How We Write: Central Conflict

Without conflict, your story has no forward momentum. Your characters have no motivation to act. There’s no goal they can’t achieve. So, in commercial fiction at least, there’s no reader engagement, no matter how well what you’ve written is, well, written. For lack of a better analogy, you need combustion that will lead the reader to expect some future explosion that’ll keep them on the hook through the rest of the wonderful things you plan to do.


And I’m not just talking about suspense plots.In addition to writing (and now editing) romantic suspense as well as crafting sci-fi/fantasies that are full-on thrillers, I also write home and family dramas (straight contemporary romance) where the same level of escalating conflict and tension must still exist, in order for the reader to care enough to turn the page.

Conflict is how readers identify with your characters. It’s how the story transports the reader through a purely fictional journey. How deeply do the dilemmas you put the protagonist through resonate? How carefully do you craft the internal motivation and goals and tension the character must resolve, and are there external factors (anchors and stumbling blocks) that drive that person to do and behave and learn and grow and fail and, ultimately, succeed?

Conflict IS NOT petty arguments and bickering between the leads.


Misunderstanding and arguing and coincidence and a character emoting her feelings to someone else until the other person, finally, understands and “gets” her at the end of the book isn’t conflict.

Conflict is active things happening on the page to thwart a protagonist from achieving an external goal (which, in turns, mirrors, and mucks up, the internal journey the character must complete, in order to get what she needs).

Here’s Bob Mayer’s excellent technique for isolating the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist of a story, so that you have escalating tension to drive your plot from beginning to end. He calls it Conflict Lock.


In this blog post, he further explains how this central conflict must exist in every scene and act of your story, from beginning to end.

This isn’t a new concept, but crafting strong, believable central, character-driven external conflict is difficult, and a lot of us delay learning the technique.

Crafting compelling, believable, active conflict is an intermediate creative novel writing skill. Whatever you’re designing in the book’s external reality must drive your protagonist (and antagonist) to behave the way he/she does. It must also drive internal struggles and growth,  so the characters arc in believable, plot-driven ways from the beginning to the end of the story. For most of us, this type of detailed attention to the mechanics of storytelling takes time and effort and analysis to achieve. Too many writers don’t make that time in their process.

Something active and external, and active and internal, needs to be at stake in every scene. These two components have to be linked and pushing the plot (and the reader’s expectation that something even more interesting is about to happen) forward. Even in the family dramas that I write, there have to be very real goals and motivation and reasons why what the lead character is doing isn’t going to achieve what he/she wants, until the very end of the story–because of the conflict/dilemma I continually, carefully, put in the way as the story and the character arcs. That journey through all those landmines is the plot that, ultimately, should appear effortlessly drawn to the reader–after a hell of a lot of work.

This week’s writing challenge is to spend some time analyzing the plot/characters’ central conflict, in your current project.

Use Bob’s techniques or anyone else’s you prefer. But nail that lock between your protagonist’s internal/external needs and goals and the conflict being created by competing internal/external needs and goals of the antagonist you’ve created.

Then report back. Let me know how it’s going ;o)

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5 Responses to “How We Write: Central Conflict”

  1. Excellent blog and writers should be aware of their stories not having conflict prior to submitting to publishers.

  2. Hi Anna,

    I didn’t get a chance to attend Bob Mayer’s workshop – this is really useful. Thank you so much for posting. :-)

  3. Kristen Lamb says:

    Great post and I always enjoy it when you post writing lessons. Learning every day :D . What I think is critical for new authors to understand is that authentic conflict and a “bad situation” are totally different animals. One births drama and the other births the ugly step-sister melodrama. Les Edgerton does an excellent job of explaining this in his book “Hooked” … another favorite next to Bob’s teachings.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Exactly, Kristen. I’ve heard Bob and many other craft teachers say the exact same thing, that authentic conflict isn’t the same thing as being in a bad situation that you must fight your way out of.

  5. Justin Mazza says:

    Hi Anna,
    I wonder if you can write blog posts the same way? I think that I will try it next time.

    I plan on writing a fiction novel soon and I will use what I learned here to help me with that.

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