"What is Conflict in Literature?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Conflict in Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By J.T. Bushnell, Novelist and Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

25 March 2021

“Tension is the mother of fiction,” says the writer and writing teacher Jerome Stern. I think he’s right. Tension is that tingle of anticipation you feel when you’re reading something great, the interest and excitement that keeps you turning pages. But where does tension come from?

Let’s do a little mental experiment. Let’s say you’re talking to your favorite fifteen-year-old girl. What would your reaction be if she said, Oh my gosh, you have to hear this story! So, the other day I stayed home while my parents and sister went to a picnic, right? So I washed my hair and then laid in the sun to let it dry, and I dozed off for a while. Then I got hot and went inside and listened to some music.

Now, if you’re like most of us, your reaction would probably be, Uh, I thought you said you had a story. Did you hear something disturbing in the music? Did something happen to your hair? Did you get locked out, or caught in a rainstorm, or maybe attacked by a swarm of murder hornets? Where’s the story?

In a story we want something to happen, usually something bad. Until it does, we’re not very interested. Tension might be the mother of fiction, but problems are the mother of tension.

In fiction, those problems are called conflict. More precisely, conflict means thwarted, endangered, or opposing desire. It’s basically when a character wants something but something else gets in the way. Maybe the character wants a thing but can’t get it. Maybe the character has something but is in danger of losing it. Maybe the character wants two things that are incompatible. Whatever its form, though, it gets our attention.

Remember our favorite fifteen-year-old girl, for example? Well let’s modify her story a little. Let’s say that while she’s listening to music, a car she doesn’t recognize comes down her driveway. Let’s say the driver is a boy she noticed the night before at the local teen hangout, the one who fingered an X into the air and said, “Gonna get you, baby.” Let’s say he flirts with her and tries to coax her into the car, and she starts to realize he’s actually a grown man dressed up like a teenager. So is the guy in the passenger seat, who eventually asks if he should go yank out the phone cable. The first guy tells him to shut up, then very sweetly threatens to set her house on fire and hurt her family if she doesn’t come get in his car. Still boring?

That’s the summary of a story called “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, and it’s bristling with tension. Why? Because of all the conflict! The girl wants the men to leave, but that desire is thwarted. She wants to stay inside her house, but that desire is endangered. She wants to protect herself, but she also wants to protect her family, and if she believes the man in the car (which she shouldn’t), she can’t have both. She also wants other things that are thwarted, endangered, or opposed, and this is the web of conflict that produces both the action of the story and, ultimately, its deeper meaning. It creates the tension, it launches the plot, and it evokes the themes. Quite simply, without the conflicts, there is no story.

To understand what’s interesting about a story, then, you only have to keep an eye out for what the characters want, and then what gets in the way of it. Those questions will lead you through the story’s branches and into its beating heart.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Bushnell, J.T.. "What is a Conflict?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 25 Mar. 2021, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-conflict. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers and Students

Check out the following free (OER) PowerPoint and MS Word activities to solidify your understanding of conflict in a story

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms