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.
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.
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.
Next, we check and add opposing forces, if necessary. Conflict can come in different forms and levels. Forms of conflict include the following
- Extra-personal: conflict with something other than another person, like a country or the environment
- Intrapersonal: a conflict with another person or people
- 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.
- It can be contrary to the character's goal,
- contradict the goal, or
- 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
- 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 email@example.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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