Whether people realize it or not, the single most important ingredient in writing a good story is conflict. Without it, a story lacks purpose. Big versus small, good versus bad, love versus loneliness, present versus past or future, starvation versus prosperity, right versus wrong, warm versus cold, man versus nature, enlightened versus lost, safe versus danger, smart versus dumb, calmness versus frustration, war versus peace or sweet versus sour, conflict exist in nearly every story that captures a reader’s attention. You cannot root for the good character if there is not a chance that he or she might fail. Hence, success versus failure, or good versus bad.
Good writing and structure and all the other technical elements that goes along with creating a quality story are presumed necessities, but conflict is the key. Reading a story without conflict is like eating food without flavor. While it may have been cooked correctly, and it may have filled the void in your stomach, when asked, “How was your dinner?” The honest answer is inevitably, “Eh. It was okay.” Imagine Jack and Jill, if Jack didn’t fall down. They just walked to the top of the hill, and that was that. Imagine Romeo and Juliette if the young souls had simply met, fell in love, and lived happily forever after. Even How-To books have conflict. First there is something you do not know, and then the writer offers information so you do know. Without the solution to the problem, “Windows 10 for Dummies” would simply be a list of things you don’t know how to do in Windows 10. I suppose the conflict could be ignorance versus knowledge, or problem versus solution.
Not long ago a writer asked me what I thought the key element should be in a children’s story she was writing. It was one of those fifteen words per page picture books. My answer? Conflict. Without the Ying & Yang, stories are boring, no matter how well written they may be, and no matter who the audience is.
Some genres are simple to create conflict. War stories, love stories, horror stories, and crime stories have their big conflicts almost built in by default, but it’s the small conflicts throughout the stories that capture people’s imagination. It can be something as simple as a shoelace that repeatedly comes untied. Getting the lace to stay tied becomes a silly little battle (conflict) within a bigger story of someone marching off to war.
So, when you sit down to write, keep in mind that there is conflict in nearly everything in life. When describing the awe inspiring beauty of watching a child play, if written well, the implication will be that only a child is capable of losing themselves in the simple joys of life with no thought or knowledge of the outside world. Hence, the innocence of youth versus innocence lost in growing up, is the subtle conflict within a story that is probably about something completely different than a child playing in the sand. Conflict is not always front and center, but if you want to keep your reader in the story, conflict is almost always on your page.