Kill the “conflict argument” – Holly Lisle

So, you guys have probably learned my ridiculous love and respect for Holly Lisle by now, I’m sure.  Well, this is her latest e-mail tip.  I thought that my awesome writer friends wouldn’t mind a peek.

Holly’s Tip — Kill the “conflict argument.”

I get some questions in my mailbox that just HAVE to go out to a
wider audience that the person asking them, and this question from
Shanice is a perfect example.  She writes:

Dear Holly,

I am a beginning writer, who on the recommendation of a friend of
mine, subscribed up to your “Holly’s Tip” email… thingy… (Sorry
at the moment I cannot think of a better word than thingy) and I
would like to say that it has helped me so much I cannot begin to
describe it (well I could but it would bore you to death).

However, one problem I continually run into, when writing, is
conflict. I cannot write anything above a minor argument, I just
don’t know how to. I’ve tried looking over conflicts that have
happened in my life, and I’m lucky to say that they have only been
minor, which doesn’t help my writing unfortunately. Whether it be a
fight between two friends, or a fight which leads to a war, I just
cant seem to write what would happen, and if by some chance I do
manage to write a conflict, its so easily resolved it essentially
becomes useless for me to put it in there in the first place. So, I
was wondering, would you be able to gave me a few tips on writing

Yours Sincerely,


The first thing you HAVE to know to write good conflict is that
while arguments and fights are conflict, CONFLICT IS NOT ARGUMENTS.

On a sheet of plain paper, draw a HUGE circle—the biggest you can
put on the page.  It’s okay if it’s lopsided.

Now, somewhere inside the circle, draw a tiny, tiny circle.  TINY.
You can see a little bit of white on the inside of the circle, but
an ant could not turn around in it without crossing outside of it.

Label the big circle CONFLICT.  Label the little circle ARGUMENTS

Arguments are about the worst and least interesting form of
conflict to put into fiction.  They’re rarely relevant, they’re
frequently bitchy, and they almost never move your story forward.

If you’re looking for conflict, you address the following three

POINT ONE: WHAT does my character NEED to do more than
anything else in the world?

This question is the heart of whatever story you’re writing—if it
isn’t the actual summary of your story, you’re either writing about
the wrong character, or you’re telling the wrong story.

(In scenes featuring secondary characters, you ask the same
question, but the need will be different, and generally less
directly connected to your main story).

POINT TWO: WHO OR WHAT stands in the way of your character
RIGHT NOW to prevent him from doing what he NEEDS to do?

You ask THIS question on a scene-by-scene basis, and it will cover
everything from direct attacks by your primary antagonist to the
woman on the subway having a baby to your hero’s bad head cold,
depending on your scene and its circumstances.

POINT THREE: WHY does your reader care?

You can also ask this question as “WHAT are the stakes?” but you
can convince yourself to hang on to a pointless, boring scene with
that question.  From personal experience, I’ve discovered if you
ask why your reader should care, it’s a lot harder to lie to
yourself about needing the scene.


Bob NEEDS to rescue his girlfriend Kate, who has been kidnapped by
a wacko admirer and would-be rival.

Three potential conflicts for the scene:

1) He’s spotted her in a crowd, and is racing to her.  A woman
stops him to ask him the time, delaying his pursuit and causing him
to lose sight of her.


2) He gets the phone call from the kidnapper, and afterwards argues
with his buddy—who was with him during the call—over whether he
should go to the police or not.


3) He’s taking ransom money to a designated drop point when he
realizes that the drop point is a trap and the kidnapper wants to
kill him to get him out of the way.

Take a minute, and write down why you would or wouldn’t use each of
these conflicts.  I’ll wait.   :-)



. . . . These dots are me waiting, and giving you some white space
so you won’t read ahead and see my answers. . .







Conflict #1 just sucks.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
does something stupid/ Bad thing gets worse BECAUSE character does
something stupid.

You don’t sell a story using stupidity as your plot device.

Your hero sees the love of his life in a crowd, being dragged away
by a lunatic, and he actually allows himself to be stopped for a
pointless question from some equally pointless stranger?

HOW can your reader care about an idiot whose priorities are so
obviously nonexistent?

He can’t, he won’t, and you’ll lose a reader.

Conflict #2 is irrelevant.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
does nothing/ nothing changes.

Heroes take action.  They do not sit on their butts arguing with
their friends about whether or not they SHOULD take action.

TALKING IS NOT ACTION, no matter how many bull-session yakkers
think that arguing the future of the world over pizza is going to
actually affect the future of the world.

Any argument that does not happen WHILE characters are DOING
something that actually moves the story forward has no place in
your story.

Your reader will watch these two fools sitting on their couch
arguing, and he’ll think, “What’s the kidnapper doing to his victim
while they’re doing nothing?”  And he’ll close your book and go
shoot evil aliens on his X-Box.

Conflict #3 is solid.

It follows the story progression of Bad thing happens/ Character
takes action/ Action takes character deeper into trouble.

Bob does SOMEthing—and it’s something that should fix the
situation, if the kidnapper were an honorable man.

But kidnappers aren’t honorable, and as Bob and his bag of
hard-earned bucks are walking into the dark alley, Bob’s sudden
realization that the kidnapper can have his money AND his life, and
get his girl at the same time, will give your reader something to
care about.

WHAT your character needs.
WHO stands between him and it.
WHY we care.

Write with joy,


P.S. These are conflict’s baby steps, and I cover this material in
much more depth in How To Think Sideways
as well as from a completely different angle in in How To Revise
Your Novel.

But this will get you started, and will keep you from making the
awful “argument as conflict” mistake while you’re writing.

This email is Copyright Holly Lisle. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any portion of this email is strictly
prohibited without the express written consent of
Holly Lisle.

Get your own copy of this newsletter here:


While doubting that Ms. Lisle will ever read this, I’d like to extend my well-wishes.  She’s been ill, and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong (except that it’s not a brain tumor or an aneurysm), so “Get well soon, Holly!”

I hope you all enjoy the tip.


Filed under Life, Writer's Group, Writing

14 responses to “Kill the “conflict argument” – Holly Lisle

  1. unabridgedgirl

    Okay. Totally loved this! I must sign up for her letter thingy now. :)

    • Her letters have been few and far between lately, but her website is still full of neat things. A lot of the things she has on there are really helpful. =] Glad you liked it, though.

  2. Lua

    This was amazing, I just subscribed and can’t wait for the next tip…

  3. I want to sign up for the letter thingy too!!! Me too me too me too! I feel like a kid begging for ice-cream ^_^”. How do you subscribe, though? I’m an idiot, I couldn’t find it on her website :(…

  4. junebugger

    Thanks for sharing this with us!!!

    This has nothing to do with this article, but I always read your blog via my blackberry so was never able to mention how I love this new layout of yours.

    Urgh! Speculative fiction! I remember I forgot this term when I was asked it on my English exam.

  5. That was fun and revealing, thanks for sharing.

  6. How wonderful! I must also sign up for this “thingy.”

  7. Thank you. i just got back from signing up. Now eagerly await wise thingys from this writing guru.

  8. Cities of the Mind

    Hey, that’s bloody awesome advice, thanks for sharing!

  9. So I googled conflict Holly Lisle and you came up 5th, so YAY! Also, this was the most useful. :)

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