Every young writer is taught that the essence of story is conflict. But “conflict” is a loaded word. Most people see it as negative, confrontational and even violent. But it isn’t, inherently. Even if you’re writing about a world that’s all unicorns and rainbows, with nary a resistant thought in the mind, conflict is still an essential part of your story. Here’s why.

Defining Conflict

In and amongst all the violent-sounding definitions of conflict—which, yes, include battles and confrontations—are these:

  • discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles.”
  • “incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another”
  • “a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.”

(Via Dictionary.com)

(If you’re a therapist, this concept may be easier to accept. Nobody shows up in therapy because their lives are peachy.)

Conflict simply means a person wants something other than what is. You can substitute desire if you’d like, but without it, there is no story. You’ve just got a bunch of words that don’t go anywhere. (Maybe you have a koan, and that’s fine, but that’s not a story). The desire for inner peace, or global peace, or social change, is a desire. Even if the desire is to be rid of all desire, it’s still conflict, for the purposes of story.

A story without conflict is like a photograph that’s all one color.

Conflict as a Starting Point

The human experience is filled with conflict, every day. It’s filled with decisions; it’s filled with desires; it’s filled with thwarted longings; it’s filled with heartbreak. As much as this world is beautiful and lovely and we have transcendent bliss experiences, the essence of being human is dealing with challenges. Stories are a way for people to go, “Hey, I’m not the only one!” To recognize themselves in another’s story. To know that other people have survived whatever conflict we’re experiencing.

Let’s say you’re writing about acceptance (because all transformation begin there, one way or another), your reader—your protagonist—is reading it because they’re having difficulty with acceptance. They are, as it were, in conflict with acceptance, whether it’s acceptance that the environment is in peril, acceptance that she’s in a job she can’t stand, acceptance that the business world is changing, or acceptance of volatile emotions. That’s your starting point. 

To use a metaphor: Imagine you took a (literal) journey from New York to Vancouver. That’s still a change (transformation)—you were in New York; now you’re in Vancouver. When you were in New York, you either wanted to be in Vancouver or you didn’t want to leave New York—both of those are “conflicts.” All change involves conflict, and story is change.

One important note: If you’re writing practical or prescriptive (self-help) nonfiction, conflict is what your reader desires, not what she doesn’t yet know. To use myself as an example, my conflict was that I wanted to feel peace. I didn’t feel peace.  At the time, I didn’t realize that my mind was causing so much pain, and learning to observe my thoughts without judging them became a pathway to peace. But I had to learn that for myself, through the search for inner peace. 

We’re All Perfect…And We Could All Use a Little Work

Nobody buys books on personal or spiritual transformation because their lives are so awesomely groovy. People don’t buy conscious business books because they feel great about how their business is operating (or business in general). Usually, the reader is in one place, and they want to be in a different place. That is conflict. They may not know what it is they need—they may think they want to lose weight, but what they really need is self-compassion. Maybe they think they need a new job, and what they need is to learn to be present in whatever they’re doing. (Boy, that sentence makes it sound so easy!). Your task is to guide them from their conflict to the  understanding or awareness that will help to resolve that conflict.

“Completely functional, loving family unit raises well-adjusted child who interacts with complete acceptance and harmony in her environment. Nothing ever goes ‘wrong,’ because she accepts “what is” without so much as a cringe.” Ok, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met this person. Many, if not most, people on a seeking path experience not only childhood trauma, but also at least one Dark Night in adulthood. Of course, from a different perspective, these aren’t “things going wrong;” they’re by design, but don’t try to tell someone that when they’re in the midst of it. The human journey is about things not going the way we expect. Remember the stone shaped by drops of water metaphor? So let’s try this: conflict is resistance. If a reader weren’t experiencing some level of resistance in their lives, they probably wouldn’t pick up your book.

Identifying Conflict in Your Story

If you’re writing memoir or other types of narrative nonfiction, what is the central conflict of your story? What did you want or not want at the beginning? It can be anything from “to be loved” to “making it through a 400-mile bike ride” to “I didn’t want to work with a particular client.” All of those are valid conflicts. 

If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, consider what conflict your readers are experiencing that drives them to seek out your writing? Another way to look at this is, “What are your readers resisting?” Or “What coping mechanisms are they using?” and then backtrack to, “What are they trying to cope with?” All these will get you to the central conflict.

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