The #1 Way to Write Intense Story Conflict

The #1 Way to Write Intense Story Conflict

The #1 Way to Write Intense Story Conflict

One of the main pursuits of any writer is story conflict. The old saw tells us, “no conflict, no story,” so we’re always chasing after this little friction-causing engine. But as with so many things in writing, sometimes concentrating on the thing itself ends with us missing the forest for the trees.

Story conflict is all hard, confrontational, poky edges. Even the word itself is poky, with its hard c and t sounds and the visually jabbing f right there at its core. It’s anything but warm and cuddly—and why would we want it to be? It’s conflict! It’s angry eyes across the dinner table. It’s broken dreams. It’s napalm in the morning.

That’s the stuff of story conflict. That’s the driving force of great plots everywhere.

But, by itself, it will always fall flat. You will never reach your goal of writing gripping and intense story conflict if you haven’t first discovered a reason to make your conflict matter to readers.

That reason is empathy.

Your Ultimate Story Conflict Checklist

Let’s take a moment to consider the important factors that must be present to create worthwhile conflict in your story.

First of all, just dismiss the notion that conflict is two people fighting.

Nope, conflict is about the opposing forces of goal and obstacle. You don’t have to have two armies to get conflict; you can get it just from a man trying to figure out how to clean a stain off his shirt.

Still, most conflict in fiction will take the form of two human beings opposing each other. One or both of those human beings has a goal, and the opposing human being (the opponent) will be presenting an obstacle to that goal.

When Bob Wallace in White Christmas wants to go to New York to promote his show, while his partner Phil Davis points at his bum arm and guilts him into going to the skiing lodge in Vermont instead—that’s a goal obstructed by another goal. That’s conflict.

White Christmas Bing Crosby Danny Kaye Rosemary Clooney Vera Ellen Train Snow

Story conflict arises when one character’s goal is obstructed by another character’s goal—as when Phil guilts Bob into changing their plans and going to Vermont with a certain sister act.

But who cares?

Who cares if two people want different things? Bob wants to go to New York; Phil wants to go to Vermont; all God’s children want to go Hawaii. So what?

That is the question! That “what” is the entire key to making your story conflict so incredibly fascinating and engaging readers will be every bit as invested in your characters’ goal as they are.

The Warm and Gushy Heart of Story Conflict

Whenever you think of conflict, the first images and emotions that pop to mind are likely the harsh connotations we talked about in the opening.

Disagreements, arguments, fights, brawls, battles, wars.

But now it’s time to stop thinking of conflict in those terms.

Those terms aren’t incorrect, but they’re only half the picture. For the moment, stop thinking about conflict altogether, and instead give a thought to empathy. What new connotations spring to mind?

Love, perhaps. Relatability. Understanding. Sympathy.

Sounds pretty warm and gushy to be mentioned anywhere in the vicinity of conflict, doesn’t it?

But without empathy, your conflict will be a meaningless shell. Readers will have zero reason to invest in your characters’ desires and actions.

We often think of conflict as being the “interesting” part of a story. Conflict makes things happen, and when things happen readers pay attention. Right?

In an October 2016 interview with The Writer, Author Guild president Roxana Robinson noted:

Empathy animates connection and creates engagement. Empathy is the true engine of writing; without it, conflict is empty: It doesn’t matter to the reader if two people fight and you don’t care about them. It’s empathy that draws you, the reader, and me, the writer, into their hearts.

Have you ever picked up a novel that dumped you into a Code Red firefight right from the first sentence? Exciting stuff! The author was obviously doing his best to suck readers in with an exciting hook. But all by itself, that electric opening conflict is just as likely as not to fall flat.

Why?

Because at that point in the story, it’s just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Readers don’t know the characters and have no reason to care about the stakes. At that point, they might just as well root for the antagonist as the protagonist, for all they know or care about these people.

5 Ways to Jack Up Your Story Conflict With Empathy

How can you create the kind of empathy that will make your story conflict matter to readers?

Short answer is it all comes down to characters.

Create characters readers care about, and you can bet readers will also care deeply about the conflict those characters are engaging in.

The heart of empathy is relatability. Readers must be able to see a little of themselves in the characters, to put themselves in the characters’ shoes. When they do that, they will care. Why? Because, in essence, they will now be caring about that little part of themselves.

Here are five specific questions you can ask on your way to crafting rich and deep characters who will draw readers into empathizing with their conflicts.

1. What Is Your Character’s Motive?

I’m often asked, “How I can make readers like my character even when he’s maybe doing some pretty bad stuff?”

It always comes down to the character’s motive. Why is he doing what he’s doing?

