The Art Of Subtle Conflict In Fiction

The Art Of Subtle Conflict In Fiction

We’re told to include lots of conflict in our stories, but how do we do it well? In this post, we look at the art of subtle conflict in fiction.

The Art Of Subtle Conflict In Fiction

Conflict is a huge part of fiction. It is what keeps the reader reading, but it is also a tricky word. When we first think of conflict in fiction, we think of car crashes, fist fights, and bombs going off. This is perfect if you are writing in a genre that requires that, but when we write for gentler genres, the conflict becomes less obvious and much less physical.

This is most often because there is not an evil antagonist. I have written often about the antagonist that does not have to be an ‘axe-wielding serial killer’ before, but that the antagonist is simply a character that is in opposition to the  protagonist’s story goal.

Remember that ALL stories have conflict on two levels. We have outer conflict. This would be the bombs and the fist fights. And we have inner conflict. This is usually the characters’ own self-doubt, desires they wish to suppress, stubbornness, or any character trait that can cause self-sabotage or make them doubt their ability to achieve their goal.

The inner conflict is usually resolved by achieving or attempting to achieve the story goal. For example, the stubborn character must learn to work with/listen to other characters to achieve the goal. The shy character with little self-esteem learns to stand up for themselves, when they free themselves from their oppressor.

TIP: we also forget that conflict does not always have to be negative. Positive events also cause change. Think of job offers, interesting things found, surprises uncovered or revealed.

About The Dig

I watched The Dig on Netflix and I was struck by the beautiful story that used subtle conflict to create a gentle, yet well-paced story.

This post contains spoilers. If you have not watched The Dig I recommend doing so before reading further. The synopsis is below.

The Basic Synopsis:

The Guardian explains: ‘[The Dig] is based on the true story of the sensational Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk on the eve of the second world war; an Anglo-Saxon burial ship was found by the self-taught working-class archaeologist Basil Brown, whose historic discovery the academic establishment instantly tried to appropriate, without credit. He had been hired by the local landowner and widow Edith Pretty, who had long nursed an instinct that there was something in the “mounds” on her property.’

DISCLAIMER: I have not read the book, so I cannot say how the movie differs from the original work. Although the story is based on true events, Netflix has been criticised about the liberties it takes with history. Hello Magazine and Screenrant explore what was truth and what was fiction, but remember, in this post I want to discuss the art of subtle conflict in fiction, not historical accuracy. This will also make interesting reading for people who are writing stories based on true events. 

What Writers Can Learn About Subtle Conflict In Fiction From The Dig

Conflict usually comes from the antagonist, but also from the setting and other characters in the story.

A. Let’s look at the character roles and their relationship to the story goal:

1. Protagonist: Basil Brown

Story goal: he is hired to excavate what could be burial mounds.

2. Friend: Edith Pretty

Story goal: the mounds are on her land and she wants to know what is in them. She hires Basil. Edith takes on the role of the friend character who has a shared goal, but an attraction between her and Basil, who is married, is also hinted at. Her role as the friend though is stronger than that of the love interest, but it is good to keep in mind that these role can change as your story and the character relationships progress.

3. Antagonist: The elitist academics from both The Ipswich Museum and The British Museum.

Story goal: At first they are not interested in the dig. They just want Basil back. As the dig becomes more important, they wish to take the credit and the treasure, and then they want to stop Basil from digging due to his lack of formal education.

B. Let’s look at the subplots:

  1. Various academics arrive to help with the dig. Most notably, Stuart and Peggy Piggot. While Peggy’s husband’s attentions are focussed on someone else she begins a relationship with Rory Lomax, Mrs Pretty’s cousin.
  2. Robert Pretty’s father has died, he forms an attachment to Basil and is worried about his mother’s health.

C. Now let’s consider the conflict:

1. Characters & Conflict: 

Basil Brown:

  1. He is hired by Mrs Pretty to do the excavation, but he was not formally trained as an archaeologist.
  2. Despite his lack of training, he is much in demand with his previous employer who keeps trying to get him back.
  3. He is not very rich; excavating does not pay much. He initially does not take on the work due to the low wages, but Mrs Pretty increases her offer.
  4. He disagrees with Mrs Pretty about where to start.
  5. He is buried when a mound collapses.
  6. He changes his mind about which mound to dig.
  7. He is married, but an attraction between him and Mrs Pretty is hinted at.
  8. He hasn’t read his wife’s letters.
  9. His wife arrives unexpectedly. She pressures him, but also reminds him of his goals.
  10. He is dismissed.
  11. His lack of training puts him at odds with the formally trained archaeologists. He may only ‘keep order’ at the dig.
  12. They do not believe him when he predicts the age of the find.
  13. He will most likely not receive any recognition.

