Monday, October 7, 2013

Conflict: The Building Block of Compelling Fiction

Photo Credit: 123RF 
On Saturday, author of The Taker Trilogy, Alma Katsu, spoke to Washington Romance Writers about one of the building blocks of any story--conflict. Katsu, who earned a Masters’ degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, equipped writers in attendance with tools to analyze and fix their own fiction when it falls flat--whether they’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction.

While we’re all programmed to avoid conflict, however, it's the tension created by conflict that is the driving force that creates a page-turner for your readers. Katsu argued that conflict is not the straight, steep uphill climb writers have been taught, but a jagged up-and-down ascent that moves upward until the climax and d√©nouement.

Conflict is every barrier that keeps a protagonist (or character) from obtaining their goal and can be either internal or external. We should use conflict to develop plot as well as reveal character and it applies to all characters, but it’s not the same as story or plot. Conflict is multi-layered. It drives your story forward and it adds dimension to your characters.

Katsu identified four types of conflict that are in every good story: central conflict; underlying, or chronic conflict; internal conflict; and transient conflict. If you’re finding your scene flat, you should analyze each scene, identifying the conflict. One or more of these four types of conflict should be in every scene. You need to ask yourself, "Do events resolve too easily?" If the answer is yes, then ask a second question: "What’s the worst thing that could happen here." Then make it happen.

Each step of progress your character makes should be met with opposition and setbacks in some form. By charting out your character’s goals and progress through the story, you can also see if you’ve inserted enough opposition to create the conflict and tension you need to keep your readers interested and reading.

The workshop provided excellent information and tools for any writer to improve their craft. Katsu is hoping to present a variation of this workshop at RWA Nationals in San Antonio next July. I’d recommend that you catch her talk wherever you can. For a list of her upcoming events, see below.

She’s a great teacher with a different angle on conflict that gives any writer concrete, actionable steps to adding conflict to every single scene of their books. You don’t want to miss her practical wisdom because conflict is the bedrock of your fiction writing!

Find Alma on her website at:



Blog Question: So what's your experience with conflict in your fiction? Is it hard or easy for you to see and build in? And who have you found does it really well?


  1. Love this blog, MacKenzie. I attended the Alma Katsu workshop, too, and you have distilled it perfectly. You brought out all the important points she made around conflict and re-emphasized how important it is. You hear about conflict all the time, but never was there a clearer tool to diagnose you own around conflict. It is such an important element of writing. You use conflict so well in your stories. Thank you, again, Mackenzie, for all your great insights on the workshop. I appreciate hearing the information again from your point of view. It's such a great topic.

  2. I've always understood the central and internal conflicts in stories (not saying I'm an expert, just that I know we need them): A land developer and an environmentalist want the same piece of land for different reasons - central conflict. They are attracted to each other, but the land developer feels unworthy of love because he's balding and has a paunch - internal conflict.

    The discussion of chronic and transient conflict was an eye-opener.

    One of Katsu's examples for chronic conflict was a mystery where the protagonist has just been diagnosed with MS. Now his actions and thoughts are constantly bounded by how the current situation affects his condition. (In my own WIP, my hero is a newly turned werewolf. For the purposes of the story, his struggle with this new reality is his chronic conflict).

    Katsu explained transient conflict as things like a cell phone dying, not being able to catch a cab on a rainy day, the cat puking on the carpet. Relatively minor setbacks that can have huge consequences on the story. (Speaking of cabs, I keep thinking of An Affair to Remember - Deborah Kerr's character gets impatient as she travels to reunite with her lover. Transient conflict - stuck in traffic. She leaves the vehicle in a rush and is horribly injured. So even what might seem like a passing challenge can end up having a huge impact on our characters.

    It was a fascinating talk. Thanks for the recap, Mackenzie!

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  4. My bad--thank you MACKENZIE for the great write up. You are a great notetaker. And I want to thank everyone who came--I think we had a great exchange of thoughts. I learned a lot, too!

  5. Every time I hear something about this workshop I sigh - so sorry to have missed it, but what a great recap - thank you!!!!

  6. Deborah ~ Yes, there we lots of nuances to what I've overviewed here, too. So glad I was there to hear them. But the good thing is Alma might offer it again at another venue soon for all those who missed the conflict chat. ;0)

    It is a great topic & so integral to what we do as writers. Thanks for commenting today! I appreciate it. ~ M.L.

  7. Good examples of the nuances she talked about, Keely. Thanks for adding to the discussion today! Appreciated. ;0) ~ M.L.

  8. Alma ~ It was a wonderful workshop. I only got to attend the morning session, so I missed the hands-on application part in the afternoon with the two sample scenes submitted.

    You're a gifted teacher and bring a whole new perspective to the topic of conflict. I appreciated your presentation to our group! Look forward to hearing more from you. ;0) Thanks for visiting us today! ~ M.L.

  9. I know, Denny. The workshop was excellent. Thank you for coordinating it!

    The good news is we'll have an audio recording for members loaded to the WRW Online Library within two weeks for those of you who missed it.

    I think everyone who attended the workshop got a lot out of it. ~ M.L.

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  11. Thanks for doing a great overview of the workshop. I missed it as well due to a family commitment so I will definitely have to catch it the next time I have an opportunity.

  12. I always love this topic! Thanks, Mackenzie, for sending along your notes, and a special thanks to Alma for presenting her insights in the first place!

    I recently read a review of Ben Stiller's upcoming movie, based on James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Sadly, the critic said it lacked conflict. I hope he's wrong! A story without conflict can't go anywhere. And I've always loved Thurber. I'd hate to think his story had the conflict pulled out of it. Who will like it then?

  13. Mackenzie Lucas and Keely Thrall, thanks for the very useful overview of this so important topic. I'm not afraid of conflict in my personal life or on my on-page character's lives - HA!- but it is so important to understand how integral conflict and tension are to any story. Without that driving 'what's going to happen next' the story is less than it could be. I've loved Alma Katsu's blog for a long time, I will definitely attend any workshop she does next.

  14. Nichole ~ It could be that it contains one or two of the four types of conflict that Katsu details, but is missing a component that viewers still need. So when the reviewer says it lacks conflict--he may not really mean it lacks all conflict, just the layered conflict that makes a piece compelling.

    Thanks for chiming in, Nichole!

  15. Emelle ~ Yes, you handle conflict very well in your own stories and create that compelling aspect for your readers.

    What I found most interesting with Katsu's workshop was that she gave us some very concrete tools to use to analyze and diagnose scenes where our conflict may not be up to snuff.

    Thanks for stopping by today!