Sometimes it’s difficult to get that engine (conflict) started.
But it’s easier once a writer is familiar with conflict and how it’s used in fiction. For starters, there are three general types of conflict.
Character vs. Character
This is the most common type of conflict, two characters in conflict with each other over something or someone. It usually comes to mind when the word conflict is thought of. For example, two women after the same man. Two men after the same job. This type of conflict is usually external, and is known to other characters in the story.
Character vs. Themselves
This type of conflict is internal rather than external. The character is having some sort of inner conflict going on inside themselves rather than with another character. Examples of this include a character having a job that goes against everything they believe in but pays extremely well, or a woman with very high standards regarding potential male partners, meets a guy who meets all of them except he’s poor. Or she knows he’s a bad boy but she’s attracted to him anyway.
Character vs. Nature
This type of conflict has the character pitted against outside forces that are beyond their control, or are larger than themselves. This usually involves some sort of natural disaster, or encounter with a large predatory animal.
How to Use Conflict
The best stories usually have more than one type of conflict going on, in layers. Think of a cake, for example. Without the bottom layer, there would be no support for the top layer, and so it is with fiction and conflict.
For instance, think of every film involving a large dangerous animal, natural disaster, or impending war – Jaws, Jurassic Park, Transformers, and Armageddon all come to mind. All of these movies have the central conflict, character vs. nature, but also have character vs. character conflict, and sometimes, character vs. themselves.
However it’s best to look at the length and scope of the plot and proceed accordingly so that there’s not so much going on that the reader loses track.
For instance, it’s best to have only one source of conflict in a short story. Novellas can easily have two sources of conflict, but having all three might be too much, depending on how the story is written, and how the conflict is managed in the plot. With a full-length novel, though, the writer can go all-out and have a conflict-fest.
However, it’s also best to look at what genre of story is being written. Science fiction stories would be ideal for a character vs. nature conflict, along with a standard character vs. character conflict.
But think of the television series Friends. Although the story of Ross and Rachel’s bumpy relationship spans ten years, the conflict is only character vs. character, and character vs. themselves. Part of the reason why it took so long for them to get back together was because of internal conflict on the part of both Ross and Rachel.
So, in closing, think first of the three main types of conflict. Then think of the length and scope and especially the genre of the story, and layer conflicts accordingly.