Creating Conflict in Fiction: Only Trouble Is Interesting

“Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, necessary because in literature, only trouble is interesting.” —Janet Burroway, WRITING FICTION

In fiction, as in life, trouble comes in many forms. Confrontation. Impossible decisions. Disastrous consequences. Heartbreak. Danger. Anything that interferes with or prevents a character from getting what he or she wants. Without trouble, there’s no story.

One Ring to Rule Them All

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Here are just a few of the many, multi-layered conflicts surrounding the story’s primary quest to destroy the evil One Ring:

  • If not destroyed, the ring could fall back into the hands of the big, bad Dark Lord.
  • The only way to destroy it is to cast it into the fiery chasm from whence it came.
  • Said fiery chasm is far away in Mount Doom, deep within the evil domain of the super scary Dark Lord.
  • The ring tries to corrupt the very beings who swear to protect the ring bearer, putting his life, the quest, and the entire land at risk.
  • The Dark Lord and his evil minions constantly seek the ring, making crossing the lands treacherous for all.
  • If anyone uses the ring, the minions will immediately sense its power and be drawn to it.
  • The ring tempts everyone to use it, weakening them until almost none can resist.
  • There’s a whole ‘nother bunch of evil creatures trying to kick off a war… and so on.

If the wizard Gandalf had the power to destroy the One Ring with just a little hocus pocus, there would’ve been no long and arduous quest to Mount Doom. There would’ve been no fantasy trilogy for film director Peter Jackson to read, fall in love with, and make into a movie, and be warned, friends… that would be a sad, sad day in our shared history.

Without that movie, none of us would’ve seen Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn clad in leather and just the right amount of scruff get all up in the Dead Army King’s face with the best verbal bitch-slap ever: “You will suffer me!”


Ahem… as I was saying. Trouble. Conflict. It’s what makes story possible.

Making Trouble for Our Characters

Jessica Verday’s Let’s Talk Torture post got me thinking about what writers do to amp up conflict in our fiction. Like Jessica, I don’t generally set out to torture my characters, I just try to tell their stories. But if it’s all roses and easy street, the story fizzles out fast, creating no conflict but my inability to pay the bills when I can’t sell my books. Lucky for me, my agent is great at pointing out when a character’s life is going too smooth. “I really like this,” he might say. “But what can we do to raise the stakes here?”

In other words, how can we turn a ho-hum trip to the nurse’s office for a paper cut into a severed appendage during an earthquake where the character has to chose between saving her thumb or saving her secret crush’s prized Stradivarius violin that he inherited from his great-great grandfather—all that’s left of his family’s legacy—moments before the ceiling in the cafeteria caves in?

Got Conflict?

Writers, how do you cause trouble for your characters? Do you let the story roll out first, seeing what kinds of messes the characters get into on their own, or do you throw bombs in their paths from page one? Do you brainstorm a bunch of “what if” scenarios before writing, or test out different conflicts and ideas as you go? Do your agent or critique partners help you see where the stakes can and should be raised?

And readers, what do you think? How “amped up” do you like your fictional conflict? Do you prefer trouble that’s realistic and reflective of your own struggles in life, or do you like to read about characters whose difficulties are more magnified or exaggerated? What kind of trouble makes a good story for you?

Discuss. Argue. Throw down some verbal bitch-slaps. All in the name of a good story, right? 😉

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6 thoughts on “Creating Conflict in Fiction: Only Trouble Is Interesting

  1. The way I heard it told was “Put your character up in a tree and then throw rocks at him.” I mostly just TALK about writing rather than actually writing, but generally I think that if our characters are compelling and if their situations are remotely recognizable (lotsa people read science fiction) and if we as writers don’t wallow in tangents and written verbosity (as some of us are wont to do), then I think we have a chance. Because most of us by adulthood realize that truth is stranger than fiction, and thus giving up the “willing suspension of disbelief” for a story becomes easy. Though it’s easy in childhood, too, of course. Like this true story I just heard this weekend–my cousin’s friend has 10 adopted siblings–she’s her mother’s biological child, but the others are the offspring of a local crack whore who kept conceiving and delivering and dropping off the babies on the compulsorily adoptive mother’s doorstep a la Benjamin Button. I wouldn’t dare make something like that up, but there you go.

  2. Personally, I like reading stories that have lots of conflicts around crazy misunderstandings and miscommunications, a la Three’s Company.

  3. So- how long do you wait till you introduce the trouble? Bilbo Baggins was living his hobbits life for a few pages before Gandalf showed up. Nick Carraway had some background to explain before that uncomfortable dinner party at the Buchanan’s. When do you start throwing the rock- how much warning do you give your reader?

    • Hi Sheila! That’s a personal call that you need to make as a writer, however, I find that older books like those you mentioned tend to drag out the opening scenes in ways that many readers today don’t enjoy as much. Styles change and evolve, and while some people still love sinking into a richly detailed, slower paced story (I’m one of them!), many readers don’t.

      This is partly because of the internet & other technology. “Back in the day,” writers had to spend more time painting the pictures of every scene and setting because not everyone knew what a mansion or an enchanted forest or a log cabin looked like. Now, even if readers have never visited the south, or New York City, or an ocean, most can easily picture these settings because they’ve seen them online or on television. Too much detail about these familiar settings, in fact, will slow the story and bore the reader.

      For this reason, I don’t think those books you mentioned — if written today — would be published in the same way. They’d likely be edited to amp up the conflict and bring it in sooner. A good example is to consider the difference between the Lord of the Rings book and movie formats. In the book, about 5 years pass between the time Frodo inherits the ring and the time he actually embarks on his quest (if I recall). In the movie version, it’s just a few nights! The movies are more in line with how a book like that would likely be written today for popular consumption.

      My personal recommendation (YMMV) is to start the story on the day that something happens, or that something changes for the main character (I think it was Judy Blume who gave this succinct advice!). So, while you don’t have to open the first chapter with some crazy conflict, you do want to show that moment of change — the character living in his normal life, and then BOOM some kind of conflict happens to throw off the balance and launch her into the book-length story conflict — relatively soon. The closer to the opening, the better, *provided* you give the reader enough grounding into the “normal” life of the main character first. For example, looking again at the LOTR movie: we get a few scenes with Frodo’s “normal” life in the Shire, just long enough to show us how wonderful it is and what he stands to lose, and then, BANG, Gandalf shows up with the news that the ring is THE ONE RING and must be taken out of the Shire.

      Alternatively, you could start with a bang, and then fill in the normal life details later through flashback and other techniques, but that’s more difficult and confusing, IMO.

      Again, it comes down to your instincts as a writer. What do you like to read? Study some examples from your favorite currently published books and see how it’s done. Then, experiment! Try different openings, different starting points, see what feels right and what ultimately serves the story. I’ve written several books and am still experimenting and learning my way through it! 🙂

  4. Great suggestions Sarah. Although I have always just started writing my characters in their lives and see what shenanigans they get up to, I really like the idea of brainstorming ‘What if?’ scenarios to have up my sleeve. I am going to coffee up and make a page of what ifs right now! Cheers

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