One of the easiest tidbits of advice a writer can find on the internet involves conflict. It's easy to find blogs telling the new writers to put conflict into every scene.
I recently saw a tweet by someone—I don't remember who wrote it—saying something like "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Try giving your characters a hard time."
Bullshit—just like tons of other advice out there on blogs, books, and writing forums.
The problem isn't that it's wrong. It's a little thin on detail; what do we expect from Twitter? The problem is that it's off the mark. I remember a Southern Baptist preacher once telling me that the word Sin originally meant, "Missing the mark." I guess we could say it's a downright sinful bit of advice.
Let's word it differently. "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Make sure your characters have powerful motivations." Or something like that. If your characters are desperate and passionate in ways that throw them into clashing conflicts, you won't need to make up trite little difficulties for them to fuss over. The other characters will create a hard time for them.
Is conflict enough? Are we done at that point? Is it just a simple matter of ensuring conflict is present in every scene? I struggled with this when I outlined my first novel. It tripped me up. It wasn't working. Is it bad advice?
Not really; but the crux is in the word "present." Conflict can be direct or indirect. It can be present or promised. (I use the word tension to indicate promised conflict.)
A scene is part of a major movement in a story. That movement is usually a point in an arc, typically culminating in a disaster-dilemma-decision swing. The scene may just be building up tension for a future conflict, like in the Matrix when Cypher meets with Agent Smith, betraying his friends. There's no conflict in the scene, but it's promising us more conflict in the future. (And it's born from a perfectly understandable motivation.)
Speaking of steak—there is such a thing as conflict without an edge. The conflict, whatever the form, must carry stakes along with it. Something must be at risk. The threat of a goal being lost must exist.
I recently struggled with a scene where two characters argued about how to do something. They wanted the same thing, but they argued about the method of getting it. I didn't care about the method because I had decided they got it. Nothing was at stake. Luckily, I realized the problem as soon as I tried to write it.
The solution is to change it. I could keep the argument, but inject stakes somehow. I could imply all of this in another scene to let the reader know that they had argued about this earlier. I could skip it altogether.
In this case—I decided on an experiment. I realized that a temporary character in the scene had a lot at stake, so I switched to his POV. He cares about the method. He represents many people who care about the method in this story world. It may not work. It may be cut, but it's an attempt to work around the problem naturally.
So conflict is direct or indirect, present or promised, in-progress or building. When that is understood, when something is at stake, then, yes, every scene should be full of conflict.
Bonus Material: those stakes are a great clue as to when a scene (or story) should open and close.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.