Take over the world just because I’m a total psycho and it sounds like fun? Erm, not so relatable.

But: Backstab my best friend to get in with the cool kids? Ah, yes, most of us can at least relate to the emotions, desires, and pains that would spark such an idea.

For Example: The reason we care about Bob and Phil’s classic conflict in White Christmas is because we understand Phil’s motivations. He wants Bob to find a girl and get married because he’s “a lonely, miserable, unhappy man” (and also because Phil wants forty-five minutes all to himself). Currently, Phil may be the one making Bob miserable, but his heart is in the right place and we love him for it.

White Christmas Bing Crosby Danny Kaye Dressing Room

Readers begin caring about your story conflict by first relating to your character’s motives: Phil wants “45 minutes—all to myself!”

2. What Is Your Character’s Goal?

If motives were horses, beggars would take over the kingdom. Or… something like that.

The point is your character’s motives cannot live in isolation. It’s not enough for your characters to sit around having good (or bad) thoughts about something they’d like to do. Doesn’t matter how relatable a motivation is, readers won’t care a nickel about it until the character actually acts on it.

For Example: When Luke Skywalker sets out to save Han and Leia from Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, it isn’t just his honorable motivation that invests us in the conflict. We also care deeply about the goal itself. We’re interested in the forward momentum of it (he’s doing something about his desire), and we’re also invested in its outcome—and thus the obstacles and conflict Vader throws in Luke’s way.

Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Luke Skywalker R2-D2 Cloud City

It’s not enough for characters to have motivation. To create story conflict, they must act on their goals: Luke goes to save his friends in Cloud City.

3. How Does Your Character’s Interiority Present Him?

In a novel, you have the added benefit of drawing readers to your characters through the internal narrative. The deeper the narrative, the deeper you can pull readers directly into the brain of your protagonist. Readers get to experience life right alongside the character. They eat, sleep, and breathe with him. They become him.

This is the great cathartic power of fiction. The ability to relate and care about an imaginary personage as deeply as we do about ourselves is why we read in the first place.

After Dunkirk Milena McGrawFor Example: As the author, you get to use every word of the narrative to craft an interiority that draws readers into the realism of your character’s world and reactions. In Milena McGraw’s literary war epic After Dunkirk, she writes from the protagonist’s perspective:

And I . . . stank. Of fear: past, present, and future. (I’d stopped noticing it long before, of course; but they … they wrinkled their noses.) Stale sweat . . .  that sort of thing. And my shirtsleeves: clammy with my blood, of course. (Snip, snip. Skillful! Well trained!: the medicos, the Germans. They’d cut my shirtsleeves; then they bandaged me. Now what was left of my sleeves: the blood was drying. And blood has got a stench all its own.) I tried to look dignified . . . Pain.

4. How Do Your Character’s Relationships Affect the Conflict?

Readers  love characters not just for who they are, but also because other characters also love them (or, sometimes, fail to love them). Relationships are the driving force of all fiction, and, indeed, of most conflict itself. The deeper and more poignant (or ironic) the relationship between two characters, the more we care about the conflicts arising between them.

For Example: The catalyst of the true conflict in Dennis Lehane’s mystery thriller Mystic River isn’t so much the murder of the main character’s daughter, but rather the warped but enduring bonds between him and his two childhood best friends. Without the backstory between these three characters, the story’s conflict becomes mechanical and ceases to matter.

Mystic River Sean Penn

Your character’s relationships define (and usually cause) the story conflict: Jimmy’s childhood friendships are all mixed up in his daughter’s murder.

5. What Is at Stake for Your Character?

All of the above elements work together to build the final ingredient in convincing readers to care about your conflict: the stakes. Once readers care about your characters and their goals, they will necessarily care about what those characters stand to lose.

But for that to work, the characters must first stand to lose something. What is at stake in your story? What happens if your character is permanently stymied by the conflict’s obstacles and fails to reach his goal? The worse the consequences, the more invested readers will be in the outcome.

For Example: In Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedy Arsenic & Old Lace, protagonist Mortimer Brewster’s failure presents two possible outcomes—either his beloved aunts will be arrested as serial killers, or they’ll remain free to continue their mercy killings of old men. The stakes are as insane as the characters—and viewers haven’t been able to look away for seventy years.

Arsenic and Old Lace Cary Grant Priscilla Lane

Story conflict only matters to readers if there is enough at stake: Mortimer must save his aunts while also preventing them from killing again.

