Tangible and Intangible Conflicts

I’ve noticed lately that my stories come out “right” (complete/satisfying/like they’re meaningful and I’m really pleased with them) when I braid together one each of two main kinds of conflicts: a “tangible conflict” or external conflict, like a quest for treasure, looking for an antidote to the poison, building a wall before the flesh-eating spiders arrive; and an “intangible conflict,” like love, loyalties, trust issues, morality–internal and relationship conflicts. Without a tangible conflict, I have a hard time moving my plot forward and establishing setting. Without an intangible conflict, my characters are non-dynamic, lack sympathetic appeal, and I have a hard time establishing motive to drive them from scene to scene (yes, my main character is trying to find the antidote because someone important to them will die if they don’t, but why do they care? Is he/she afraid? Has he/she failed to save loved ones in the past?).

My strategy that seems to work so far has been to lead, first line, with a tangible conflict, and begin following with intangible conflicts as soon as the characters and setting have come into focus just a little bit. What this does for me is create a clear line of direction for my story to follow with the tangible conflict while I evolve and “discovery write” how my characters are reacting to the situation, what it means to them, and why (the intangible conflicts). Ultimately the two conflicts direct each other until I’ve tried three or four ways to solve the tangible conflict (remember try-fail cycles).

My advice in keeping a story tight, for what it’s worth, is to pick one main tangible conflict for your story, and one (or maybe two) main intangible conflicts for your story if writing from the perspective of a single character. That way, you’ll have everything you need to create a great plot, character, and setting suite without getting bogged down in superfluous detail, meandering, getting lost, wondering what passages are relevant and how you’re going to continue the story thread.

One clear “tangible conflict” + one relatively clear “intangible conflict” = one robust story with unique element combinations. Try it!

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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