You may have had the experience of picking up a book or an article and being bored silly without quite knowing why. The content is certainly interesting. You can see how it could be a fascinating story or subject. But somehow, inexorably, you begin to yawn.
What happened here? The book had potential! How did it become so boring?
Most likely, it lacked conflict.
For any kind of writing, from journalistic non-fiction to literature to science fiction to film to blogging, conflict is highly necessary. It’s what creates drama and urgency. It’s what creates anticipation. Conflict is what compels your readers to find out what happens next, and to read more to see if it comes out all right in the end.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the story, whether true or fictional, is dependent on whether there is any debate in the matter. Being uncertain of the outcome is why any story interests you.
Conflict in Fiction
Conflict in fiction is usually easy to find. Your character wants something, and other events or circumstances intervene to make achieving that goal difficult. That’s conflict.
The trouble that many writers encounter in fiction is mistaking dramatic action for conflict. For example, if the main character is walking down the street and a sea bird suddenly assaults him, many writers point to that as an instance of conflict.
That’s not conflict. Unless the sea bird prevented that character from achieving a specific goal that was very important to the individual, then the situation is merely dramatic. It isn’t conflict.
So how can you tell the difference? Ask yourself what your character wants, overall, in the story. Maybe he wants to achieve a certain quest, or reconcile with someone, or get out of the one-horse town. Then ask yourself if the situation you created for that character actively prevents the character from achieving his goal.
If not, your plot could use some tweaking to be more interesting.
Conflict in Non-Fiction
Conflict in non-fiction is often harder to manage because you’re bound by the facts. Whether or not conflict occurs seems wholly dependent on whether conflict actually happened in real life.
However, most non-fiction writers forget that they aren’t limited by just the facts of a particular situation. They can add in facts from surrounding situations to create necessary conflict. For example, a senator caught cheating on his wife is not conflict – it’s just fact.
Add in the fact that his actions may mean he won’t be re-elected, and that this has repercussions for the government at large, makes it a conflict. Will he get re-elected? Will he fail? Who’s on which side? Should he win or should he lose? Who’s saying what?
Figure out whose goal you support and see what’s in the way. For a non-fiction situation, you have free rein. You could take the senator’s standpoint and display the conflict from his point of view: he wants his seat back so he can achieve certain goals, but will he be able to get it?
You can also present conflict from other peoples’ point of view. The people the senator represents want certain goals of their own – will his re-election help or hinder them? Will they get what they want? Will the senator’s family get what they want? Will the president get what he wants if the senator fails?
Every Story Needs Conflict
Without conflict, you don’t have a story. Not for your journalistic piece, not for your blog post, not for your novel. Sit down and figure out who has a goal in the piece you’re writing, and what needs to happen for that person to achieve it.
Then find out what’s in the way.
When you have sufficient conflict in your story, no one will ever walk away from your writing thinking, “That had such potential . . .” They’ll walk away thinking, “I wonder what happened.”
That’s what you’re looking for. Go rustle up some conflict.
James Chartrand is the pro in the know on how to write stories that grab people by the heart and keep them reading. Visit James’ blog at Men with Pens, where he and Taylor will keep you hooked – and get your readers hooked on reading your words.