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On Storytelling Terminology: Conflict and Adversity

Way back when, I tried to start a series around here on some of the specialized storytelling terminology I’ve been learning in my Master of Professional Writing course. I got into Plates and Hooks and Scene Questions and Story Questions, and that diverted me off into a separate series on Story Questions.

I’m not complaining. I’m pretty proud of the Story Question Worksheet I debuted last week. I’ve already put it to good use in a prewriting package for a collaborative novel.

But I’ve also got more terms that need defining for our future conversation. So let’s return to that.


“Conflict” isn’t going to be new terminology to anyone interested in storytelling. Conflict drives story. My dad has been known to design entire novels around nothing but the conflict potential in a given character relationship.

The problem we can run into — and the reason I’m devoting a blog post to this well-known term — is that conflict has a lot of connotation and a pretty varied denotation, too. That’s great for the English language, but it makes things a little vague when we get down to industrial uses.

So for the sake of storytelling terminology, we’re going to define “conflict” a lot more narrowly. Conflict is the struggle between two characters in direct opposition over a single goal. Or perhaps I should say “over directly opposite goals.”

The easiest way to clarify that (and the most common way we’ll use this version of “conflict”) is to look back at my earlier definition of “scene.” And as I look back at that definition, I discover that I’ve already established the precise definition of conflict, too.

The Scene Protagonist starts the scene with a clearly stated goal. There is something he wants — something that can be expressed in a straightforward yes or no question.

Every scene has a Scene Antagonist whose goal is precisely the opposite of the Scene Protagonist’s.That’s your conflict: directly opposing goals.

That comes from the second article I linked above, and the article contains several examples in case you don’t remember it. Still, we’re returning to old material here. So what’s the new lesson?


The new lesson is this:

Adversity is not conflict.

So, see, you do get a newly-defined term in this article. “Adversity” in storytelling refers to random bad things happening. I talked before about throwing alligators over the transom. I talked a lot about setbacks and catastrophes. We all end up reminding ourselves again and again not to protect our beloved characters, but to let bad things happen to them.

A lot of those bad things that can happen to your characters would fall under the definition of “adversity.” Your hero needs to get downtown to save the day, but he misses the bus. Our hero steps out the door, and by authorial fiat we decided the bus was already leaving instead of just arriving.

That’s adversity. Obstacles like that can shove the story forward, but they’re clumsy. Any time “luck” plays a major role in your story (good or bad), you’re asking more from your readers. You’re pushing the willful suspension of disbelief.

It doesn’t matter that adversity happens all the time in real life. All kinds of things happen in real life that have no useful place in fiction. If you want to create really compelling scenes, you need to build them on a foundation of conflict, not adversity.

Motive Will

So how do you fix that? Malice aforethought. Premeditation. Motive will.

In other words, wherever possible, turn adversity into conflict. If your story needs your hero to miss the bus, he can certainly miss the bus. Just have the super-villain change the bus schedule as part of his malicious (and extremely subtle) bid to plunge the city into chaos. Have the hero’s vindictive ex keep him tied up on the phone two minutes too long in a deliberate bid to mess up his day.

In either case, you’re looking at direct conflict. And that matters because your story is all about the protagonist overcoming conflict. You can’t overcome bad luck. But a villain can be hauled off to prison, a vindictive ex can be beaten in court.

That’s the magic of a storytelling. A novel is one long string of obstacle after obstacle, catastrophe after catastrophe. And sometimes it feels brutally unfair that after all that failure, scene after scene, the protagonist only actually gets to win once.

But there’s power in resolution. A well-structured story lets you wrap up all that misfortune with a single, satisfying victory that makes up for everything that has come before. One victory makes up for a whole bookful of defeats. And the easiest way to make sure your ending achieves that goal is to assign as many of those defeats as possible directly to the antagonist that you’re already working so hard to serve righteous justice.

Of course, that could get a little overdone if you’re not careful. To really do it right, you need to manage everything your antagonist is responsible for without necessarily broadcasting it to the protagonist (or the reader). We’ve got a handy industry term for that, too: Hidden Story. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll talk about that.

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