Scene Middles: Middle = Conflict, Part 1 (of 3)

“Now: We’ve opened a potential scene,” as Jack Bickham says, “We have a character, we have a goal that relates to the story goal, and this short-term scene goal has been stated in no uncertain terms. What next?  It must be conflict.”

Why Conflict?

No conflict, no tension

“Look for conflicts,” says Syd Field, “make something difficult, more difficult. It adds tension.”

“Why is conflict so essential?” asks Larry Brooks, “Because conflict is, either directly or indirectly, the stuff that generates dramatic tension.”

“Remember: Complications fuel conflict. Conflict fuels suspense. Suspense keeps readers turning pages,” says Elizabeth Lyon.

No conflict, no emotion

“Conflict reveals your character’s emotions,” says Cheryl St.John.

“If an event doesn’t affect [Character’s] thoughts, emotions, or behavior, it’ll seem like an artifice that you stuck into the story just to prop up your plot,” says Steven James.

“Always remember that your primary goal as a writer and storyteller is to elicit emotion,” says Michael Hauge, “And emotion grows out of conflict, not desire. The most emotionally involving scenes in any [story] are those involving the overwhelming obstacles the character must face.”

No conflict, no bonding

“Conflict reveals your character’s emotions, and it’s emotion through which your reader identifies. If the conflict isn’t emotional for the character, it won’t be emotional for the reader. If you want the reader to care about these people—and you do—engage his feelings,” says Ms. St.John.

James N. Frey says, “[A] character will spring to life only when he is put to the test, when he is forced to make a decision and act. . . . A character’s response to obstacles, barriers, and conflict individualizes him, proves his characterization, and makes him real and distinct in the reader’s mine. . . . We see who the characters are by the way they respond to such resistance; conflict highlights and exposes them. Character, not action, is what interests readers most.”

“We sympathize with characters in conflict,” says Ms. St.John, “especially if the conflict is of their own making and they’re doing their best to change it. It’s through their reactions to the conflict that we learn who these people are and see what they’re truly made of. When we see them react, we learn something about them.”

No conflict, no meaning

“In drama nothing important happens except through conflict,” says Will Dunne, “There is always a problem to be solved. For each scene of your script, know what your character’s want, what problems they face, and why these problems must be tackled here and now. It is through a character’s struggle with conflict that we see how important an objective really is. Without such struggle, the dramatic action of a scene may seem flat, and any successful outcome of that action may feel unearned or inconsequential.”

“Conflict creates drama,” says William Noble, “and it establishes the focus of the action or the suspense to follow.”

No conflict, no resolution

“Narrative storytelling is all about conflict,” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost. “If you don’t have a series of scenes with some sort of conflict in them, you don’t have narrative. . . . Drama is about the resolution of a character’s problems and dilemmas. And problems and dilemmas arise when someone says, ‘You can’t do that’ or, ‘You mustn’t do this.’ In short, conflict is about someone saying no. A narrative can be thought of as a series of connected conflicts (with briding passgages in between) that are eventually resolved by one final, cathartic conflict.”

“[N]arrative storytelling (fiction and nonfiction) is about the interaction of characters and their goals,” says Rubie and Provost, “It is the clash of these goals and the need to resolve the conflicts that arise from this clash–not just plot advancement–that make a story a page-turner.”

No conflict, no movement

“The scene, you see, has conflict at its heart, but is not static,” says Mr. Bickham, “It is a dynamic structural component with a definite internal pattern which forces the story to move forward as the scene plays–and as a result of its ending.”

No conflict, no scene

“If nothing is getting in your character’s way, the scene won’t work,” says Rubie and Provost.

Character objectives do not cause scenes to happen unless they are difficult to achieve,” says Mr. Dunne.

“If a scene’s going to succeed, it’s because it serves up a clear goal, strong stakes, and intense conflict,” says Deborah Chester, “More scenes fail from lack of sufficient conflict than for any other reason.”

What is Conflict?

“Conflict is the reason your character can’t have what he wants,” says Debra Dixon, and it “is not an optional element.

“[C]onflict refers to what opposes the hero in a quest to achieve whatever it is he needs to do, win, accomplish, avoid, find, achieve, realize, understand, or otherwise attain,” says Mr. Brooks.

“Conflict is whatever stands in the way of a character achieving her motivation,” says Mr. Hauge, “It is the sum of all the obstacles and hurdles that the character must try to overcome in order to reach her objective.”

Conflict “means, simply, that the story contains someone or something struggling with someone or something and the outcome is in doubt,” says Mr. Noble.

