After we write down the original/kernel idea at the Write on the River workshop, we then spend considerable time filling out the Conflict Box on whiteboard. Filling out this simple diagram answers so many questions for your story. (June is full– next available slots 12-13 September).

The Kernel Idea starts your creative process. Conflict is the fuel that keeps your story going. Conflict reveals your characters’ true natures and draws the reader closer. It gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Without conflict, your idea cannot be translated into story.

Every scene in your book must have conflict. Conflict keeps a story going and reveals much about your characters. Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. There are 3 levels of conflict for your characters:

  • inner (inside the character). In many cases inner conflict occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
  • personal (between characters)
  • universal/societal (characters versus fate/God/the system)

You have to consider what your main character faces on each of these levels.

There are five major sources of conflict for people (although you can probably come up with more):

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Politics

Keep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.

Remember all characters have an agenda/goals they want to achieve. That gives them a driving force, even if it is a passive or negative one. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively or subtly. Or they could not pursue their goals, which also says something about them.

What is Conflict?

  • A serious disagreement or argument
  • A prolonged armed struggle
  • An incompatibility between two opinions, principles or interests
  • (v) be incompatible or at variance, clash

The Basic Story Dynamic Is:

  • The Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .
  • The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse)…
  • Because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .
  • Goals (the external things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing)

The Protagonist

  • Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with: smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different
  • Must seem real; flawed, layered, have a blind spot
  • Must have a unique voice
  • Must be in trouble, undeserved if possible, but usually not random
  • Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred
  • Must have a strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal
  • We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist
  • We must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly
  • The protagonist’s blind spot can be the fatal flaw, but at least brings about the moment of crisis
  • The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene

CONFLICT EXERCISE: What does your protagonist want most?

The Protagonist

  • Drives the story
  • You have one for one main story line
  • Does not have to be the hero/heroine or even good
  • If she fails, what is the result (stakes)
  • Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, defeating the …

The Antagonist

  • Must be someone the reader respects (fears): smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different
  • Must seem real; flawed, layered, have a blind spot
  • Must have a unique voice
  • Must be in trouble
  • Must be introduced as soon as possible, even if by proxy
  • Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal

CONFLICT EXERCISE: What does your antagonist want most?

The Antagonist

  • You have one
  • Drives the plot initially
  • You must do the antagonist’s plan and it should be very good
  • If removed, the plot collapses
  • Should be a single person so the conflict is personal
  • Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, fighting the protagonist because . . .

Their Goals Conflict

  • The reader must believe both will lose everything if they don’t defeat the other
  • Their goals are difficult to achieve because of external barriers, primarily each other
  • Their goals are layered, usually in three ways . . .

Goal Layers

  • External: The concrete object or event the character needs
  • Internal: The identity/value the character is trying to achieve via pursuing the external goal
  • Relationship/communal: The connections the character wants to gain or destroy while in pursuit of the external goal
  • People want to achieve their goals because of their . . .


  • The reason your character needs his or her goal
  • Everyone has an agenda
  • Every character has a primary motivator; Frankl’s One Thing
  • Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life

More On Motivation

  • The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
  • Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
  • The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers.
  • Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers…


  • What do you want? In the beginning of Don’t Look Down, my hero JT Wilder steps off a helicopter. He’s a Green Beret on leave, coming to a movie set to advise the lead actor on how to play a Green Beret. Being a guy, what’s Wilder consciously thinking? I’m going to get paid and since there are actresses here, maybe I’ll get laid.
  • What do you really want? However, Wilder is pretty much alone in the world. He’s left his A-Team and is in a teaching position at Fort Bragg. So on a deeper level he’s looking for a relationship.
  • No, what do you REALLY need? But he’s needs more than just one person. He was part of a team. What he needs is a relationship with community.

All these wants and needs were present in Wilder’s brain when he got off that chopper. However, the latter two were subconscious. As we hit each turning point in the novel and the pressure grows greater, the surface wants are peeled away until we end up at the need. The last scene of the book is Wilder flying off into the setting sun on a helicopter (mirroring opening scene) except now he’s got the relationship, Lucy, sitting next to him and the helicopter is full of people who have grown into a community. Contrast that with the opening scene where he gets off the chopper alone.

CONFLICT EXERCISE: What is stopping your protagonist from getting what he/she wants most? What is stopping your antagonist from getting what he/she wants most?

The Central Story Question

  • Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal?
  • When the reader asks that question, the story begins.
  • When the reader gets the answer, the story is over.

???????????????????????????????????????Central Story Question Examples

  • The Green Berets: Chasing the Lost: Will Wilder discover who killed Rachel and solve the murder and the drug trafficking?
  • Area 51: Will Turcotte uncover the truth about Area 51 and save Earth?
  • This question leads us to the…

The Conflict Box

The Conflict Box is used to visually diagram your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals and conflict. During Write on the Rivr we spend a lot of time figuring out the one sentence Kernel Idea first. Then we move on to the conflict box as a way of laying out the core conflict and story for the novel.

You can have conflict because

  • Protagonist and antagonist want the same thing.
  • Protagonist and antagonist want different things, but achieving one goal causes conflict with the other’s goal.

The Conflict Box

The core conflict based on goals that brings the protagonist and antagonist into direct opposition in a struggle that neither can walk away from. A key to filling out the conflict box is to look at each box separately and fill them in one by one. The goal box must have a concrete, external goal in it. Don’t confuse goal with motivation. The conflict is what’s stopping the character from getting that thing.

Here is a video showing the Conflict Box

Can you fill out your conflict box?