What Are You Looking At? Writing Conflict

“Only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love.” – E.M. Forster

One of the worst sins a writer can make is to have weak conflict. I’d argue that it’s worse than having an unlikable hero or cliche-ridden text. Without conflict, a book meanders around like a bored six-year-old without friends or an imagination on a rainy day. Reading such a book makes people grouchy. Very frickin’ grouchy.

There are three basic types of conflict and your story needs each kind:

1. Internal – This is when the hero must decide between two values. A great example of this is Copland. In it, a small town New Jersey sheriff, who always wanted to be a New York City cop, discovers that the NYC officers living in his town are all dirty. He must choose between helping to expose them – some of whom he’s known since high school – and, thus, throwing away his tenuous connection to being a big city police officer or turning a blind eye to their mob ties so he continue to be a peripheral part of the group.

2. Relational – This is the conflict between two characters and how they relate to each other. Take Out of Africa. In it Karen Blixen is in love with Denys, a big game hunter who values his personal freedom above all other things. The conflict comes from their different expectations from the relationship and what they want out of life. That they love each other is not in doubt, it’s whether love can overcome ingrained differences is.

3. External – As a romantic suspense writer, this one is right in my wheelhouse. It’s the big, bad thing forcing the hero into action. In the movie Snatch, hero Turkish has to get his boxer to go down in the fourth round or face the wrath of Brick Top – a villain known to feed his enemies chopped up bodies to pigs. At the same time, half the characters are chasing after a huge stolen diamond.

What are some of your favorite examples of conflict in a movie or novel?

About Avery Flynn

Writer. Smart Ass. Lover of Chocolate. Bringing steamy romance with a twist of mystery to the masses, one hot book at a time.

24 thoughts on “What Are You Looking At? Writing Conflict

  1. Good Morning Avery Mermaid,
    Yes, you definitely have a fantastic handle on all three of these, especially that suspenseful external conflict. It’s why I love your Layton series books so much! I find that I do internal and relational really well but then I remember, oh yeah, these people need to be doing something! As an avid reader, can you think of a book you’ve read that was non-suspense but had a great external plot? Thanks!

    1. Awwwww, thank you. 🙂 As to a non-suspense book with great external conflict, here are two:

      1. Gone With the Wind – The fight to stay alive while a war rages.
      2. You Dropped a Blonde on Me (Dakota Cassidy) – Getting her louse of an ex-husband to pay his alimony and child support.

  2. Oh, I forgot to say but I think the movie “Warrior” with Tom Hardy is a great example of all three of these types of conflict.

  3. Thanks for these terrific examples of conflict. I like how you placed them in different categories with video clips for each. Nice post!

    1. Thanks for joining us in the lagoon Suzanne! I love movies and find it really easy to use them as examples. Thank God for You Tube. 🙂

  4. Great examples, Avery. Weak conflict is about as important as weak characterization. We need to stir it all up and make it sizzle. I haven’t had my coffee yet so I’ll pass on movie recommendations but you had some good ones!

  5. Well you know more than most, Avery-Mermaid, that my concept of conflict = #fail. Oh well! Off to watch video clips now. Yay movies!

  6. Thanks for the very informative post. I never really thought about it, but I see how you need all three conflicts, and now I see why I didn’t like certain books. It all makes sense now.

    Also congrats on your USA Today reccomendation of Seduction Creek! Yay! As posted on Twitter, I will be wearing my I <3 Dry Creek shirt today in honor.

  7. Great post and fabulous examples Avery! You know me, I’m all about conflict in my stories, always thinking what else can I do to my hero or heroine? Or what would be the worst thing that could happen here?

    For examples, how about Braveheart… Here is a man haunted by the way his father died at English hands, but he is content to overlook that if he can settle down with the right girl and live a peaceful life, UNTIL an English nobleman comes along and slits her throat. Then voila we have a revolution.

    Or how about Avatar… The new guy, a crippled Marine, comes in to work in the science department as an Avatar Driver in his recently dead twin brothers place, but feels he must maintain his loyalty to the military side of things when asked to use his science position to spy on the indigenous population. However, the more he gets to know the science team and the indigenous population, he recognizes that the corporate and military players are greedy with no regard for life. He must choose between preserving life and crushing his ties to the military OR standing by while innocents are slaughtered.

  8. Avery,
    Great examples of conflict, and you’re absolutely right. Stories can NOT be sustained without lots of it.
    My favorites: Rocky (all of them, yes, even the last one); Cinderella Man; Gladiator. Hmmmm. Seeing a theme here. 🙂

  9. Conflict – the great manipulative tool of writers everywhere! Love it!

    One of my fave examples is the conflict of Mr. Rochester (played by Michael Fassbenfer, or course!) and his external and internal conflicts. No wonder he was so tortured!

  10. Avery, I think of the movie The Lord of the Rings. I discovered these movies too late to see them in the theater. I had never heard of the books. But you have several conflicts. Aragorn is conflicted that if he becomes king he will fail as his ancestor did. So he tries to stay a ranger but fate keeps pushing him towards being king. Of course we have Sam amd Frodo. Frodo gradually loses himself in the spell of the ring. Sam wants to help but he isn’t sure how until the end. He only knows he won’t dessert his best friend. I watched a good movie the other night BLOOD & CHOCOLATE where the heroine is a werewolf and falls in love with a mortal. She is already conflicted about her heritage. She doesn’t want to hunt. She only wants to run. The pack breaks the rule of never hunting on their home ground and the mortal all but destroys them. Lots of romance and conflict there.

  11. The movie for Blood and Chocolate is good, but as always the book is better (it’s also a different story).

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