I’ve read several stories lately where the author manages to create interesting characters and also string countless pretty sentences together. But they don’t seem to get the notion that nothing in a story moves forward except through conflict.
A simple definition of conflict is: two dogs, one bone. Conflict is key, in every scene. If you write a scene that doesn’t have conflict, trash it, because it doesn’t advance the story, or at least not enough to make the reader wade through it.
Little or no conflict means little or no movement, which means little or no interest. In a word: BORING.
A story is a metaphor for life, and to be alive, as the Buddha once stated, is to be in a perpetual state of conflict. Everyone is lacking something they want, and when they get it they soon want something else. Hence, every character in a story desperately wants something, and the story is what they do in attempting to achieve their desires.
But it is not enough to just throw your protagonist into a pit of snakes as a way to add conflict to a story, or have the love of his life die. The best stories are complex stories, and what I mean by that is, they have conflict happening on three different levels at once. The three levels are:
1. Inner conflict
2. Personal conflict
3. Extra-personal conflict.
If a story only has conflict of the inner kind it is basically an exercise in stream of consciousness. The basic movement of the story all happens in the character’s head. This is very difficult to pull off, and can get rather tedious after the initial rush wears off.
If a story has all its conflict in the personal category, it is a soap opera or porn, where every character has a relationship with every other character. It’s all about who is sleeping with who. This is a mark of an immature writer.
A story that has only extra-personal conflict is basically an action/adventure or horror story. James Bond is a perfect example. He has no inner conflicts, nor does the viewer mistake 007’s encounters with women as personal. For him they are sport.
It is only when a writer weaves conflict into all these levels that a story becomes truly complex and, in my opinion, interesting.