If a story is a building, then conflict is the wiring. You can have a house that’s not wired for electricity, but although it looks pretty and offers shelter from the elements, that’s it. You can’t do much modern living inside it, can you? Where are the lights? Where are the receptacles for lamps, computers, televisions, and toasters? How can you operate the kitchen stove? There’s no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no security alarm, no automatic garage door opener. Sure, we can live in the structure, but not comfortably or conveniently.
Think about the last time you experienced a power outage in your home. How quiet it became. Every faint hum, every sigh of forced heat or air, every subliminal buzz … silent. The life of the structure was cut.
A story without conflict is just as dead.
Years ago, a student once asked me in frustration, “Do I have to have conflict in every scene?”
The answer is YES! If you want life and movement and sparkle and verve, you’d better feature it.
However, in evaluating a story idea under development, you should think beyond mere scene conflicts or car chases. Ask yourself whether there is any conflict inherent in the basic plot situation.
For example: Say that you’re writing a story about a child and his pet goldfish. The child loves the fish, and the fish swims around its bowl and begs for food. Maybe the child’s younger sister is jealous and wants to call the pet hers. Unable to share, they squabble.
Are we yawning yet? Because of extremely low stakes, there’s no potential for conflict beyond the level of incidental bickering. Oh, sure, I could maybe push the idea around and build it up and make something of it. But unless I’m seeking to write specifically for a young child’s magazine, the exercise isn’t worth my time.
So in evaluating plot ideas, ask yourself what’s at stake?
Is it whether Bob can chill his bottle of expensive Chablis to the correct temperature before his dinner guests arrive?
Or is it whether Bob can save his wife from execution by the vampires that have invaded his McMansion?
The stakes correlate directly to the amount of trouble the protagonist is in.
Low stakes equal smaller trouble, leading to weak conflict and a story that will probably stall before the finish.
High stakes equal big trouble, leading to strong — possibly intense — conflict and a story that will escalate all the way to the climax.