Someone googled “How do you determine the conflict in a story” and ended up at my blog. Although I have written about conflict before, I had not addressed that particular issue; I wasn’t even sure I could come up with a simple answer if I had to. Then I realized that to determine the conflict, first we have to know what conflict is. In a story, conflict is desire meeting resistance.
Many authors, professional and amateur, confuse bickering with conflict, but unless there is an element of desire, such as one of the characters wanting information that the other doesn’t want to give, then there is no conflict, merely disagreement. I made that mistake in Light Bringer. I had a lot of historical information I needed to impart, so I had a group of people arguing about it in the hope that it would seem more immediate, but since there was no desire, except the relative low tension one of the characters wanting to be heard, it came across as bickering. I kept the section because it was a more interesting way of presenting the material than a lecture, and it did show the personalities of the characters, but there was not the immediacy conflict would have brought to the piece.
In a novel, there are many conflicts. Characters can be in conflict with each other, they can be in conflict with the environment, they can be in conflict with themselves. As disparate as these conflicts seem, in essence they are the same. Characters wants something and someone or something is preventing them from getting it. The greater the forces keeping the characters from fulfilling their desires, the greater the conflict, and hence the greater the tension. Time constraints add urgency to a conflict, and become a source for conflict themselves, as when one character needs (desires) to rescue another before a bomb goes off.
So, to determine the conflict, figure out what the characters want and who or what is keeping them from getting it. It’s as simple as that.