We all know what conflict is, right? It’s one of those essential ingredients to a story. You need a setting, you need characters, and you need those characters to have to fight for or against something—i.e., you need conflict.
You get much deeper into the weeds of what conflict means in terms of good storytelling, but essentially that’s all it is—something for your characters to struggle for or against. It’s kind of necessary so that your story isn’t just 100,000 words of people sipping tea and commenting on the weather. At the same time, conflict doesn’t necessarily mean evil wizards, despotic kings, assassins, or even office rivals. In her classic book Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin boils conflict down to an even more essential element: Change. “Story,” she wrote, “is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”
Where a lot of writers go wrong is in assuming conflict must be huge and oversize. It must be fighting Nazis or slaying dragons, murdering husbands or surviving terrible torture. But of course there are plenty of stories that exhibit low-key, subtle conflicts, and our everyday lives are filled with conflict that doesn’t qualify as epic.
And that word—epic—is the problem, often enough. Writers can get so fixated on the idea of “epicness” (no matter the genre) that they start to imagine stories where every single scene is like something out of The Matrix movies, with rain pouring down and people shouting as they fly through the air, metaphorically or literally. You can’t craft a successful story where the emotional charge is always at 10, and your conflict doesn’t have to be “something something save the world” or “something something we’ll all die horribly otherwise” or any sort of similarly “big” problem.
It’s also a mistake to think that you have precisely one conflict in a story, or that your conflict has to be a thread through the whole story. Think about what Le Guin says, again: Conflict is change. Thus it can change. The conflict that motivates your character in the beginning of a story might be resolved and replaced—or augmented or transformed. Say your character has been hired to break into a safe in an old mansion. The first few chapters are about their research, prep, and hiring a team to help. Then they get into the safe—and discover a portal to another dimension inside and are promptly sucked in. The conflict changes.
Of course you could make it your goal to write the ideal conflict-less story, but there’s a good chance your characters will still be sipping tea by page 300.