Step Four: Examine your disappointments and assess what didn’t work.

Staying curious about our disappointments gives us plenty of useful information. More often than not, we learn more from them than from what goes well. 

After you’ve made your list in step three, ask yourself, “Why didn’t these things work out?” Did you set goals that were unrealistic given your commitments? Did you procrastinate? Did you struggle to set firm boundaries? Did you fail to make your writing goals a priority? What got in the way and prevented your success last year?

The intent is not to beat yourself up because that is not useful or helpful. You want clarity to course correct for the year ahead.

Step Five: Enter dreamtime. What do you want?

Make a list of all your big writing dreams. Assume that money, time, and your present skill level are irrelevant. If you want to quit your day job and write a mystery, put it down. If you want to work on the manuscript that’s been sitting in your draw for years, record that.

This process is designed to uncover the deep dreams you don't know you possess. Write down anything that comes up. One crazy idea might lead to another crazy idea until you discover the story you've always wanted to tell. You can dial it back later if need be. For now, the only limits are your heart’s desire and imagination. 

Step Six: Weeding Out

Now it’s time to whittle that list down to a manageable size. Get rid of anything that is illegal, physically impossible, or was added because someone else thinks you should do it. But don’t cross off anything just because it’s improbable, difficult, or will require learning new skills.

For everything left, ask yourself “Why do I want this?” and “How would it feel if I achieved this?” Write the answer next to each entry that remains. If you can’t think of why you want something, or if achieving it wouldn’t feel very good, cross it off. 

Step Seven: You must choose.

Once you have a clear list of goals you truly want to achieve, pick one to commit to this year. When I say commit, I mean you are willing to do what it takes to accomplish it. That means steady work toward the goal, whether you feel like it or not. It also means seeking the information and support you need if you get stuck.

You might be tempted to add three, five, or ten goals, but resist the urge. You’ll dilute your time and effort and make it harder. I used to recommend choosing two or three, and one of the top lessons for me last year was to focus on one big goal at a time. If you complete it before the end of the year, you can choose a new goal.

Once you’ve decided, craft a SMART goal statement to support your success.

  • Specific: Be clear about what it is you want to accomplish.
  • Measurable: How will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
  • Attainable: Given your other commitments and what you have control over, is this goal attainable? 
  • Relevant: You’ll need motivation to keep you going on the days when you don’t feel like doing the work. Make sure your goals are aligned with what you value and that you understand why you want to achieve this.
  • Timeframe: When do you plan to have this goal completed? Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be this year, but you’ll want to work steadily on it.

Step Eight: Make a plan and create habits.

Goals are great to have, but they will go the way of most New Year’s resolutions unless you have a plan.

Make a list of everything you know you need to do to reach your goal. Keep a list of skills and resources to acquire, as well as research about the steps you’re not sure about. Break big tasks into smaller tasks until they feel manageable.

Look at your lessons learned, both positive and negative. What do you need to add to the plan to be successful?

Take your completion date from above and work backward setting interim deadlines for the tasks. You can adjust your plan as you learn more, but you can’t tweak a plan that doesn’t exist. Create a rough draft of what you will do and when you will do it.

Schedule these tasks rather than leaving them to chance. When you finish one task, make sure you know what your next step is.

Convert the tasks to regular habits that work for you. You might have a daily word or page count for drafting or revision, or it might be that you work for thirty minutes every morning upon waking. Different phases of the project might call for different habits. So again, adjust as necessary.

Step Nine: Set yourself up for success.

If the goal you’ve chosen is something you truly want, then do everything you can to make it happen. Make it easy to do your habits and make progress. Here are some suggestions to make the most of your efforts.

  • Record your goal statement and keep it visible. Visual cues will not only remind you to do your habit, but also allow your subconscious to work on it at other times. Use images that remind you of your goal, display it prominently in multiple locations, and move them around so they don’t fade into the background.
  • Stick with it. If you get distracted for a day or two, jump back in right away. Don’t let these missteps stack up. Keep working toward the goal unless you find that you really don’t want it (in which case, reassess and figure out what you do want).
  • To say yes to your goal and be successful, you have to say no to other activities. Be realistic about your time because you can’t do it all. Because sacrifice is part of the territory, make sure your goal is something you want to accomplish more than anything else in the realm of possibility this year.
  • Get an accountability partner or group. These are people you can share your progress with, who will ask you about how things are going, and who will remind you of why you are doing it. Choose wisely. Not everyone will encourage you to pursue your goal.
  • For help with habits, check out Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before.
  • When you choose to go after something you want, resistance won’t be far behind. Know this is coming, so you won’t be blindsided. Doing your habits without fail is the best antidote for resistance. If you need a kick in the pants, read The War of Art, Do the Work, or Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.

What’s your writing goal for 2018? What do you need to do to make it happen? What is one small step you can take right away? Leave a comment below, and then go do it now. 

If your goal is to become a better writer, one of the best ways to do that is to master writing scenes. Our 7-Day Scene Intensive next month is specifically designed to help you do just that. If you're interested, in hearing more about this, let us know here.


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If you enjoyed this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You'll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

Name *
 Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts.

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