Conflict as a concept

Conflict is the sustained struggle for dominance between opposing forces.

Opposing forces can be individuals, groups, or even social and environmental systems. For example:

  • A tiny group of schoolkids vs a vast army of invaders.
  • A teenage girl vs her parents.

Conflict, by definition, is not quick or simple. (If it was, it wouldn't be a conflict: it'd be a momentary confrontation.)

For example:

  • Life if you win; death if you lose.
  • Freedom if you succeed; imprisonment if you fail.
  • Plentiful land, food, resources if you win; meagre subsistence if you lose.
  • A warm and loving relationship if you succeed; loneliness and isolation if you fail.

We can call these 'stakes': what each side wants to win from success, and fears to lose from failure.

'Big' stories can have lots of things at stake at the same time.

In a story, a conflict is only important to us as readers if the characters feel it's important.

  • For example, if the teenagers in The Third Day, the Frost don't care about their town being invaded by a foreign army, then probably neither do we.
  • If Naila could take or leave Saif and didn't mind an arranged marriage, then we'd probably follow her lead and not mind either.

(Though, in both cases, we as readers would be sniffing around for what these characters did care about and who or what was going to give them trouble, because conflict is usually what gets our interest in a story.)

The stakes in don't have to be apocalyptic to be meaningful.

They just have to be important to the characters involved, meaning the characters (especially on the protagonist side) need to care about the outcome, and this caring is often about context.

For example, how dramatic is cleaning a kitchen? Ordinarily, not at all.

But if the character cleaning is homeless, desperately needs money, and won't get any paid unless they clean this fancy, extravagant kitchen perfectly before the owner returns home...

In that context, cleaning a kitchen can be riveting.

So big conflicts are fun, but not all stories have to have big conflicts with world-ending stakes. We will care if the characters care, based on our ability to empathise

(In the lesson on Evoking emotion in the reader, we go into more detail about how stories rely on empathy.)

It's hard to describe conflict without talking about specific confrontations, and when we do the activities in the rest of this lesson, you might occasionally get confused about the difference.

Just think of conflict as the big picture, and confrontation as the detail:

Conflict is about context—who is fighting, why, for what purpose—and confrontation is about breakout moments within that context.