Pub Rants

Got Conflict?

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STATUS: I started my day on the phone with the tech people on why I could send email but people weren’t receiving them. I have to say that computer or email tech problems rank up there as high stress. Still, it’s just a complication—not a conflict.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? JUNGLE LOVE by Steve Miller Band

My author Linnea Sinclair gave a great workshop this weekend and a point she made in her class really crystallized an issue I often see in sample pages—and that’s the problem of writers confusing complication with conflict. They are not the same.

And here’s a good way to explain the difference.

Let’s say that a man and woman decide to head out to the park to have a romantic picnic. They have wine, cheese, and other yummy foods that incite romantic inclinations such as little smooches etc.

Suddenly the picnic is overrun by red ants (or something equally nasty) and the couple must spring apart and it derails the picnic.

This is a complication—not a conflict. The ants are simply present (and would be if the couple was there enjoying the picnic or not).

Now, let’s set up the same scenario with the couple, the wine & cheese, and the romantic picnic. Instead of ants showing up, the man’s wife appears on the scene.

That’s conflict!

Conflict is always personal.

Linnea also pointed out that misunderstanding, distrust, and coincidence are all minor complications (and not conflict). I see this in manuscript sample pages a lot too. The writer is relying on some big secret misunderstanding that if known, would have made it a non-story. That if the two main characters had just had a chance to talk about what they weren’t getting, then problem solved.

And I know as a reader, I always feel cheated if I read a work and ultimately it’s just a miscommunication. Makes me feel like the rug was pulled out from underneath me.

Now you can layer these complications into a manuscript. Just don’t mistake it for being the conflict.

14 Responses

  1. Kimber An said:

    Exactly, Jena. Like most readers, I don’t really think about this reason why a story makes me groan and toss it. Recently, I read and reviewed a wonderful middle grade novel, ROWAN HOOD. Rowan rescues a princess and I remember groaning and thinking, “So the stink what? Ya can’t toss a tiara without hitting a dozen princesses in this section of the bookstore!” Almost tossed it. A few pages later, Rowan’s dad, Robin Hood, is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham and is set to be executed. Suddenly, it was personal and the heroine has to prove herself and save her dad. Great story.

  2. L.C.McCabe said:


    One of my favorite books that I’ve bought over a dozen times over, (because I kept lending it and never getting it back), is Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part by the late casting director Michael Shurtleff.

    His book was written for actors, but I’ve used it to understand what makes good drama.

    To sum his work into three words:

    Conflict is drama.

    I use that maxim whenever I’m writing.

    I highly recommend writers read that book and simply think of his advice in the inverse. This is what all good writers should be putting into their story for readers/actors/ to find.

    BTW, that book is a back list title published originally in 1978 and has never gone out of print. May all your clients have a book with such a sales record!


  3. Linnea Sinclair said:

    Credit where credit is due. A great deal of my understanding about conflict versus complication (and coincidence) came from noted SF author Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s site: JL is the creator of the Sime~Gen SF series and also is a noted Star Trek scholar. On top of all that, she’s a college prof and one danged great gal.

    Some great JL quotes on conflict: “Conflict generates plot.

    Story does not generate plot. Story just sits there. Story is INTERNAL CONFLICT, and it won’t grow, change, transmutate, or resolve WITHOUT the traction of the external situation that exactly mirrors that internal conflict.”

    And I love and use her definition of conflict: “an urgent and undeniable MUST prevented from materializing by an equally formidable CAN’T.”

    When you really consider those, you see why complication/distrust/co-inkydink and magic maps/alligators/loaded guns falling through the ceiling at JUST the right time don’t work.

    “The DISTRUST is a complication (or it could make a theme and a motif – or even comic relief),” JL writes on her site. “Learn the difference between a plot development and a complication — confuse them and you bore the reader.”

    Truer words were never spoken. I SO look forward to meeting the lady for the first time at Archon in St. Louis this coming August. ~Linnea

  4. John B said:

    The writer is relying on some big secret misunderstanding that if known, would have made it a non-story.

    Ahh…the Three’s Company school of storytelling.

  5. Kimber An said:

    Oh, Linnea, I so envy you getting to meet Jacqueline Lichtenberg! She is, like, THE Great Lady of Science Fiction. Another place the rest of you can find Jacqueline’s wisdom is the Alien Romance blog. She usually posts on Tuesdays.

  6. Jenny said:

    To throw a little devil’s advocacy into the mix: I just finished re-reading Pride and Prejudice and it’s pretty much based on miscommunications and misunderstandings 🙂

    Have only recently stumbled onto the blog, but am really enjoying it!

  7. Katherine Hyde said:

    Excellent point, Jenny. In P&P the miscommunications and misunderstandings are absolutely integral to the characters’ internal conflicts. Also, the plot doesn’t magically resolve the minute the misunderstandings are removed; that event only precipitates the characters’ self-evaluation and deliberate change. I think this deep examination of character is what makes P&P work.

  8. julia said:

    Linnea, your ‘must vs can’t’ quote was just the thing I needed to discover this evening. Thank you so much for your comment.

  9. Marsupialis said:

    We disagree with you, I’m afraid. The ants overrunning the picnic is in fact a disruption of the quotidian: the lives of the characters has been sent out of balance and they must now act and react to restore the balance. Just because the cause is external doesn’t make it not personal and not a conflict. But its importance seems trivial, certainly when compared to your second example.

    Instead of ants, substitute a moose, a rabid dog, a bear. No conflict? How do these characters respond to the external force applied to them? Your assumption seems to be that agents other than humans somehow can’t participate in conflict. I think a larger objection to the ant example is that it feels plotted precisely because it is external, because the characters are acted upon rather than creating action.

    A person walks down the street and a piece of building breaks off and falls on them, injuring them terribly. Conflict? The piece of the building was going to fall off whether or not they were there, just like the ants are there regardless of the picnickers.

    A person walks down the street and a piece of a building — torn off by the jet which has just slammed into the building’s side — falls on them and injures them terribly. Conflict? That’s part of the real-life events of 9-11.

  10. Dawn Chartier said:

    Kristin and Linnea –
    Thanks for sharing this info.
    The newbie writers really need to hear this. Keep on passing the tips and advice when you can.

    Much appreciated,
    Dawn Chartier