Conflict, the Necessary Evil

Ever notice how fiction seems full of conflict? Characters hate each other, fight each other, struggle with problems, strive to survive, etc. Why can’t they just get along together and have nice, trouble-free lives? After all, that’s what we real people want for ourselves, right?


You may go ahead and write stories where nothing bad happens, where characters are always kind and thrive in a stress-free environment.

Just one little problem with that notion…no one is going to read those stories. They’d be boring! There is no reason to care about such characters. Their outcome is not in doubt.

ConflictConflict is, therefore, an essential aspect of all fiction. Conflict drives the plot and creates interest in the characters. Since all fiction is about the human condition, and since conflict is inherent in the human condition, your stories had better include some type of conflict.

You might be objecting as you think about great stories you’ve read that didn’t involve any guns, bombs, swords, spears, knifes, or fistfights. Ah, but think deeper about those stories. Did characters disagree verbally? Did a character struggle to survive against Nature’s fury? Was a character conflicted internally?

Conflict comes in various kinds and need not involve violence at all. At its essence, conflict is two forces in opposition to each other. That’s it.


What are the types or categories of conflict? Here’s my classification schema:

  • External
    • Character vs. Character
    • Character vs. Nature
    • Character vs. Society
  • Internal
    • Character vs. Self

Some people add other external conflict types such as Character vs. Technology, Supernatural forces, Fate, or others. To me, those are all included in the basic four types.

How many types of conflict should you include within a single story? Unless it’s flash fiction, I recommend at least two, with one of them being an internal conflict. We live in a psychological age, and readers want to see characters with some depth, some internal struggles, some flaws. Readers don’t even want antagonists to be pure evil; there needs to be some explanation how they turned so bad.


I’ve blogged before about the need to ramp up the level of conflict in your story, but what about the resolution of the conflict at the end?

Although I personally enjoy stories where protagonists overcome their adversity through wit, cunning, and intelligence, it need not be that way. Not all conflicts need to be completely resolved at the end. Or the resolution of one major conflict may spark the start of another. Really, the struggle during the bulk of the story is more important than the resolution.

In fact, the protagonist may lose the struggle, as in Jack London’s famous short story, “To Build a Fire.”  That story illustrates that fiction really is about characters contending with difficulties, not necessarily overcoming them in the end. It truly is about the journey, not the destination.

Resources and Summary

There really are some nice blog posts about conflict out there, including this, this, this, this, and this.

Those are my opinions about conflict. You might disagree, and that disagreement itself would represent a type of conflict between you and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 21, 2014Permalink

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.


Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.


You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.


Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.


51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

Life is But a Theme

Long-time readers of this blog have noted that I’ve explored four of the five components of fiction—character, plot, setting, and style. There’s been quite a clamoring for me to complete the set, and today I’ll do so by discussing theme.

You can think of the theme of a story as the central topic, the universal idea or message, the overall lesson or moral. I’ve said before that all stories are about the human condition and that’s because we choose human themes. Until we deal with other sentient entities, that’s all we really have.

ThemeHere’s another way to think about theme. It’s easy to identify the characters, plot, and setting of a story. Think of those as the ‘real life’ parts of the story, the parts you can visualize with ease. Now imagine key parts of that ‘real life’ getting mapped to a different plane, a place of Platonic ideals. Imagine lines connecting specifics in the story to generalizations in the other plane, concrete items linked to a realm of abstract concepts.

For example, an old woman in a story is linked to the idea of Age itself. A young man going through his first experience of adulthood is linked to the idea of Coming of Age. The growing love between two characters maps to the idea of Falling in Love. You get the idea.

There needn’t be only one theme in a story, and often you can identify more than one. Also, it isn’t necessary for the writer to spell out what the story’s themes are; in fact it’s much better to allow readers to infer them.

Let’s identify some themes in famous literature. Take 1984 by George Orwell. It includes themes such as ever-increasing government control, the loss of individual freedom, and the dangers of advanced technology.

Consider Love Story by Erich Segal. Some of its themes include the idea of opposites being attracted to each other, the sacrifices made for love, the rebellion of a child against his parents, and the notion of love conquering all adversities.

One of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, also contains themes. These include the dangers of advanced technology, aiding the oppressed against oppressors, and the notion that revenge can drive you insane.

Is it possible to write a story without a theme? I’m not sure. Even if the writer has no particular theme in mind, readers and critics can likely discover themes the author didn’t intend, but are nevertheless present.

For a beginning writer who’s overwhelmed by the amount of writing stuff to remember, I suggest concentrating on character, plot, and setting (in that order of importance) without focusing on theme or style as much. Chances are a well-written story will have one or more themes, even if the writer doesn’t consciously strive toward one.

As always, post a comment if you agree, disagree, remain confused, or are just thankful that all five components of fiction have finally been addressed by—

Poseidon’s Scribe