Thoughts on Conflict in Writing Prompts

The A-to-Z Blogging Challenge has just concluded and it’s back to regular posts. While my month was a bit busier than I thought it would be, I enjoyed reading blogs and finding more writers like me out there to connect with and learn from. For those who followed my blog and commented on my prompts last month, thank you so much again for stopping by and following along. I look forward to having you back and keeping up with your blogs as well. If anyone commented on one of my prompts and I haven’t responded to you yet, feel free to let me know in the comments here so I can stop by and read a post or two–I don’t want to miss you!

*Also, my prompts for letters K and L are now up if you want to check them out.

In reflection, I had a lot of fun doing all those writing prompts. One thing I tried to include that I didn’t always see in other writing prompts was conflicts. Conflicts are the catalysts around which a plot is based as opposed to simply making lists or dabbling in descriptions, dialogue, POV (point of view), voice, or character-building exercises, etc. I think so many “story prompts” have failed me in the past because they weren’t really suggestions for writing stories but rather suggestions for creating story elements. While describing a scene using the five senses is an excellent exercise for the beginning writer who hasn’t considered that aspect before, those descriptions are nothing more than nice pictures hanging on a metaphorical wall with no story behind them until a conflict is introduced that gives those pictures purpose, relevance, and direction. Conflict is the key ingredient that makes a story happen.

When I first started writing with the serious intent of publishing a piece of fiction a couple of years ago, I found a lot of prompts for beginners that suggested brainstorming a variety of things like character, setting, dialogue, and so forth as I mentioned in the list above. I got pretty good at brainstorming my own lists and coming up with “great” and “unique” ideas for these story elements on my own, but the concept of weaving them into a satisfying journey was still a bit of a mystery to me and I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. I also kept running into plotting clichés and contrivances (where I made characters do things they probably wouldn’t have done given their personalities or circumstances because I wanted the scenes to move forward in a certain way). Indeed, what was ultimately missing for me was an understanding of conflict.

A great story doesn’t just have a great setting, an idea you’ve never seen before, a unique twist on an old theme, or an interesting character. Like the letters of the alphabet, only so much about any story will be unique–and even then the only thing unique about the letters we use to form words is the pattern and combination we use rather than the invention of new symbols (at least in a phonetic alphabet). The conflicts aren’t necessarily unique either. They might be, boiled down, man vs. nature, falling in love, the journey of revenge, and so on. But what makes them unique is putting your character in the context of their personal setting and giving those common conflicts a personal flavor. That’s what makes every individual’s daily conflicts unique, I think, though we share the same kinds of conflicts. If my sister and I had boyfriends, my sister breaking up with her boyfriend might be similar to what I might experience breaking up with my boyfriend, but the differences in our personalities, tastes, and choice of work venue will also make our experiences with breaking off a romantic relationship individual in a way.

In my opinion, great stories that feel fresh and unique aren’t based on grand, unique ideas. They’re based on basic human conflicts we’ve seen a thousand times that have been uniquely personalized by a character (his goals, weaknesses, fears, strengths) and his setting. Don’t just throw your character to the lions. Pit his goals against his weaknesses, his strengths against his fears. Make your characters proactive in resolving the conflicts they encounter.

To sum it up, there are a lot of writing exercises out there that focus on a mere element or two of story creation. Pushing myself to create 26 writing prompts that offer conflicts as well as setting and character creation this month has really boosted my confidence in my ability to devise good plot seeds as well as create good story elements. If you’re ever stuck on a story you’re writing, or you thought you had a good idea but don’t know where it’s going anymore, I would recommend writing a series of prompts on your own where you practice simply identifying ways to tie elements of the things you love into feasible conflicts.