Empathy is the grease in your conflict’s cogs. Without it, the whole machine grinds to a halt. But if you’ve properly oiled every aspect of your story conflict, readers will care deeply about your characters’ altercations, goals, failures, and perhaps, finally, their successes.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What will make readers empathize with your story conflict? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Amen. So many times I’ve picked up a book that starts off in the middle of an action scene and I already want to stop reading because I don’t care about anyone yet. It’s even worse when authors want to start out with action but it wouldn’t fit with the plot, so they decide to start with a dream sequence! Now, not only do I not care, I’m not even reading the real story!
    Thanks for this website. All your articles are so helpful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, yes, dream sequences are too often one of the biggest empathy offenders. Even if you get readers to care, you then upend that caring by telling them none of it mattered!

  2. Kiersten Lillis says:

    This is so true! I recently read a book that I really and truly wanted to like. The world-building was pretty cool, as was the concept and some of the magic stuff. But I just did not care at all about the characters, especially the protagonist, which unfortunately killed any enjoyment I was getting out of the rest of the book elements. Good to remember that empathy is the magic ingredient!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, I just read a book that pretty much qualified on all those factors. It’s always sad when great worldbuilding and plotting is wasted because this most important of all ingredients is AWOL.

  3. The number one way. But here’s five, for kicks. Katie never fails to deliver – above and beyond!

    I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on Rogue One when you eventually see it – from a writer’s standpoint.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Was hoping to go this afternoon, but I think it’ll have to wait until after Christmas. Can’t wait!

      • Tony Findora says:

        I second that! Would love to hear your take!

        • I’ll third that. I’d actually love to see you do a whole series on it, because I find that you often illuminate what I can’t put into words about where a story went wrong – which I certainly thought this one did.

          I love Star Wars, but have found both Disney installments in the series lacking. In this case, I could not get invested in any of the RO characters (of which there were far too many). Most disappointingly, I thought they made a lot of mistakes with their main character. As a result I didn’t connect with any of the story’s intended emotional moments, resulting ain an experience that was all spectacle and no substance. At least in TFA, for all its many faults, I got pulled into the stories of Rey and Finn.

          But I’ll refrain from saying more until you hopefully treat us to your insights. 🙂

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I’ll have to ponder a series on it. At this point, I’m not sure Star Wars provides quite the same variety that let me do the Marvel series. But perhaps it will now that it’s branching out. I could definitely do a whole series on what *not* to do, based on the prequels. Maybe I will. :p

  4. K.M.

    True, I love white Christmas and it’s a wonderful life. In it’s a wonderful life in some scenes it makes me cry.

    I am getting my novella ready to be published.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My two all-time favorite Christmas movies!

      • Ms. Albina says:

        K.M.,

        Mine too. From It’s a wonderful like I don’t like Mr. Potter who is mean played by Lionel Barrymore. He did do great acting. I like Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and Dona Reed as Mary Bailey. They were a cute couple in the movie.

  5. This is one I’m bookmarking.

    I read point #1 and thought, “Oh yeah, that’s what I already thought!” Then on to #2 and #3, and it’s “Huh – good point.” The further in I got I realized all the more I needed to ponder.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For myself, I find it’s almost always the things I take for granted in my stories (oh, yeah, I totally got that covered!) that I inevitably end up realizing I need to do a little more polishing on. That’ll teach my pride. :p

  6. As part of a writer’s group plus a critique group, I want to forward this blog to all 99 of them. The advice is solid. In fact, it addresses the major challenge in my fiction writing. Conflict is easy to create but for readers to care about the protagonist involved in that conflict takes lots of skill and imagination. Thanks for the tips.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Feel free. 🙂

      I totally agree with you. All the structural aspects of story are downright easy in comparison to the complexity and importance of creating the kind of characters readers love so much they’d die for. That’s the magic ingredient of all fiction.

  7. I was hunting around on reddit’s writing subreddit, and found a post mentioning this, from Ursula LeGuin:

    People are cross-grained, aggressive, and full of trouble, the storytellers tell us; people fight themselves and one another, and their stories are full of their struggles. But to say that that is the story is to use one aspect of existence, conflict, to subsume all other aspects, many of which it does not include and does not comprehend.

    Romeo and Juliet is the story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals within those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?

    –Ursula K. LeGuin, from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway (4th Ed, HarperCollins 1996), p. 35

    Claudia Hunter Johnson identified that “something else” as connection, which sounds like empathy to me!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like the idea of “connection” a lot. I have certainly found, in my own reading, that the single ingredient that draws me into a story is a central relationship. It might be a romantic relationship but certainly doesn’t have to be. For instance, I’m a HUGE sucker for brother stories. Whatever the relationship, it’s that interaction, chemistry, and evolution between two people that makes the the events of the story matter to me on a personal level.

