Know your writing terms: Conflict

To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite novel and I use it often for writing examples. Here is a memorable and defining scene.

Atticus Finch, the protagonist, is seated with his daughter, Scout, in his lap. His children are being taunted by neighbors and schoolmates because Atticus “lawed for niggers and trash.” He begins to explain:

“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong ….”

“How’s that?”

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong ….”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (Chapter 11)

And that, dear writer, is conflict — and superb writing by Harper Lee.

The individual versus the community. Black versus white. Childhood versus coming of age. You will find these in Mockingbird, and they can all be described as conflict.

Here’s a general look at conflict and how it is used in writing.

What is conflict?

James Scott Bell, in his excellent book The Art of War for Writers, says fiction readers want to worry. I had to stop and think about that, and I realized he is right. People read novels because they want to get involved with characters who are in confrontations and difficult relationships that stretch them, show why they’re different, and change them in some way.

That’s where conflict comes in.

Conflict is from the Latin conflīctus: a striking together; a fight; a contest.

In literary terms, conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. It’s the emotional battle that is usually prolonged throughout the story and resolved by the end. Conflict is what drives the plot and keeps the reader turning the pages, wondering who or what is going to win.

Types of conflict

There are three terms that sum up the types of conflict you’ll find in fiction writing.

  • Internal: inner, psychological tendencies, self-doubt, addiction. The character disagrees with himself.
  • Relational: protagonist vs. antagonist; couples; friendships. Personality clashes.
  • External: situations outside of the protagonist that are obstacles. Society, forces of nature, supernatural.

You’ll find other terms and longer lists for conflict types, but these are the three I found that make it easy to remember.

Characteristics of conflict

Here is a roll call of words that are used to describe conflict.

  • struggle, battle, opposition,
  • controversy, quarrel, discord
  • strife, antagonism, contention
  • collision, disagreement, contradiction
  • clash, confrontation, interference

That’s a garden of words to help you stretch your understanding of conflict in a work of literature. While you think about your story, use these and other words you find to gauge your conflict level.

Examples from literature

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is an example of internal conflict. The unnamed protagonist is battling with guilt after committing a murder.

Relational conflict can be seen in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the Southern belle and the rogue, are more alike than they seem.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus must risk his children being hurt (physically and emotionally) if he is to continue living by his moral standard. This is an example of external conflict. There is conflict on different levels and in different characters throughout this story, but the overarching conflict is Atticus and his commitment to protecting his children.

Are you conveying emotions and actions of conflict through your scenes and dialogue? Are your characters giving your readers the worry and concern that they crave? Be sure that your writing contains enough conflict to keep your readers turning the page.

This post is part of my Know Your Writing Terms series. Visit my writing terms page for links to all the posts in this series.

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8 thoughts on “Know your writing terms: Conflict

  1. I love the last line in your quote from Mockingbird. Great book/movie!
    That last line is so true. To do what you feel is right at a given time can be very difficult and unpopular. Regardless, it brings some measure of inner peace.

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    1. Hi, Sandy — I’m reading Mockingbird again, something I try to do every summer. Not only is the writing excellent, but so is the wisdom she expresses throughout the story. I love that you came to visit my blog. Come again soon!

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  2. Nice post. Loved the examples! You mentioned several of my favorite novels/short stories. I’m a big Poe fan and The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my favorites. It is a beautiful example of internal conflict. This is great to keep in mind when we work on our own writing. If we have no conflict then we have no story. Thanks for the tips!

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    1. I feel like I’m in school again as I do research for my posts, and I’m loving it. I think I was in junior high when we read The Tell-Tale Heart and then watched a film version, probably this one. To this day I remember how creepy it made me feel — his thoughts, all the sounds the murderer was imagining was the heart. Good storytelling sticks with you!

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    1. I could see those characters in the short story you posted recently. Lots of conflict there! Thanks so much for honoring this blog with the Sunshine Award. I’ll be over to check it out.

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  3. Great post, Darla. Conflict is really the only reason we keep turning the pages, we want to see what will happen next. If events sort themselves out and no one is in trouble on one level or another, then the book grows stale.

    When I teach children, this is the one big thing I try to nail into their heads because children in general don’t see conflict as being anything but car explosions. Conflict can be about anything that causes the protag worry–and ultimately the reader. (Of course, this is a very simplistic view of conflict, but I am dealing with 8 year olds.)

    I tell them that you want to get your protag in trouble, and then you want to make that trouble worse. This helps them understand how to throw in a problem that needs to be solved at the end.

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    1. How fun and rewarding it must be to teach children how to write stories. And I like that simplistic definition. It’s a good way to explain it to anyone who’s new to the craft. Thanks for sharing it.

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