Conflict makes or breaks a story. A strong conflict grabs readers and keeps them engaged; a weak conflict leaves them bored and uninvested. Very often, when readers love the premise and connect deeply with the characters, but by the end the story leaves them frustrated and annoyed, the problem is the conflict.
How surprising, then, that so many movies and bestselling books rely on weak conflicts. In fact, weak conflicts so common in their respective genres that it’s easy to forget that there’s any other way to tell a story. We can easily end up accepting these contrived, emotionally unsatisfying scenes as part of the cost of doing business, something you have to sit through to get to the enjoyable parts. But it’s not true. We can write better stories with stronger conflicts, but the first step is identifying weak conflicts.
Here I present three. All these conflicts have various possible permutations (for instance, the genders may be swapped in the rom-com misunderstanding), but they’re presented in their most common forms and gendered accordingly.
Conflict #1: The Rom-Com Misunderstanding
Genre: Romantic comedies
A man and woman fall in love, but the woman overhears something out of context and concludes that the man is cheating on her. She dumps him. Later she discovers it was all a big misunderstanding and they get back together.
This well-known cliché is such a dead horse at this point that even romantic comedies won’t touch it anymore except in a satirical way. The problem is obvious: These two people supposedly genuinely love each other, yet at the slightest provocation, they’re ready to assume the worst of each other and throw the whole relationship out the window without so much as giving the other a chance to explain. Then, when they make up, we’re supposed to believe that they’ll have a happy relationship with neither any further misunderstandings nor any ongoing repercussions of this major breach of trust.
This conflict is much more understandable in settings with rigid, complex social rules that prevent people from simply speaking their minds, which is one reason why Jane Austen uses it to great effect. It also works well in high school, another setting where impenetrable social rules often impede communication. (This similarity is why Austen retellings set in high school are so effective.) But in most settings, a pair of adults ought to be able to handle a minor miscommunication like “I saw you at lunch with another woman.” “That was my sister.” without putting their entire relationship in jeopardy.
Conflict #2: The Liar Revealed
Genre: Children’s movies
A group is trying to accomplish a goal. An outsider turns up, claiming to have a key skill or advantage that they need, but he’s lying. At the turning point, the lie is exposed and he’s thrown out of the group. He makes amends, the group accepts him back, and they accomplish the goal without his supposed advantage.
I don’t know why children’s movies gravitate to this particular conflict, but it’s so ubiquitous that it just feels like the way kids’ stories are told. The plot moves through the hilarious hijinks the outsider does to maintain the pretense and plods inevitably towards the bummer of a scene where the deception is revealed and they go their separate ways, only to reunite five minutes later. For ages as a kid, I thought I hated sad stories because I found these scenes so painful. But it wasn’t sad scenes that I hated, it was unearned sad scenes. And that word sums up this conflict: Unearned.
Of the conflicts on this list, this is the most inexplicable because the outsider has so little motivation to keep up so elaborate a deception. Often he himself misunderstood what he was getting into or blundered into it by accident, has nothing to gain by going along with it, and by all rights ought to immediately say “Oops, sorry, I’m not who you think” the second he realizes what’s going on. And yet he goes along with it, allowing the situation to get more and more out of hand until the secret comes out in a way that’s far messier than it needed to be.
This conflict is still common, but a growing minority of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens avert the trend by having the characters realize that the secret isn’t that big of a deal. It’s amazing how that knot of tension relaxes inside you when you realize you aren’t going to have to sit through yet another obligatory falling out.
Conflict #3: The Ambiguous Secret
Genre: Fantasy novels
A woman is romanced by a handsome but reticent male character. He conceals an important fact about their circumstances (often that he’s a supernatural creature or similar), but tells her it’s for her own good and she must trust him. Someone else shows up and warns the woman not to trust him. She wrongly chooses to believe the latter. Something terrible happens, revealing that he really did have her best interests at heart. He fixes the problem and forgives her.
This one really grinds my gears because, even more than the rom-com misunderstanding, it’s rooted in toxic ideas about gender. The woman is forced to make a decision based on inadequate information, and then she’s punished for deciding wrong. Meanwhile, the man is never, ever condemned for lying to her. The story never even acknowledges that, by concealing crucial information from her, he’s partially responsible for the consequences of her choice. No, the takeaway message is that you should always trust your man, even when he’s obviously lying to you, and if you don’t, then it serves you right if something bad results. Good thing he’s so forgiving.
These stories often introduce a magical curse that prevents the male character from telling the woman the whole truth, but this is no excuse. Readers apply messages from fantasy to real life, and in real life, it’s never acceptable to lie to your partner. Hiding behind the excuse that magic prevented him from being honest absolves the male character of personal responsibility in a manner reminiscent of abusers’ constant insistence that some outside factor made him do it. Needless to say, the woman is never absolved of responsibility for her choices because of outside factors.
The problem that all three of these conflicts have in common is that they’re completely reliant on concealed information. If everyone fully understood what was going on, the conflict would disappear, because nobody is actually on the other side. Everyone’s goals are fundamentally compatible, and the fact that they can’t all see that and come to an understanding makes them feel petty at best, or at worst, like they’re deliberately trying to not get along.
Compare the second conflict with a similar but much more effective variant: The outsider who joins the group has a conflicting goal, but both sides have key skills that the other needs, so they’re forced to work together, even though only one of them can claim the reward at the end. This conflict is stronger because it’s inherent to the characters; even if both sides know all the details, the conflict remains.
An even deeper and more complex variant on #2 is found in movies like Zootopia. In this case, the characters really are trying to get along and work together, but their own internal flaws and biases get in the way. In order to work together, they have to actually grow and learn something—and not just a trite lesson about being true to yourself.
There are countless types of conflict that can drive a story, so there’s really no reason to rely on weak, artificial ones. Throw these three in the scrap heap and make use of conflicts that couldn’t be resolved with a simple conversation.