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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