Using Conflict to Improve Your Scenes

Every scene needs conflict. It’s one of the driving forces of what moves the plot, characters, and story along. Without conflict, nothing progresses.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is a problem that forces people to work for or overcome something, whether it is something as small as a disagreement between friends or as large as governments fighting over territory, and more. It is an opposition to a want or need, and it creates tension drives a plot forward. Conflict reveals something about characters and how they would react as they overcome the obstacle–or fail. It forces them to do something, to make decisions, to work harder. Conflict keeps the readers invested and helps them relate. The reader wants to see how the characters deal with conflict, how they struggle, how they fail, and how they overcome. It’s in these struggles, failures, and successes that readers relate to the characters and story.

Conflict can be compressed into two basic formulas.

Want/Need + Obstacle/Opposition = Conflict

Or

Desire versus Fear = Conflict

These two formulas create the basis of what makes a character progress. It makes the character do something. Without conflict, there is no motivation to do something, and the character can stall. The story will stall or meander. Pacing will slow, and the interest of the reader will drop.

Editing Tip: Include conflict in every scene, in every interaction. Without conflict in the small moments, the readers won't care. The characters won't care.

Conflict doesn’t only apply to the overall story. The main character needing to save the world by the end of the book isn’t enough. Conflict has to be included in every scene, in every interaction. It’s boring to read about two people who always agree and do the same things together, overcoming absolutely nothing. The same applies to reading about a character that doesn’t struggle with themselves.  They can’t grow in that situation; they can’t struggle. Without conflict in the small moments, the readers won’t care. The characters won’t care.

Conflict During the Revision Phase or Developmental Editing

Part of revision/developmental editing is addressing conflict. Look at the overall conflict of the story, the medium-level conflicts that drive sections (chapters, parts, multiple chapter character/plot arcs, etc.), and the immediate-level interactions that drive each scene. By examining these different conflict levels, you can determine character (and plot) progression. You can also identify what character/plot arcs and scenes need revision and how best to revise them.

As stated earlier, every scene needs conflict. Furthermore, every interaction needs conflict. Reading about a character’s perfect day with no needs or wants at all doesn’t create an interesting story.

Editing Tip: Conflict pushes a character forward and/or backwards.

If a chapter, scene, or passage is missing conflict, then that section isn’t pushing the character, plot, or story somewhere. As you look over these sections during revision or developmental editing, ensure that they have conflict and that the conflict is affecting the characters in a way that pushes the story forward (or backward in some cases). If there isn’t conflict, then that section needs to be reevaluated, revised, and edited accordingly.

Types of Conflict

Conflict has multiple forms and affects characters differently. It can be both big or small, but it has to affect the characters somehow and result in them doing something (although in some instances choosing to ignore and do nothing can be an appropriate reaction). There are three main categories of conflict: interpersonal, external, and internal.

Interpersonal (human vs human)

Interpersonal conflict occurs between multiple characters. Often they are a result of differing opinions, goals, desires/wants/needs, personalities, etc. As characters clash, it creates conflict as they fight or figure out how to get along. This is the most common conflict because people interact with each other, and it also includes the conflict between the good guys and the bad guys.

Editing Tip: Conflict doesn't have to come from characters interacting with each other. Conflict can come from a variety of outside or internal sources.

External (human vs nature/environment)

External conflict results from an outside force, often something natural, affecting a character. It often impedes, endangers, frustrates, reroutes, or harms the characters. This can be anything from raging storms to pesky bugs to technology.

Internal (human vs self)

Internal conflict is when a character has a problem with themselves. They are in conflict about something, often a decision they’ve made, something they want but can’t have, or something they can’t get rid of. The conflict is within their minds, often portrayed through thoughts and doubts or by actions, such as self-harm, praying, or interacting with their environment in a negative way, etc.

Additional Categories

There are additional classifications of conflict, though they aren’t as prevalent. These are:

  • paranormal (human vs technology or possibility)
  • cosmic (human vs fate/god/destiny)
  • social (human vs group)
  • implied (hides critical information from the character but acts as foreshadowing, flashbacks, or predictions/prophecies)
  • omniscient (conflict that takes place without the reader knowing who is affected or its consequences; rare; works with foreshadowing, flashbacks, and predictions/prophecies)

Scenes Without Conflict

Scenes should always have some form of conflict. If you have a scene completely devoid of conflict, you must determine if that scene needs revision or should be cut. How do you decide which option to take?

To decide, look at the scene as a small part of a larger character or plot arc. Is the scene supposed to convey something relating to the bigger picture of the story? If yes, then it’s probably a scene that needs revision. Are there opportunities for conflict that weren’t capitalized? Often conflict is everywhere, but we just don’t capitalize on it and it becomes a missed opportunity. If revising to center the scene on a missed conflict opportunity (or two or four, etc) will progress (or push back) the plot, then you should revise the scene.

Sometimes a scene without conflict simply needs to be cut. Some common cases are:

  • the scene doesn’t add anything to a plot or character arc
  • the scene’s purpose is unnecessary
  • the scene is trying to do something that is already done by a different scene
  • a different scene can be revised to include the scene-in-question’s original goal

If any of these cases apply, then the scene should be cut instead of revised.

For example, the first few chapters are often places where conflict is missing because of worldbuilding or info dumps (too much information at once). You can revise these instances so that conflict drives the scene and includes worldbuilding or information along the way. Or you may determine that these instances are unnecessary and the background information can easily be revealed in another scene more effectively.

How to Add Conflict

Editing Tip: If a scene is devoid of conflict, ask what the character(s) cares about and let it drive the scene.

Essentially, so add conflict to a scene, ask what the character(s) cares about and let it drive the scene. More technically, here are a few things you can do to add conflict to a scene.

  1. Make sure that you introduce the conflict earlier on in the scene. Conflict at the end of the scene is nearly as useless as a scene without conflict at all.
  2. Make sure the conflict gives something the character(s) to overcome during that scene. They don’t have to overcome it, but they need to at least try and struggle.
  3. Let different characters have different conflicts. Not everyone has the same problems, and individual conflicts are just as important as group conflicts.
  4. Use conflict to drive the character(s) to make a decision or to take action, whether it’s a good decision/action or not.
  5. Ensure the conflict (or the result of the conflict) pertains to a character or plot arc.

In short, the character(s) should strive to overcome the conflict, even if they fail. At least they did something.

As you address conflict, you will be able to ensure that each character arc, plot arc, part, chapter, and scene have purpose and are impactful. Conflict drives people in the real world, and so it must drive characters. Without it, the characters are lacking and the scene will lose a reader’s interest. Identifying conflict will help you know where to improve a scene and bring out character action in the scene.

Looking for more editing tips, check out our developmental editing guide and our full editing resource collection.

Using Conflict to Improve Your Scenes overlayed on two stuffed horses facing away from each other
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