According to young students when I was teaching drama, conflict was people shouting each other down. The fact that this also seems to work for Eastenders does not make it correct! Conflict isn’t just one view opposing another, especially in writing. It goes deeper.
Conflict is based on goals. The main character in a piece of fiction wants something. They are trying to achieve something. The bottom line is that if the main character has no clear goal, you won’t get conflict.
You can’t have a character tossed about from pillar to post because of external forces and call that conflict. Yes, you need external forces. But real conflict comes from these external forces hitting against what your character wants and is trying to achieve.
Consider Harry Potter. What does Harry want? Basically he just wants to learn his wizarding skills and have fun with his friends while doing so. But things keep getting in the way.
Draco Malfoy, for one. And agents of Lord Voldemort, or the Dark Lord himself, in one way and another, force themselves on his attention and cause him problems.
These are external forces, or opposition from outside. But what is it opposing? It’s stopping Harry from learning his wizarding skills by putting difficulties in his way, threatening him with expulsion (for breaking rules), and in extreme cases, by attempting to kill him.
Therefore the conflict works. If your child is not a Potter fan, you can take any book they are fond of reading and discover exactly the same thing going on. What does the main character want? Who or what is trying to stop them getting it? There’s the conflict right there.
It’s a simple question to get any child to look at in their own writing. They’ll have a main character. They need to be clear what that person wants. Then they can think up ways to have others stop the person achieving their goals. That gives immediate conflict, and incidentally, action. In this way a story is built up.
On a slightly deeper level, for older children, it’s also possible to look at internal conflict. This would be something inside them that stops them getting what they want. For example, Neville Longbottom (in Harry Potter again) lacks self-confidence, which makes him inept. This is enough to get in the way of him achieving his goal of becoming a trained wizard.
In this context, consider superheroes. All superheroes have one point of weakness. With Superman, it’s kryptonite, for example. This is internal conflict because it is within the superhero and he can’t help but succumb if hit in his weak point.
Ideally, with older children, internal and external conflict should work together to create a more rounded story. Just add another step into the formula:
What does the main character want? What within them stops them going for it? Who or what is trying to stop them getting it? Answer these questions and you’ve got worthwhile conflict in two dimensions.
So that’s conflict in creative writing explained – is there anything else you’d like to know? Look through our Knowledge Bank if you have questions about education. We’ve got loads of articles packed full of information, tips and advice for parents. It’s a valuable weapon in any parent’s armoury!
Coming from professional theatre, Elizabeth Bailey taught drama for many years alongside her writing career. Multi-published, she now writes full time, both her own novels and ghostwriting, as well as critiquing for other writers.