Conflict as Catalyst for The Story: How The Use of Conflict in Storytelling Makes Stories Worth Reading

By Jaclyn Barrows. Jaclyn works in a daycare centre/preschool and in multimedia production in Columbia, Missouri, USA, where she lives. Please read her article and leave thoughts and comments down below.

“If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling—or reading.” -Veronica Roth

Life in our universe on earth is centered around the constancy of conflict, with some little glimmers and glances of peace shining through it. The scientific law of entropy, or the gradual descent from order into chaos, serves as not only an absolute for our universe, but as a prime example of how conflict occurs within the vastness of our reality, not to mention what results from said conflicts. All living things, terrestrial and celestial alike, struggle and fight for the survival of themselves and their appointed species; even nature itself will go to the trouble of reclaiming everything other lifeforms take from it.

It’s quite simply the nature of the beast.

This reality we all live in is full of trials, problems, and issues that all of us have to face daily. A method that we as humans have developed over time is to tell stories (either written down or passed down through the generations) that help us cope with the problems that we face, and maybe even teach us much needed lessons that serve as an aide to our personal and societal growth.

I. Conflict serves as a catalyst for growth and relatability within a story.

Perhaps it is because of the existence of chaos (manifesting in the form of problems, issues, and/or trials) in the lives of all things living that conflict becomes the catalyst behind a story’s relevance to the reader. Conflicts within the context of a story establish and showcase important elements such as overall growth in a character or set of characters via teaching lessons learned while facing such trials. In the vast majority of cases, conflict is used within a story as the catalyst, or turning point, that either changes the course of a character’s life, or provides a reason for the character to fight for something they want. Keep in mind this doesn’t always have to mean an ultimate battle between good vs. evil (although this is a road often chosen in classical storytelling); other conflicts include character vs. self, character vs. another character, character vs. society, and character vs. their world.

Conflict within a story, in other words, makes a story relatable to the reader, for we all (hopefully) experience growth and change within ourselves and as a group over time the more we go through trials and tribulations of our own. The existence of conflict and chaos will not end until our reality comes to an end; thus, we need a character or set of characters to go through a problem or issue of some kind in order for us to be able to relate to that character and the overall storyline.

II. Conflict creates a goal and a realistic or semi-realistic timeline for accomplishing that goal.

Conflict also gives rise to a highly relatable three-act story structure involving a beginning, middle, and end that includes most if not all of the complexities and nuances of said conflict as well as a goal to be satisfyingly accomplished for the reader. The reason this works so well within a story context is because this is, frankly, how we view the progression of time in our universe.

We see everything as having a beginning, middle, and an end to some degree.

The conflict(s) presented in a story act as the catalyst that sets the overall story and goal(s) of the character(s) in motion usually at some point in the beginning. This allows for the middle to showcase the adventure, the consequences of actions a character has taken, and other smaller conflicts that help build up the story, all while finally wrapping these elements up in the end. The story may take anywhere from 5 words (in flash fiction) to 500 or more pages, but the organization of the story and where on the timeline the conflict begins is the same.

It is also worth noting that conflict serves as a catalyst by creating either a problem that needs solved, actions that have (sometimes dire) consequences to a character or the world that character lives in, or a goal that has to be accomplished by the end of the story. Thus, we see that conflict indeed does become a sort of catalyst that causes a chain reaction within a story, and makes the audience want to listen and/or read the story to see how it plays out.

Conflict is what makes the story pick up the pace from the character’s normal life at the beginning, and gives rise to the adventure that makes the story worth reading all the way to the end.

III. Conflict is what drives humanity; therefore, it has to be what drives a story.

We humans crave having something to fight against and cause us to have to push ourselves to our limits. Without conflict in our lives (although it is at times overwhelming), we often don’t know what we’re made of, and our lives become static. This comes from an innate knowledge that we always have places where we can individually and societally improve as a species. We are not perfect, and we need things like conflict and goals to give us reason to get out of bed in the morning.

This goes hand-in-hand with point #2, but conflict has to be not only the catalyst for why the story is being told, but in some ways, the driver of the overall story. This still applies to character driven narratives, for the conflict can reside within the lead or a supporting character. Again, conflict is exactly what makes a story relatable to the audience.

By all rights, conflict has to be in storytelling, seeing as how without it, the story becomes too mundane and idealistic. In other words, the story doesn’t have much of a point without some sort of reason to fight or accomplish a goal. The plot just stays static, with characters that do not experience growth in their story arcs. Even simplistic and light-hearted animations and historical fiction films showcase a struggle of some kind in order to get the audience to feel for the character(s) and their plight. In short, conflict in storytelling is a reflection of how conflict affects our own lives, and thus must be a central part of the story in order to showcase a realistic world, whether in fiction or nonfiction.

Veronica Roth stated in no uncertain terms that “if there’s no conflict, then there are no stories worth telling—or reading.” This much is certainly evident in our reality, and true of both fiction and nonfiction storytelling. Conflict is the key to what makes a story pick up the pace, becoming both interesting and memorable in the process. The best stories use conflict as the reason why a character or group of characters must fight for survival, to defeat an evil force, or to conquer a fear within themselves despite all odds. It is these types of stories that become the classics told for generations no matter what genre. Thus, conflict is absolutely necessary for storytelling, for conflict is what makes stories relevant and realistic to our experiences as members of humanity.


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