Being a Better Writer: Embracing Conflict in All its Forms

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, and another Being a Better Writer article is upon us! Though first, I do have two bits of news. Don’t worry, they’re both short.

First up, Being a Better Writer has opened another topic call, and that means it’s time for you to submit your ideas for writing topics you’d like to see BeBW cover! We always open up the Topic List to suggestions when we start building another one, and inevitably we get some great suggestions from readers, so if there’s a topic you’d like to hear about, let it be known on the topic call post! Make a comment!

Our second bit of news? I may do a post on this later, but I saw Sonic the Hedgehog 2 over the weekend. Remember how I blasted the new Halo show for making all the obvious terrible choices with a video game adaptation? Well, Sonic 2 is the opposite of that. In fact, my one sentence review of the movie would have to be “Everything Halo does wrong Sonic 2 does right.” I had an absolute blast, laughed myself silly, and grinned until my face hurt. Granted, I grew up playing the Genesis Sonic titles relentlessly (to the degree that some bugs, exploits, and secrets on the web I actually discovered and authored), so I love the series. But either way, I had a blast watching this film, and if you even somewhat enjoyed the first one I’d say it’s a sure bet you’ll have a lot of fun with the second. And they’ve already green-lit the third as well as a live-action show that tells Knuckles’ story so I am 100% on board here.

Okay, I did say the news was short and sweet. Delivered on! So, what are we talking about today when it comes to writing?

Well, this is a topic we’ve discussed before in vary degrees, but it came up once again during a conversation I saw online the other day, in which someone offered their opinion about a book, but said opinion raised a few eyebrows. Not because “Hey, your opinion bad” but more because their opinion was a bit, shall we say, odd.

Effectively, they’d left their thoughts on a book but were somewhat critical of it for not having any “traditional” action scenes, so to speak, stating that they weren’t sure who would be interested in a book that didn’t have any traditional battles or fight scenes, or why there would be anyone who would prefer anything that wasn’t guns, magic, action, etc. Basically, though the book had conflict, they believed that because it wasn’t violent conflict, the book therefore had low appeal because who wouldn’t want violent, action-filled conflict. They then backed that statement by declaring that this made it a “less mature” version of something else they liked.

Again, all because it lacked action and violence with its conflict, instead focusing on social conflict and bloodless battles of voice and opinion.

The issue here is … They’re wrong. And I’ll openly say that. Just because a book doesn’t have violent conflict in a physical sense does not mean that a story doesn’t have conflict, nor that the majority of people don’t want to read it.

In fact, statistically, the most embraced conflict in books is not violence, I would argue, but emotional conflict. My support for that statement? Romance books. They’re about 33% of book industry total sales or so, depending on who you ask and whether you count non-fiction, and the largest genre overall.

And Romance books? They’re not full of guns, bullets, sword fights, and the action-adventure peril. They’re full of a very different kind of action. And not the obvious joke, either. Most romance books are about social conflict rather than “How many dudes can this dude kill?” There might be a single action scene a climax, like a sword duel (yes yes, laugh) between two rival love interests or something, but overall, the point of the book is not to deliver death-defying action and peril.

Don’t get me wrong, those books do exist, even in romance. Spy thrillers and the like do mix Romance with deadly peril. But it’s far from every romance book.

Which means this internet poster’s stance is just completely off-base. Their issue was that they were thinking of “conflict” as required by any story to be action or violence, rather than any of the other forms conflict can take.

So hit that jump, and today let’s talk about other forms of conflict that can feature in your stories, and how these are still valid forms of conflict!

Because your story doesn’t have to have a gun fight or a sword duel in it to have “conflict.” Conflict is a wide range, and your story can pick and choose from all across that spectrum for the story you want to tell. Hit the jump!

Now, most of you regulars probably expected this part of the post to transition into “What is conflict?” but nope, we’re not doing that with this post. Largely because it’d almost be redundant. Public education might be the absolute dumps in the United States (thereby setting the low bar), especially where a lot of English is concerned, but one thing I must concede that they do teach reasonably well is the various forms of conflict.

