You Need Overarching Conflict

I hesitate to call books that have a specific genre with authors who intend to sell commercial fiction. It sounds a bit … icky, as if there’s no art behind it. It taints those authors with a feeling of “selling out” as opposed to those who are “real writers,” the pretentious English majors who must search for existential meaning in every work.

While I agree that having a controlling theme helps add depth to a story and its characters, not every writer needs or wants to write such heavy words. If you separate what gets read, well, let’s just say that the term starving artist doesn’t apply just to painters.

There’s an art to writing commercial fiction as much as there is to anything else that’s out there. And if you think literary fiction isn’t commercial, think again. It, too, has structure, genre conventions, and theme.

And unless it’s a completely radical work, they all have at least one thing in common:

Story Conflict

This is a little different than conflict in general, which is a complicated enough subject, in that it is overarching. It’s the whole reason the characters do what they do. It’s why they set out on foot across the desert, dive hundreds of feet below the water’s surface, or fight for the best career move.

Story conflict is closely tied in with the protagonist’s story goal. In a nutshell (there will be a post on this), it’s the one thing that the character consistently wants and shoots for throughout the story.

Typically, we look at works like The Hobbit or Star Wars, which fall into the Hero’s Journey genre (a term made popular by Star Wars creator George Lucas, but coined by Joseph Campbell, in case you were interested) to study character goals. If we look at what they are, we see that it’s for life to go back to the way it was before.

Sounds a bit familiar regarding recent events, doesn’t it?

But that wasn’t the goal they started with. It usually starts with something small, maybe to earn some money to buy a cruiser to race with friends. Maybe it’s for the detective to get home for dinner at a decent hour for once that week.

Those plans are foiled when the story conflict begins (the inciting incident spurs this conflict). When the detective can no longer get to dinner because he has a murder to solve, the goals need to pivot.

The Story Conflict, then, is that there’s a murderer on the loose. Every conflict the protagonist goes through now will be based on the goal to apprehend the perpetrator. If the detective does finally get to have dinner at a reasonable hour, it will affect the story goal. The little conflicts are what drive the story and make it interesting.

Most writers automatically include a story conflict. That’s the thing that gets the imagination running, and typically is the driving force to write the story. It’s getting clear that can sometimes pose an issue. When I receive a manuscript that doesn’t have a clear story conflict, I look at the characters first. What does the protagonist want and how does that conflict with what the antagonist wants? What are their goals at the beginning and how do they change after the inciting incident?

Other times, I see a drastic change in a goal’s direction from the characters. Entire plot lines get dropped when characters decide they want something else. Give them one goal that carries throughout the book, and that shouldn’t be an issue.

What are you reading right now? Can you spot the Story Conflict? Let me know in the comments below!

Skip to content