Identifying Conflict Problems in a Manuscript

Conflict drives narrative, as I don’t need to tell you. But a problem with the conflict is probably the number one issue I see in the manuscripts I edit.

Yet it can be difficult to identify conflict problems. Outside of the most formulaic of approaches, we don’t have a lot of rules about how the conflict should show up. Conflict can be subtle and evolve over the course of a ms.

For example, in a mystery we might have a one-step-removed investigator trying to find the murderer, but that doesn’t mean the investigator is in any personal jeopardy or even that the criminal is in direct conflict with the investigator. Without something else (a conflict!) driving the story, the reader can lose interest.

Conflict occurs not when the investigator is placed into personal jeopardy (although that can increase tension). Conflict occurs when characters have opposing goals (let’s suppose Mother Nature is a character in those person-versus-nature stories).

Mother Nature is trying to kill Jayne; Jayne is trying to survive.  That’s conflict.

But beyond the most primal of goals, characters need motivations for those goals. We don’t ask why Mother Nature is trying to kill Jayne; we understand that is the, er, nature of Mother Nature. Nor do we need to know why Jayne is trying to survive; that’s part of being human.

But suppose Jayne’s boss is trying to fire her and Jayne is trying to keep her job. Now we want to know a little more about what is motivating both of these characters. Why does her boss want to fire her? And, knowing that, why is Jayne trying to keep her job instead of looking for a new one?

If the whys (the motivations) aren’t supplied, readers have trouble believing in the conflict.

Agatha Christie wasn’t much of one for developing characters, but even M. Poirot has a motivation—he does not approve of murder! And it is his belief that murder is a habit. What drives him is the desire to prevent further pain and injury. What drives the villain is fear of being found out. Poirot must find out who did it; the murderer must not allow himself/herself to be discovered. That’s conflict in a nutshell: two characters with opposing goals.

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