Surprise number two now, we’re not actually going to talk about those either. Man VS Nature, Man VS Self, etc etc etc: I am going to operate on the assumption that you know these forms of conflict. If you’d like to see a Being a Better Writer post diving into them (or a few), then go leave a comment on the Topic Call post. But in the meantime, I assume that most of you are quite familiar with this idea. Which means we don’t need to talk about it either.

Why? Because each of those classic forms of conflict can still be turned into an action-adventure gun-fight extravaganza. Often they are.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with writing fun fight scenes and life-threatening peril. I do it all the time.

But that’s not the only way we can have conflict in our story. Not all forms of conflict are violent, action-packed, or perilous.

Instead, they can be subtle, insidious, tense, or even comedic, all without resorting to direct, physical violence.

This concept is best, I feel, illustrated through examples, so let’s go over a few. Say you have a protagonist that is a chief diplomat for a fantasy kingdom. Their aim, as ordered by their ruler, is to keep the peace with another nation that they serve as a diplomat to. Unfortunately, things are tense. This other nation is undergoing a resource shortage, which has driven tensions to high levels, and while the kingdom our protagonist represents has a lot of that resource, they’re using it. They’d also likely win a war if it came to that, but not without the loss of potentially tens of thousands of lives, one of which is a close relative of the protagonist. Worse still, the ruler of the other kingdom is aggressively pushing for a conflict, since they feel it will cement their power, even if they lose.

Now, imagine writing out a scene or a chapter in which this diplomat has a meeting with a representative of this other ruler. Can you imagine how the tension might pile up as these two representatives, each with very different goals, do “battle” with one another using words and faint promises or assurances, each trying to secure their own “victory” over the other? The scene may not have blades, guns, and immediate peril like a collapsing building … but each and every word spoken by the pair could carry such weight that the sense of peril would still be very present. A single wrong word, stepping too far or not stepping far enough, could plunge the kingdom into a war that would kill tens of thousands. All those lives, in that moment, ride on whether or not the protagonist is forceful enough with their words, stance, and phrasing.

That is conflict. And it can be masterfully tense. Conflict in stories is any time in which two ideals, characters, factions, etc, create friction with one another, and that is such a broad set of tools that it’d be foolhardy to restrict it to “conflict is just action and violence.”

Sands, some of the best scenes of conflict that people grasp on to sometimes have no actual violence or action. Take, for example, this very famous scene from No Country for Old Men. If you’ve never seen the film, don’t worry. Even if you know nothing, just watch this scene. Think about the conflict here. Does it keep your attention, even though there’s no action or violence to it, being just two people talking?

Now, there is the threat of violence, yes. Same is true above with our diplomatic example. So let’s ponder something with no violence or threat of violence whatsoever and ask if such could still be interesting?

Let us say that our protagonist now is no longer a diplomat, but a baker. They arise each morning at four, bake items fresh for their shop, and then sell them to customers.

But not everything is straightforward and easy. They’ve got a lot of debt to manage that they took out to buy their shop. The price of flour is rising, and that’s making some of their costs come very close to being a net loss in the end. If things go bad for even a few weeks, they could lose their shop, but if they can just sell a little more bread or find a way to boost that income …

That’s conflict! There’s no action, but there’s very clearly peril: This character could lose everything. And if we care about that character, then we, as readers, will care about the danger of them losing everything.

I want to step back and focus on this aspect for a moment: Character. Specifically, the audience caring about the character. Regardless of conflict, as creators we should want our audience to empathize with and care for our character. If they don’t, it admittedly will be more difficult to make our stakes stand out.

Perhaps this is why comments like the one that inspired this post exist then, as it’s almost always easy to get someone invested in a building blowing up or a spaceship shooting at another spaceship. Such conflict can effectively be made without even plot or character, and people will still become invested in it.