Edith Pretty:

  1. She is a widow.
  2. Her son, Robert, is growing up without a father.
  3. She is sick. The doctor misdiagnoses her condition. She needs to travel to London for a second opinion.
  4. Basil’s previous employer tries to lure him away.
  5. The museums keep wanting to stop Basil from digging. She must constantly defend him.
  6. The museums want to take over her dig.
  7. Basil is married.
  8. Her cousin Rory has enlisted and is waiting for his papers.
  9. A formal inquest must be held to determine who owns the treasure.
  10. She is conflicted and often questions the ‘rightness’ of digging up someone’s grave.
  11. Her declining health makes her question life after death.
  12. She is worried about her son and what will happen to him after her death.

The Museums:

  1. Dismiss the dig at first in lieu of a more important find.
  2. The need Basil back at the other dig.
  3. They do not believe Basil when he predicts the age of the dig.
  4. They are in conflict with Mrs Pretty who defends and champions Brown despite his informal training.
  5. They try to dismiss Basil.
  6. They will only allow Basil to ‘keep order’ at the dig.
  7. They are in competition with each other for the treasure.
  8. The inquest rules that the find belongs to Mrs Pretty.
  9. Mrs Pretty refuses to let the treasure go to London because of the threat of bombings.
  10. Mrs Pretty won’t tell them what she plans to do with the treasure.
  11. She doesn’t seem interested in selling the treasure.
  12. She finally makes a decision that only benefits one museum. 

2. Setting and Conflict:

Setting is a great way to add subtle conflict in fiction.

The Dig is set in England.

Weather: The weather is a challenge as it rains a lot and the dig is open, but also because they have limited time to complete the dig. The rain keeps delaying their work.

War: They have to finish as quickly as possible because Britain is about to join the war and then all digging will cease. There is an RAF base nearby. Planes fly overhead and remind us of the imminent threat, and lack of time. A plane crashes nearby and a pilot dies.


  1. There are rabbits who burrow into the mounds.
  2. Basil needs lodgings, the dig is too far from his home to travel daily.
  3. The mound collapses on Basil, almost killing him.

3. Subplot & Conflict: 

Peggy Piggot:

  1. She is young and inexperienced, but a very promising archaeologist.
  2. She is the only woman on the team.
  3. She thought she was hired for her skill, but instead she was hired because of her slight frame.
  4. Her husband keeps calling her Margaret.
  5. She only has holiday dresses, not clothes appropriate for a dig.
  6. Her husband is not attentive.
  7. Her husband is very close to another member of the dig.
  8. She makes friends with Rory Lomax. Her husband is wary.
  9. She makes the first significant find.
  10. Her husband leaves her at the dig.
  11. She must move into Mrs Pretty’s house. She can’t stay alone at the pub/hotel while her husband is away.
  12. She spends more time with Rory, especially after the crash.
  13. She takes care of Robert.
  14. She is the only adult present when Mrs Pretty has an episode.
  15. She separates from her husband.

Robert Pretty:

  1. His father has died.
  2. He is an imaginative, clever boy who wants to go to space.
  3. He is eager to help with the dig.
  4. He forms an attachment to Basil.
  5. Basil leaves.
  6. He travels a long way to remind Basil of his promise.
  7. He is close with Cousin Rory, but Rory has enlisted and is going away.
  8. He feels that he must take care of his mother, but that he is failing, because she is sick.
  9. He takes his mother on a voyage and tells her that he will be alright ‘when the queen leaves’.

The Last Word

I loved the use of subtle conflict in fiction throughout this quiet, gentle film. There isn’t even a bout of fisticuffs. At most there is a firm command or slightly raised voice. It is all very British, but it is never slow or boring. I hope this will help you when it comes to adding conflict to your story without having to resort to bombs and car chases. Look out for the next post: The Craft Of Not-So-Subtle Conflict In Fiction

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

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Posted on: 18th February 2021

2 thoughts on “The Art Of Subtle Conflict In Fiction”

  1. It took me a long time in my entry into fiction to appreciate that certain words didn’t mean what I thought. I believed that world-building was about fantasy. I believed that a protagonist was a Dick Dastardly type and I didn’t realise that because I wrote romance, they still applied. Conflict was fisticuffs. This useful article helps me shake off another of those mysteries.

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