Literature would be so boring without conflict. After all, conflict is at the center of every story. No matter how hard it is to see our favorite characters rallying against a new problem, it’s also why we continue to cheer for them and fight with them.
No conflict, no story!
(The exception would be very experimental literature, but we’re speaking generally about novels and fiction today.)
So, yes, conflict is a key element of any story. That being said, what exactly is conflict? What types of conflicts are there? How can you, the writer, keep the story interesting for readers by layering conflict?
In storytelling, conflict is some challenge or opposition the character faces. A typical conflict is the protagonist somehow confronting/fighting the villain. But there are many other types of conflict! Let’s start there.
Three Main Conflicts
There are three main conflicts in literature that form the basis for most stories:
- person against person;
- person against nature; and
- person against self
You probably learned about these in your early education years when first studying literature and creative writing. You may have seen them listed as “man vs. …,” but because conflict encompasses everyone no matter their identity, let’s call it “person” instead.
While these aren’t the only three conflicts you can have in your story, let’s revisit the basics.
Person against person: Your protagonist must fight against another person or people. This doesn’t have to be hand-to-hand combat; interpersonal conflict comes in many forms. This is common in all genres.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Example: The Hunger Games
Person against nature: Think of a survival story. Your protagonist must fight the elements to survive. This doesn’t have to dictate the genre, though; any time your character is battling the elements to survive, this falls under “person against nature” conflict.
Examples: Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Old Man and the Sea, The Little House on the Prairie, The Calculating Stars
Person against self: Your protagonist must fight against themselves in some way. This may be self-sabotage, fighting an illness or addiction, or even struggling with their competing desires for good and bad. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Examples: Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment
Additional Types of Conflict
While the classic three conflicts mentioned in the previous slides are the basis for many stories, they aren’t the only conflicts you have at your disposal as a writer. This is especially true as you venture into specific genres.
Others to consider include:
- person against society;
- person against fate/gods;
- person against technology; and
- person against the unknown/supernatural
So, let’s take a look at these!
Person against society: Your protagonist(s) fights against injustice in their society. This is common in dystopian fiction. It may be easy to blur this with “person against person” as ‘society’ can be represented by one or two characters. It becomes distinctly “person against society” when the protagonist confronts an entire system or way of life.
Examples: The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale
Person against fate/gods: Your protagonist has an inevitable destiny. Freedom seems impossible and serves as a major theme. The distinction between this and “person vs. society” is that ‘fate’ is often named as an explicit antagonist. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Examples: Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey
Person against technology: In some way, your antagonist is technology/machinery. This may also include themes of technology ‘replacing’ humans. Basically, your protagonist must fight against technology-gone-bad. While this is more common in science fiction, it doesn’t have to be.
Examples: The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Person against the unknown/supernatural: Your protagonist must fight an antagonist that isn’t entirely known. That includes, but isn’t limited to, aliens, ghosts, demons, etc. This is popular in horror and fantasy genres. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Examples: The War of the Worlds, Alien, Kingdom of Souls, Dawn Among the Stars
Layering Conflict In Your Story
While you’ll have a main conflict surrounding your main plot, you can utilize multiple conflicts to keep your story engaging and moving forward. Most authors layer elements from different types of conflict to create a well-rounded, interesting story.
After all, in our own lives, we don’t only have one conflict at a time. We may be butting heads with our best friend while also protesting injustice in society and working through our own inner demons/turmoil.
Let’s look at an example from a popular YA book: The Hunger Games. While we see “person against person” and “person against society” play out, we even see “person against self” later in the series.
Katniss must fight others in the arena (person vs. person), but she also continually subverts the Capital (person vs. society), comes into interpersonal conflict with her friends/family (more person vs. person), and struggles with her own inner demons and choices (person vs. self).
As you draft your next outline or begin revising an existing story, look at ways to layer conflict into your story. Small conflicts can even be woven into and resolved in individual scenes to build tension.
If a scene feels flat, ask yourself: is there conflict? If you can’t identify the conflict, that may be why your scene feels flat, boring, and slow.
If a scene feels chaotic to the point that you can’t understand it, ask yourself: what are all of the conflicts? Too much conflict can be just as troublesome as not enough.
Your Next Steps
Remember, literature would be boring without conflict. It can be hard to put our favorite characters through struggle, but struggle is part of their story as much as it is part of the human story.
Keep readers entertained, engaged, and curious by layering conflict in your stories. Don’t be afraid to mix up the types of conflict, blur the lines, and get creative!
Questions? Leave a comment on this post, send me an email, or work with me as your editor!