Some ways of looking at conflict:

Conflict = “No”

“The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no,” says Rubie and Provost. “Stories are about characters trying to go in a specific direction and some force, some opposition, saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.'”

Conflict = Other Characters

“The most common source of conflict in drama is the other character,” says Mr Dunne.

“The driving force of the scene is conflict,” says Shawn Coyne, “One character is in pursuit of one thing and one or more characters are in pursuit of another. Only one desire can be fulfilled. So the two forces conflict. One will win and one will lose.”

“Conflict–the struggle between story characters over clear, stated goals–is the engine force of fiction,” says Mr. Bickham.

“Conflict is established when an antagonist interferes with the protagonist’s forward movement,” say Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld.

Conflict is “the give-and-take between two characters,” says Mr. Bickham.

“Conflict is anything that hinders your character’s effort to get what she wants,” says Ms. St.John, “Conflict is another person or a group of people stopping your character from reaching her goal.”

Conflict = Obstacles in the way

Conflict is present if “a character who wants something must overcome an obstacle to get it,” says Joseph Paul Gulino.

“Conflict is the obstacles or impediment your character must face in obtaining or achieving his goal,” says Ms. Dixon.

“Conflict is another name for opposition: a man trying to walk through a locked door.  It’s irresistable force meeting immovable object…two entities striving to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose,” says Dwight Swain. “This means that [Character is] going to have to fight if he’s to get his way, achieve his goal.”

Conflict in drama is anything that makes a character’s objective difficult to achieve,” says Mr. Dunne, “Simply put, conflict is obstacle. It’s whatever the character must overcome in order to succeed. Conflict is often equated with argument–which is indeed a common and obvious type of conflict–but obstacles can take many other forms as well. In fact, anything, even love, can be a problem if it gets in the way of what a character wants.”

Conflict = Resistance

“Conflict is the collision of characters’ desires with resistance–from nature, from other characters, from the spirit world, from outer space, from another dimension, from within themselves, from anywhere,” says Mr. Frey.

Specific Sources of Conflict

“[T]he opposition element can be outer (as in another character) or inner (as in the character’s psychology and thought patterns). Further you can have social opposition. . . . Finally, nature itself can provide opposition in a scene,” says James Scott Bell.

Person vs. Self

“Every scene should have . . . Inner [conflict]: The character’s emotional argument with himself,” says Mr. Bell.

More on inner conflict in a later post.

Person vs. Past or Future

Mr. Dunne asks, “How might the past create conflict in the present for your Character 1?” and “How might future possibilities contribute to the conflict your Character 1 faces here and now?”

External Conflict

“If you can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it…that’s external,” says Ms. Dixon.

“External conflicts are circumstances and other characters,” says Ms. St.John.

“Outer conflict is whatever stands in the way of a character achieving his outer motivation,” says Mr. Hauge, “Outer conflict will be provided either by other characters . . . or by characters combined with forces of nature.”

“Active conflict points more to the action plot that originates outside the character: She moves toward her goal, and something blocks her forward progress,” says Alderson and Rosenfeld.

“External conflict can be used to keep characters together. External conflict does not keep characters apart emotionally,” says Ms. St.John.

A. Person vs. Person

“[W]riters can utilize a variety of [person vs person] conflict types such as . . .

