The Conflict Cycle – Part One

conflicto-327x300(The outline material for this series of tips comes from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain.)

Every story needs conflict. Without conflict, there is no real story. Simply put, conflict comes from any obstacle that blocks your character’s efforts to achieve a goal. If conflict is lacking, the character waltzes to the goal without a problem. That’s great for the character, but it’s lousy for the reader.

The most interesting stories include conflicts that come in cycles that have two main components:

  1. An obstacle arises to block a character from achieving a goal.
  2. The character responds to the obstacle.

For this tip, we will look at the first component – the creation of the obstacle and how that creates conflict. We have looked at some of these issues from a different angle in other tips, but I think it will be helpful to see how these factors come into play in cycles.

Here are the three main units in the creation of conflict:

1. Goal – This is what your character wants to accomplish, and the reader should be able to identify this goal easily. We want a character who is passionate about what he or she is doing. This generates reader interest and establishes an emotional connection.

2. Conflict – Obstacles that block your character’s efforts to achieve the goal. Without obstacles, reaching the goal is too easy. Readers love watching the character struggle toward the goal. This will allow the reader to live out the struggle through the character.

3. Disaster – The character fails to achieve the goal. Early goals should not succeed, at least not completely. Complete success leads to decreasing interest. If something terrible happens, readers will be more interested. A disaster doesn’t have to be catastrophic, but it has to be a significant failure to the character.

The Goal:

Tips for creating early story goals:

  1. Make the goal concrete, specific, and explicit.
  2. The goal should be a short-range proposition, something the character might be able to achieve in a relatively short time (or so it seems).
  3. Keep the goal as the center of attention during the scene. Don’t lose sight of it.
  4. Make the goal urgent enough to generate reader interest.

Here is the opening of Reapers, which establishes the point-of-view character’s first goal immediately.

The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.

As you can see, the character has a goal at the outset. It is easily identified, and it is urgent.

The Conflict:

This can be anything that blocks the character’s goal, whether it is a person, disease, weather event, solar eclipse, or even the character’s own faults. It is helpful if the obstacle appears to be stronger than the character, at least at first. Readers will be interested in how the character will overcome the challenge.

In Reapers, Phoenix meets the girl (Molly) who is about to die, but an obstacle arises in the person of Alex, a Death Enforcement Officer who blocks him from trying to save Molly.

“Look …” I glanced at Molly again. As pale as a level-one ghost, she fought for breath, the scraping in her chest worse than ever. “Since you’ve already decided that the family’s guilty, can’t they try to see if the medicine will work?”

“Of course not, Phoenix. Unlike other officers you’re familiar with who often shirk their true responsibility, I am not here merely to record a death; I am here to enforce it.” The flicker in her eyes returned, as if kindled by her morbid words.

After sliding the bottle into a jacket pocket, she resumed petting Molly’s head, smiling as she crooned, “It’s time to go, little one. The Reaper awaits. Release your grip on life’s fragile bonds. When you die, your family will finally have peace. The end of your suffering will mean the end of theirs. All pain will fly far away.”

The Disaster:

The disaster should be unanticipated by the reader, yet logical. It should be a reasonable outgrowth of the materials you have already arranged, i.e. it is foreshadowed and does not violate the parameters of the world order you have set up.

Here is the disaster in Reapers (Spoiler Warning):

Molly’s eyes opened. She blinked at Alex, then at her family. She smiled weakly for a moment, whispered an almost imperceptible “I love you,” then closed her eyes and fell limp. Her head lolled to the side, and she breathed no more.

Fiona sobbed. Colm pulled her close and stroked her back. Colleen just stared, her mouth hanging open.

Her eyes still flickering, Alex rose and backed away from the bed. “Reaper … her soul awaits.”

For more details on conflicts and disasters, see the following posts:

In the next tip, I will discuss the second part of the conflict cycle, the character’s response to the obstacle.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.



Categories: Writing Tips

Tags: , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. When I used to write books, they were a lot of rambling whimsy, philosophy, and introspection. They had action and character development and conflict, usually quite a lot of it, but I don’t think that it had a very palatable flow. Thankfully over the past several years I’ve been learning many techniques and ways of storytelling from all of my favorite authors. But craft aside, I really quit trying to write for three years… and though some of this was because of tragic upheavals in my life, a lot of it was that I just couldn’t figure out how write the things I wanted to write–such as good triumphing over evil. Even though I unfailingly would present the good as good and the evil as evil, the overwhelming sense of the triumph of darkness would take over my story and frustrate what I was trying to accomplish.

    I have some theories now about why that was, based on the things I was involved in at the time… which I only thought were good and true things but lacked the actual saving power of God, and that showed in the fiction I was trying to write.

    But this year I decided to take a stab at it again. I have healed in ways I never thought possible and have dedicated my life exclusively to Christ in ways I never even knew how to do before and… well… it makes a difference. Everything is different. So I thought maybe it’ll be different again, if I try to write a novel. It’s November, and thusly, National Novel Writing Month, so I’m plugging away.

    I hit 15,000 words today, and I’m having a blast! I feel good about the story. It’s sort of a dystopian science fiction, so of course there’s darkness in it, but I’m very very hopeful that through all of the conflicts and intensity and moral quandaries that are going on (it’s all very exciting), things aren’t going to END in that darkness. We’ll see though 🙂



  1. The Conflict Cycle – Part Two |
  2. Book Length Issues – Part 1
  3. Book Length Issues – Part 2 (Making your story shorter)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.