      • I find myself concentrating a lot on the relationships, and not just romantic. There’s father and son as well as the father and his father. The other grandfather reminiscing about his since passed wife. The dynamics between three siblings from three different fathers. The guys who’ve been neighbors since kindergarten and those who’ve been close friends since the first day of college. Sports teammates. Adult sisters.

        I’m sure there are others.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          In your comments, it’s the father/son relationship that shines through most clearly, even though the romantic relationship is at the heart of the premise. It’s great to use lots of different relationships to reflect on different aspects of the theme. Indeed, theme is largely realized, defined, and proven through the protagonist’s relationships with various archetypal characters.

          • The whole thing started with the romance, then I went back to the beginning because Dad had no presence. It turns out that may end up the strongest part.

            As is eventually shown, romances may come and go (something which teens need to learn) , but blood lasts a lot longer.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It’s fascinating to me how stories almost always start out with us thinking they’re about one thing–and then turn out to be about so much more than just that.

          • Thanks, that link was helpful. I was able to quickly identify the folks who filled the roles shown in the graphic. It was a little harder for the expanded list in the body of the piece. I’d already been thinking I needed to make a character list to help keep things organized, and as part of that I’ll list their archetype.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            A lot of my take on archetypal characters is based on Dramatica. If you’re not familiar with the system, I highly recommend their book (although it can be pretty heavy going).

  8. If one adheres to your recommendations for story structure, one will have met the characters before the action gets heavy.
    I don’t mind a bit of fast action to start if it is an introduction to the main character or sets the plot. A murder to give the detective something to detect.
    If things start with a long introduction without a problem or some form of action, I tend to toss the book. Too many fantasy novels start with baddies getting slaughtered by the baddy hunters but only one hunter survives badly wounded. LOL Or dragon hunters knocking off all the dragons but overlooking a recent hatchling that gets saved from starvation by a dragon lover.
    Done right, action does not have to preclude introduction of the characters central to the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. It’s a balance. Too much straight action and the reader never has no time to bond with the characters. Too much “character time,” in which the characters wander around talking about themselves, and readers abandon the whole thing out of boredom. Striking the right balance, especially in those opening chapters, is key.

  9. You made a very good point early on in this post. Conflict isn’t good vs. bad; it’s goal vs. obstacle. And, yes, the reader has to care/empathize with the protagonists goal, otherwise what’s the point? (In the reader’s mind).

    Thanks for another great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I believe the concept of “goal vs. obstacle” is incredibly important. “Good vs. bad” is *often* true, but by itself, it’s a tremendously limiting approach to conflict. More than that, it boxes us into a simplistic approach to theme.

  10. K.M.,

    My character in my novel and novella have a negative character arc that becomes positive. It is good vs. evil in the book also.

    Do you have a villain in your writing? Mine is Ruben, the evil sea deity. At the end of the novella, his eyes are shown like he is watching. Ruben’s amber eyes.

    In my novella, I have about 13 characters and 20 characters in my novel.

    When you write do you scanned or gazed in your writing?

  11. Wow! Thanks for all that. I read it through a couple of times and made notes and diagrams. Now to take a nap and dream about it. Internalize it.

  12. Thank you Kate for pointing out how powerful writers could be if we strive to write more skillful narratives. The idea that the interiority of our characters brings them to life for our readers is brilliant! When I write, I try to carefully construct the layers of story telling by creating imaginary people who overcome both inner and outer struggles. The friction from showing actions which clash with how the character feels is just one way I do that. The thing about being a writer is that we can spotlight and reveal the inner thoughts of our characters. You will never be able to do that in real life. We writers are powerful people and that’s enough to keep me writing forever!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your approach is excellent. I just finished reading a sadly one-dimensional book that could have been benefited so much from this approach.

  13. Andrewiswriting says:

    My comment isn’t about the post (sorry)

    I just wanted to wish you a Merry Xmas and say thanks for all the wisdom you shared this year. I know my work is better for it.

    Merry Xmas!

  14. I’ve have been wrestling with the ‘conflict’ element for my next book. You’vre certainly unlocked some thoughts on how I should approach it…thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great! Conflict is such a wonderfully multi-layered concept. Lots we can mine it for in our stories.

  15. An audience need not empathize with a conflict, but its context. If George has a problem with his girlfriend handing a big salad to Elaine, the audience can’t empathize with any of them. But knowing the context, that George paid for the big salad sets up the potential for empathy. George complains to Elaine, Elaine complains to his girlfriend, she complains to George and dumps him. The audience feels empathy for all three characters and derision towards George.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Context is everything. It’s what grants the author total control over the reader’s perception–as long as he’s taking advantage of it.

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