Episode 10: Conflict in Fiction

On September 15th we braved the rain (Hurricane Florence) and brought you this Rex & Kasie take on conflict in fiction. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

Theme for the day



  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: conflict
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird
man couple people woman
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com  (no, that’s not Kasie & Rex)

Segment 1

What is Conflict in literature? Good news! Everyone has an opinion:

  • Tina Morgan of Fiction Factorsays: the conflict of the novel partly determines the genre and the market. For example — romance, thriller, mystery.
  • William Coles claimsthat conflict is the essence of drama, the momentum of happening and change, and that it’s the change that engages the reader.
  • Sarah Boomer saysthe conflict is the main struggle between the Protagonist and an opposing force.Cool slideshare on LinkedIn for that one.

10 Types of Narrative Conflict

  1. Person vs. God/Fate
  2. Person vs. Self
  3. Person vs. Person
  4. Person vs. Society/Establishment (as in revolution, against those massive uncontrollable things that constrain us like school and government)
  5. Person vs. Society (as in the conflict exists elsewhere, but affects us like all those WWII novels)
  6. Person vs. Society (as in transcending the social norms and seeing one’s inner beauty, a lesser rebellion but rebellion nonetheless)
  7. Person vs. Nature
  8. Person vs. Technology
  9. Person vs. Science
  10. Man vs. Woman or Woman vs. Man

Segment 2

The difference between Internal and External conflict

Internal — what the character must overcome in himself or herself in order to achieve his or her goal in the story.

External — what the character must overcome outside of himself or herself to achieve what he or she wants in the story.

Both types are needed to (from resource):

  • Tension: Because of conflict’s uncertainty, we want to know how it resolves and keep turning pages to find out
  • Stakes: Conflict suggests worst-case outcomes and makes resolution urgent (the hero must overcome the antagonist/environment or themselves ‘or else…’)
  • Character development: Conflict allows for dramatic incidents and confrontations that test characters and cause them to learn and adapt

External conflict relates to the story goalaccording to this resource. The story goal is confined to the story, which means the external conflict begins and ends inside the confines of the story.

Internal conflict concerns your protagonist’s self doubt, emotional baggage, and other deep-seated root-like problems that prevent him or her from getting what they want.

Example: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes — our protagonist faces the external conflict of getting her quadriplegic charge, Will, to recognize life has value; but internally she has to overcome the cowardice she’s cloaked herself in since she was raped years before. (spoiler)

What about this resource claiming there are 3 kinds of conflict and you need them all? An oversimplification, to be sure. But bloggers do that. (see also: don’t trust internet writers 😉

  1. Conflict between your characters
  2. Conflict between your characters and the outside world
  3. Conflict between your characters and themselves.

What about the assertion that the best (science) fiction takes internal conflicts and externalizes them?

What about this argument that conflict is important, but that transformation is the heart of the story, not conflict. Conflict is just a means to an end.

Segment 3

So how do we do it? How do we create conflict?

This resource provides 60 ways (wow!). Here are a few:

  1. Give characters conflicting goals
  2. Create a power struggle
  3. Force opposing characters to stay together
  4. Force difficult choices (the example is two things happening at once and the protagonist has to choose one to attend)
  5. Romance: create barriers to the relationship, create circumstances that force the lovers apart
  6. Job: conflict with difficult co-workers, competition for boss’s attention, rewards and punishments
  7. Micro-tension: the emotional tension between characters as they compete with one another

This list is shorter and less specific, but worth including:

  1. Give your characters clear goals
  2. Go big, go small — you know the story conflict, but define the specific conflicts in every single scene, then every single phrase, line, or action
  3. Let your characters fail
  4. Make your characters opinionated — when they come up against someone who believes otherwise, BOOM: instant conflict
  5. Use your exposition wisely: when delivering it, have a character question it or disbelieve what they’re being told

Segment 4

What we’re reading — what’s the main conflict? Internal or external? How’s it unfolding?

Kasie mentioned The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, her latest Richland Library ebook loan. In it, three people’s stories are brought together over the shared experience of the discovery of a stash of very old writings. The aging historian and her young assistant, a post graduate student work on interpreting the pages and trying to understand what significance, if any, they have on the modern understanding of a specific period of Jewish history.

Meanwhile, internally, the woman (Helen) faces regret over a lifetime she feels she wasted because she gave up her one true love and dedicated her life to learning. The student (Andrew) worries that he is squandering an opportunity to have a bigger life than what academia might offer. Turns out, both options were faced by the mystery writer of the discovered pages, our third protagonist, Esther.

As the novel unfolds, all three work through internal and external conflicts to determine what their life choices will be and mean. Check out The Weight of Ink if you like good literary fiction with enough well-researched history that you feel like you learned something.

You’ll hear Rex admit to never having read a “craft book” while Kasie admits she only re-reads craft books. Novels she reads once only.

Craft book: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird on conflict

You’re going to have to let bad things happen to your characters, even if you like them.

Thinking of conflict and how the characters we’ve created respond to it — fail because of it — or overcome it to come out better — or broken — on the other side. Anne Lamott says “We all know we are going to die; what’s important if the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.”

Which got me thinking about “imminent death” as a trite and overused conflict. Especially in vampire stories when, come on, they’ve lived for hundreds of years, is death really that scary for them?

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