The Encarta Dictionary: English (North America) defines conflict as “Plot Tension: literature opposition between or among characters or forces in a literary work that shapes or motivates the action of the plot.” What does that mean?
Conflict is opposition. The hero wants to accomplish something and the villain wants to stop the hero from accomplishing its goals. It seems simple on the surface. It’s harder to put into words. Tension holds a story together. It keeps the story moving along. A plot is little more than a series of checks and counter checks. The hero blocks the villain, and then the villain blocks the hero and so on, building until the climax of the story.
The climax is the final conflict of the story. It’s the make or break part of the story. Does the hero win, or does the villain win? Keep in mind that the villain does not have to be a person. It could be a series of obstacles the hero must overcome to achieve its goal. Most stories have a series of conflicts, each a little bigger than the one before; some resolve others while creating a new set of problems for the characters. Conflict is the part of the story where the characters take two steps forward and one back. It forms the basis of suspense, which pulls the reader along to the end of the story.
Conflict drives the story, pulling the reader along with it to the end. Without conflict, the story sags and falls to the ground. It’s like the wind beneath the story’s wings providing lift to make the story fly.
There’s conflict in life. It’s in everything we do. Conflict is the gravitational force that keeps us from flying off the planet into space. It’s the wind slowing our walk as we struggle along the sidewalk. It’s the snow and ice that slows us down on our way to work, or forces us off the road in a gut wrenching, terror inducing skid to the ditch or the side of the road that leaves us shaking.
It’s also the friction that makes matches light and keeps our tires moving our cars along the roadway. Conflict is not always bad. It keeps life from being boring. It will keep the story from ending too soon or from being boring. It’s the spice of life and stories. Without it, life would be flat and boring and so would any stories that lack sufficient conflict. No one reads flat, boring stories.
That’s why conflict is the most important story element. It spices the story. It makes the reader want to read on to the end. It builds suspense and makes the story move. Dynamic stories are always better than static ones. The stories with the greatest conflicts are the ones that people remember and sometimes read again. A good story needs a good powerful conflict to make it work. A good writer knows that and will incorporate conflict into every scene, even if it just a broken cup that cuts a character, preventing it from doing something right away.