Conflict is the backbone of storytelling. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every story is about a character who gets into trouble and then tries to get out of it”. Without something to rub up against, a story isn’t a story — it’s just a series of events without stakes. As a literary concept, you could express conflict as a simple formula:
CONFLICT = (CHARACTER + WANT) X OBSTACLE
The protagonist in a story always wants something, but something else is stopping them from getting it. This interaction between the character, their wants, and their obstacles is what drives every story. If that central conflict is boring or nonsensical, the plot will be dull and confusing. But if the conflict is compelling, logical, and emotionally impactful, readers will be desperate to know how it all pans out.
In this short series of articles, we’ll dive further into this formula and reveal the most common types of conflict in literature. And if you’re a writer, we’ll even show you a simple method for identifying the true conflict that lies at the heart of any story you’re writing.
But first, let’s look at the two broad categories into which all types of literary conflict belong.