  • “Combat–Combat can be hand-to-hand, with weapons, through magic, or mental.” (Deborah Chester)
  • “Verbal Disagreement–Such conflict can be quite mild or it can escalate to loud, abusive shouting, depending on the stakes and the emotional state of the characters involved.” (Deborah Chester)
  • “Interrogation–One character is asking questions, grilling the other character that either refuses to answer or is lying. Interrogation lends itself to different intensity levels, but it always carries at least a hint of intimidation and threat. (Deborah Chester)
  • “Evasion . . . one individual wants to discuss something that the other is unwilling to deal with. . . . Writing effective evasion is tricky. If you’re not careful, you can split the focus of the scene and lose control of its conflict.” (Deborah Chester)
  • “Bickering–The petty, low-level picking at each other that children, co-workers, and some spouses may stoop to at time, bickering is generally mild conflict . . . If over-used or allowed to become circular, it can become irritating to readers. Bickering seldom advances the plot. That’s why I recommend that you reserve it for side characters. Use it to illustrate their natures. It also works very well in providing comic relief.” (Deborah Chester)
  • Another Character’s Action. That is, “the actions of your antagonist(s) to thwart the efforts of your protagonist to reach the story goal.” (Elizabeth Lyon)
  • “Another character’s needs. In a dramatic story the forces of conflict need to be complex and challenging. They can arise from many different sources. The most common source of conflict is the other character, one who wants something contrary or contradictory to what the main character wants. . . . In your scene, how might another character’s needs post obstacles to the scenic objective?” (Will Dunne)
  • “Another character’s traits. The main character’s scene objective also may be threatened by the physical, psychological or social traits of another character. These obstacles may be inherent to the other character, such as defining personality traits, or temporary, such as current physical or emotional states. . . . In your scene, how might the other character’s traits get in the way of the scenic objective?” (Will Dunne)
  • Character attitudes. “You can create tension, suspense, and conflict by creating clear contrast and distinction among the attitudes of the characters. Emphasize the variety in their perspectives, and push them to be more active in expressing them.” (Jim Mercurio)
  • “Personal traits. Character 2’s physical, psychological, or social traits often contribute to Character 1’s conflict in a scene. . . . Think about what your Character 1 wants now? What personal traits of Character 2 could make this objective difficult to achieve?” (Will Dunne)
  • “Emotional state. Character 2’s feelings can be another source of conflict for Character 1. . . . How might Character 2’s emotional state make it difficult for your Character 1 to achieve the scenic objective?” (Will Dunne)
  • “Mental state. Character 2 may also have ideas, beliefs, memories that spell trouble for Character 1. . . . How might Character 2’s mental state make it difficult for your Character 1 to achieve the scenic objective?” (Will Dunne)
  • “Behavior. In many dramatic scenes, conflict results because Character 2 wants something contrary or contradictory to what Character 1 wants. . . . How might Character 2’s actions make your Character 1’s scenic objective difficult to achieve? (Will Dunne)
  • Dialogue. “Don’t hesitate to use dialogue at cross-purposes once in a while as a scene-building device. Such dialogue can be defined as story conversation in which the conflict is not overt, but where the antagonist either doesn’t understand what’s really at issue, or is purposely nonresponsive to what the lead character keeps trying to talk about. Dialogue at cross-purposes, or nonresponsive behavior by an antagonist, will be experienced by both the lead character and the reader as conflictual. . . . One caveat, however: The use of this dialogue device cannot substitute for genuine conflict over the length of many chapters. It is for occasional use only, when information must be transmitted to the reader through a story conversation, and the author wants to avoid the dullness of one character simply lecturing the other about facts the reader needs to be told.” (Jack Bickham)

“In a scene, two people–men, women, or children, in any combination–may not necessarily be having a fight, but there’s something antagonistic between them,” says Rubie and Provost. Put another way, “[C]onflict doesn’t mean necessarily that two people are in complete opposition. They may be total enemies, or they may be pretty much in agreement, but there should be some area of conflict, distrust, or disagreement between them that has to be overcome.”

B. Person vs. Environment

“Conflict in a scene can arise from the setting and what’s in it,” says Mr. Dunne, “Keep your Character 1’s objective in mind as you consider physical life as a potential source of conflict.”

Environment complications could include:

  • “External situation. Characters often find themselves in situations with social, economic, political, physical, or other dimensions that make their objectives difficult to achieve. . . . How might the circumstances of the scene pose obstacles to the scenic objective?” (Will Dunne)
  • “obstacles, such as the weather and temperature . . . environmental factors . . . human-made obstacles . . . social forces.” (Elizabeth Lyon)
  • Social . . . Rules or circumstances of the community. (James Scott Bell)
  • “Setting. . . . How might the setting for your scene add to the conflict your Character 1 faces here and now?” (Will Dunne)
  • “Object or physical element. . . . What object or physical element here could add to Character 1’s conflict?” (Will Dunne)

Contrast / Subverted Expectations

William Noble says, “Most readers have expectations about characters, story settings, and story tone and mood. . . . We use expectations to structure our lives and to keep everything orderly and predictable. Good for getting us through the days. But not so good for writing a lively story. Expectations are like cliches . . . They leave no surprise, no uncertainty . . . [so] look for contrasts, differences that skewer expectations and build dramatic impact.” Opportunities to subvert reader expectations can be found in characterization, descriptions, physical settings, tone and mood, character choices and reactions, etc.

That’s it for Part 1

We’ll see you on Monday for Part 2.

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Related Posts

Conflict is a fractal tool; it applies at the macro story level (the concept and plot level) as well as the scene level and other levels too. So when working on your scene conflict, keep your macro conflict in mind as well.


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