Writing A Conflict Lock

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Written by JJ Barnes


The conflict lock of your story sets your Protagonist and Antagonist against one another. It launches your story.

One of the key ingredients to a successful story is for your characters to be well motivated. Your Protagonist, your main character, wants something and is motivated enough to after it, and you write that journey. But the conflict lock is what turns it from some random events into a real story.

What Is The Story Conflict?

How To Write A Conflict Lock, The Table Read Writing Advice
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Your story follows your Protagonist on their journey to either get what they want, or learn the reason they can’t have it. When that conflict is resolved, your story is finished.

In order for your story to have conflict, the thing that makes it interesting, something or somebody has to be getting in your Protagonist’s way. If they could just go and get it, whatever it is, then they would and there’s no story. So something has to be blocking them

The story begins at the inciting incident, when that story conflict is locked. Your Protagonist is motivated to go and get something, and your Antagonist is motivated to stop them.

How To Write A Conflict Lock, The Table Read Writing Advice
Photo by Tony Schnagl on Pexels.com

What Is The Antagonist?

Your Antagonist, usually a person, is responsible for this conflict. Whatever your Protagonist wants, your Antagonist wants the opposite for them. Sometimes they want the opposite because it’s something they want as well. It’s an object of desire and they can’t both have it. Sometimes they want the opposite result to your Protagonist. They’re motivated to not want your Protagonist to get the thing they want, so they try and stop them.

The Antagonist setting against your Protagonist is what locks the conflict. They need to be as motivated to get what they want.

You can have multiple Antagonists all contributing to the effort to prevent your Protagonist having success for different reasons, but I’ll just focus on the one for now.

How To Write A Conflict Lock, The Table Read Writing Advice
Robin Hood

Robin Hood

In the classic tale of Robin Hood, Robin is the Protagonist. Robin Hood’s story goal is to stop the Sheriff of Nottingham from exploiting the people, and to marry Maid Marion. In every incarnation of the tale, you witness Robin Hood setting out to achieve these goals.

Robin Hood’s Antagonist is The Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff wants to keep exploiting the people because it keeps him rich and powerful. And he also wants to marry Maid Marion.

In Robin Hood, there are two main lines of conflict locked between Protagonist and Antagonist. The object of desire they’re competing over is Maid Marion, and they can’t both marry her. The conflicting goal is the desire to stop the taxing, and continue the taxing, and they can’t both happen.

The moment they’re set against one another, your story begins. The story is resolved when the conflict is resolved; when Robin stops the Sheriff and gets what he wants in marrying Marion.

Dante’s Peak

How To Write A Conflict Lock, The Table Read Writing Advice
Dante’s Peak

In Dante’s Peak, the Protagonist Dalton wants to keep the people of the town safe from the volcano, and to try and stop it erupting. Whilst there are many potential Antagonists, I’m going to be talking about the volcano itself. In Dante’s Peak, the volcano “wanting” to erupt is what is getting in Dalton’s way.

Every time Dalton goes for what he wants, the volcano is a problem. He finds somewhere nice to live, the volcano is a threat that ruins it. When he wants to get people to safety, the volcano erupting is what kills them. He wants the officials to believe him, the volcano isn’t offering clear enough readings to convince them.

In this case, the volcano doesn’t have an active want, but it has a story goal to erupt. That is in conflict with Dalton’s story goal, and that conflict is locked the moment Dalton realises the volcano is a threat. It’s resolved when the volcano erupts, getting what it wants. Dalton rescues a few of his people, sort of getting what he wants, but it’s an unsatisfying compromise. Dalton has to accept he does not win this conflict.

How To Lock Your Conflict

In your own story, you need to set your Protagonist and your Antagonist against one another. Clearly identify your the story goal for your Protagonist. What do they want, why do they want it, and how are they going about getting it? Then identify your Antagonist, and ask the same questions. What do they want, why do they want it, and how are they going about getting it?

Make sure that their wants are in opposition to one another. They can’t both marry Maid Marion, the volcano can’t both erupt and not erupt.

They will spend the course of your story both trying to resolve that conflict in their own favour. As the writer you’ll be following that journey, and pitting each against the other throughout, until you build the resolution.

Have the conflict lock into place in your Inciting Incident. That is the moment your Protagonist moves from passive to active and decides to go in pursuit of the goal, and is locked in conflict with the Antagonist who’s in pursuit of the opposite.

When Do You Lock The Conflict?

Ideally, your conflict will lock into place quite quickly. Your audience needs to know why they’re investing time and energy into your story, and the conflict is the reason.

This conflict lock needs to be clear, and it needs to be apparent. If it’s muddy and your audience is looking around for it, trying to work out what they both want, then your story is immediately off-putting. Nobody wants to be confused about what the story they’re actually engaging with is.

If you’re writing a script, put it in the first ten minutes. If you’re writing a book, in the first chapter. Spending time with your Protagonist prior to the story is fine. You need to use that time to demonstrate why they are frustrated with their life so that the motivation for becoming active is understandable. But not too long, your audience wants a story, so make it clear you’re going to give them one.

Lock that conflict efficiently, lock it quickly, then take your audience on that journey to find out the resolution at the end.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk

Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books

Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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3 thought on “How To Write A Conflict Lock”
  1. What if Maid Marian dies therefore neither man can marry her, where does one get the conflict than?

    1. If she died, you’d have the conflict of either avenging her death where one blames the other, or their internal conflict of having to decide whether they can cope and move on with another lover, or if they’ll stay in mourning. IF they move on, you’ll find conflict in whether the new partner can live up to her memory, is the new partner comfortable with the love that was stolen by her death and the ongoing emotional pain he’s suffering. There’s always conflict to be found, it’s simply about not letting them rest comfortably. If they’re content there’s no conflict.

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