Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?

Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:

Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.

Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.

Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.

Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.

Non-Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.

Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.

Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.

Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.


Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.

If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.

Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict. 

So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.


photo credit: Hunt Peck via photopin (license)

2 thoughts to “Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?”

  1. I actually have a tough time with this kind of big-picture plotting. I’ve also heard conflicts referred to as stakes–what is your character ultimately at risk of losing if they don’t achieve their goal?

    For my current WIP, there are two main characters with different central conflicts that eventually converge. The female protagonist wants to win a weaponry competition but her magic is interfering with her goal. The male protagonist wants to destroy an invasive, self-replicating species that threatens to overtake their homeland. My objective is to tie the two goals together so that the girls’ magic and weaponry skills are useful in defeating the invasive species.

    1. I wonder if the competition would be more of your setup than her actual goal. I remember from reading your excerpt that your female protagonist already knew she wanted to compete and win. If you believe Larry Brooks, that means her goal still needs to be redefined or changed at the 20 to 25 percent mark. Like you might have her realize that there is a lot more to the competition, such as a conspiracy or that it’s actually a recruitment scheme for some agency – maybe the one your male protagonist is involved with. But to keep the story structure on track I would just keep some kind of shift in mind, even if it’s just her realizing there is more to the competition than she first thought.

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