But for something like losing a bakery … well … “Okay, so what?” can become the common reply from viewers who don’t have a reason to empathize.

Give that same reader an understanding of the character, a connection to them, however, and you can have them sweating in panic when the protagonist goes in for a meeting with their banker to discuss the loan on their shop.

I suppose that what I’ve really been getting at is that any situation that in the real world would create stress, tension, fear, satisfaction, pressure, etc, can be used to do the same in a story we write, and can be used as a source of conflict. Whether it’s fear and panic over a romantic situation or trying to make ends meet so that we can afford to eat … these conflicts can be gripping and fascinating.

As I’ve said before in the course of other Being a Better Writer posts, conflict doesn’t need to be world ending. It doesn’t need to come with bullets and blood, or destruction and dismemberment. Conflict can be as straightforward as a would-be warrior doubting themselves, or the inability of a parent to see eye-to-eye with their child (and let’s be honest, that last one is probably more relatable for most of us than a doomsday device).

This isn’t to say that doomsday devices and action-adventure are bad. Not at all. However, the inverse also applies: Conflict born of personal relationships or “down to Earth” setups is still conflict, and can be used to great effect to drive your story forward and put your characters through a wringer.

And look, any conflict, even the banal, can be fascinating when we care about the characters and what happens to them. An invested audience may not themselves have much interest in whether or not they went to the prom (I, for example, never did), but we can still be sucked into the conflict of whether or not a character will make it if we care about the character and the character cares about that.

I’m not even kidding here. I never cared to go to my own prom. My interest level was zero. But I have read books and webcomics where while I might not care, the character cares, and I want the character to succeed and be happy. So now I care. No guns and action needed.

So where does that leave us, as creators? Well, I’d like to suggest two things to take away from this. The first is that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to conflict of violence. That’s not to say we should avoid it, but rather that violent conflict should just be one of the forms of conflict we recognize in our writer’s toolbox, waiting to be used. We should be willing to make use of all the various forms of conflict to give our story tension and drive. Any sort of conflict, written well, can result in an audience that is fully invested and flipping page after page.

Secondly, never forget that as creators, one of the most important things we can do with our characters is get the audience to care about them. Even the most “frivolous” of conflicts takes on weight when it happens to someone we care about, fictitious or not. If we as authors and creators do our best to get out audience to empathize with our characters wants, needs, and goals, even if the conflict isn’t something that they personally would find difficult or even a conflict, they can still enjoy the experience through that character.

So don’t short-change yourself when it comes to conflict. Conflict is vast, reaching across all stories, and whether it involves giant space mechs or two kids struggling to understand one another, it can be fascinating, gripping, and riveting.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Being a Better Writer and Unusual Things are kept advertisement free thanks to the donations of our Patreon Supporter crew: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Brown, Lightwind, Boomer, 22ndTemplar, Piiec, Wisehart, Sarah, and Taylor!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Embracing Conflict in All its Forms

  1. One of the best conflicts I’ve seen in writing is Shard of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a war story, a romance, a horror show, a mystery, and the expansion of an entire interstellar community all in one. The villains are seen as heroes and the boy gets the girl in the end… with some caveats.

    In the pony fandom, one of the best uses of conflict over *small* things is Pinkie Watches Paint Dry (which is exactly what it says on the label)


  2. Okay., excellent point on caring about the conflict. I know I was asking for advice on how to successfully write conflict, and the take-away here is clearly step 0 – have characters the readers care about for the conflict to become meaningful.
    Let’s be honest – relatable characters is probably the most basic premise to writing. If I’m writing a story, and you can’t relate to the characters in it, nor bring yourself to care about them, how long and more to the point,why will you be sticking around?
    Beyond that, some writers excel at laying out riveting tales of conflict, both martial and mundane. Tom Clancy comes to mind, both in his treatments of battling terrorists, global campaigns in a war, or navigating the intricacies of his characters marital relationships. There is a art to the craft of writing these dramas that when done well raises the story to a higher level.
    Thanks Max!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s