Definition of Central Conflict

The central conflict in a piece of literature is the main problem in the story. The central conflict is often the driving force behind the plot; the conflict builds, then climaxes, and eventually is resolved. The central conflict in a story can take on a variety of forms, depending on the nature of the story. It is often the inspiration for the plot and character development in the story.


The conflict in a story is significant because it causes most of the excitement in a story. The beginning of a story leads up to the central conflict, and the ending of the story shows how that conflict resolves itself. The conflict makes a story interesting to read and shows the motivations of the characters, as well as the consequences of their actions.


There are two main types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict happens when a character feels a conflict within himself. He may struggle over significant issues such as a new career or a moral conflict; he may even struggle with something minor such as a wardrobe change or a breakfast choice. Whatever the conflict, it is internal if only one person is involved. External conflict involves the main character in opposition to someone or something else. He could be in an argument with another person, pursued by an angry mob or stalking a whale. The external conflict arises in the meeting of two sides of a situation.

Genre Connections

The literary genre of a story often revolves around the type of conflict present in the story. A romance will usually involve a conflict between a male and a female character, or perhaps between the members of a love triangle. A mystery story will generally involve a crime in the central conflict, and a tragedy often involves death as the result of the central conflict. The conflict is such a driving force in most stories that it literally determines the literary genre to which the story will belong.


The central conflict in a story will usually be apparent toward the beginning of the story. This gives the reader something to look forward to. As the conflict becomes stronger or more complicated, the story builds toward the climax. During the climax, the conflict comes to a major upset, when the character must face the conflict head-on and make decisions about how to resolve it.


When a conflict is resolved, there is generally very little time left before the end of the story because once the conflict reaches its resolution, the reader loses interest in reading the story. Whether the resolution involves a new conflict or a "happily ever after" scenario, the resolution of the conflict brings about the resolution of the story itself.

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