How to Double Your Story's Conflict in Seconds

How to Double Your Story’s Conflict in Seconds

If a little of the right kind of conflict is good for your story, then how much fun can you get out of doubling your story’s conflict? The answer: oodles.

Your Story’s Conflict: The Standard Variety

The basic premise of story conflict boils down to a simple equation:

 Goal + Obstacle = Conflict.

Your character wants something in the story overall and each specific scene. But thanks to the obstacles provided by the antagonistic force, the character has trouble reaching that goal.

That’s the essence of plot right there. No story can run without that fuel in its engine. Every time your character’s pursuit of his goal is even partially stymied, he must dream up new ways of moving forward in his pursuit. And, just like that, a story is born.

Your Story’s Conflict: The Deluxe Variety

But why stop there? Readers love layers. Let’s try a more complicated equation:

Goal + Conflict + Complications = Twice the Conflict

When your character is thwarted in his straight-up pursuit of the goal and he has to improvise to find new ways of reaching that goal, he’s often going to leave chaos in his wake. Sometimes that chaos is going to come back to haunt him. In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley explain:

Characters are not only running toward the Goal, but trying to outrun the Consequences as well. Tension increases when one is both the pursuer and the pursued.

Your Story’s Conflict in Action

Consider a few examples:

In Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, the protagonists’ goal is to extract their men from a mission gone bad and get everyone out safely. This goal is then obstructed with the basic conflict of heavy enemy resistance. The protagonists react to this obstruction of their goal by throwing more troops into the mix, which creates more chaos, which leads to further problems as the rescuers become just as endangered as the men they were originally sent to save.

In Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia, the protagonist’s goal is to track down his father’s murderer and clear his own name. This goal is complicated by his brother’s pursuit of him, which causes the protagonist to react again by turning to his uncle for help—which leads to further problems when the uncle betrays him.

In Alan Taylor’s recent Thor sequel, the main character’s goal is to extract the Aether from his love interest and prevent the bad guy from getting his hands on it. When his immediate goal is obstructed by his personal inability to extract the Aether, he takes it and the girl to his home planet—which creates its own problems when the bad guys sense the Aether and come looking for it.

In all these instances, we can see how the protagonists’ actions cause the conflict to escalate. Even as they’re racing madly forward, trying to overcome all the obstacles and reach their primary goals, they’re also being chased just as madly by the consequences of their attempts to reach that goal.

Never let your character get off easily. If you can hit him from one side, you can hit him from two. When both the forces hitting him are integrally linked sources of conflict, what you’ll end up with are the kind of layers that will create a complex and resonant plot.

Tell me your opinion: What consequences of your character’s actions are chasing him?

How to Double Your Story's Conflict in Seconds

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. My protag, on the run from federal authorities sometime in the future, takes a job handling the accounting for a big orchard in Ohio. He discovers accounting games have been played to cover up the abuse of the transient workers, who he lives among and has befriended. When the company owner gets wind of my protag’s meddling, he has several of the more vocal migrant workers murdered, along with a local man trying to organize them. My protag, in doing the right thing, gets his friends and allies killed. This is occurs at my story midpoint.

  2. Steve Mathisen says

    Excellent tips! Just as I am getting deeper into one of my stories, you have given me more ideas for pumping up the conflict for my protag. Mwahahaha. Poor girl won’t know what hit her. 😉

  3. I saw Blackhawk Down and Thor 2 and they are great examples. I also thought Catching Fire pulled off multiple layers of conflict just as much or better than the book. Nice post!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Haven’t seen the Catching Fire movie yet, but the books are great examples of conflict coming from all directions.

  4. I’m here collecting juice to stir up more conflict in my WIP. Love that quote from Dramatica. I can feel it flowing now.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The Dramatica book is absolutely worth reading. Heavy going, but it raises some excellent thoughts on story theory.

  5. I love how easily you’ve laid this out. Complications make stories so much more interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Simplicity, of course, is its own art form, but what reader doesn’t love a beautifully crafted story of complexity?

      • As I work on my current writing project, I am learning that telling a story with a strong conscious bias towards any principle in particular can be a trap. I am learning that this can disturb the natural ecology of storytelling. Perhaps the trick is to know when to consider the principles and when to forget them – when to let go. Because sometimes less conflict can equate with more. More quality, simplicity and power. Its great to trade thoughts with you. I love both your books, often telling friends about your work.

        • K.M. Weiland says

          Knowing the rules – and knowing when to break them – is really what the craft of fiction comes down to. But it’s much easier to say than to do sometimes. We have to get in touch with our own story tastes and instincts and figure out the reasons why certain things work for us and others don’t.

  6. This is one of my favorite things to do to my protagonist. I’ve found that throwing in unforeseen complications is also a good way to build character.

    • Definitely. What is does is really force the character to evaluate his goals and motivations. If what he’s doing and the reason he’s doing it are causing all kinds of problems for both himself and others, he has to stop and reconsider his every move.

  7. Kay Anderson says

    Excellent post!

    Consequences are always good to use when creating characters reactions to situations and to show how their differ in response. In my story, Jessica’s father, Melvin Smith, suffers consequence for not being a good father figure to Jessica or her little half-brother Chris. While her mother Trudy was ailing, he was a drug addict and wasn’t there for her. If he were Jessica would’ve never had to go through the foster care system and end up living with her slyful Uncle Nelson when she was a little girl who constantly abused her behind closed doors. Because of this Jessica and Melvin’s father-daughter relationship is strained when he attempts to be a part of her life after serving years in prison and completing rehab, and Jessica finds it hard to forgive him for not being there when she needed his protection. Therefore, Melvin has a lot of making up to do. Lots of missed time.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      This is the stuff of compelling thematic explorations. We cheer for characters who have overcome their desire for wrong deeds, even as we understand why they have to struggle through punishment for coming to their resolutions too late.

  8. If my protagonist saves the girl, a secret may come out that will ruin his Dad’s political career.

  9. My protagonist’s conflict is made worse by his own actions. A 75 year old man, he confess to his grandchildren that the fantasy stories he wrote are based on actual events. As a result, the children become accomplices to their grandfather’s adventures by meeting a whole new world which in turn puts them in greater danger.

  10. In one of my projects, my MC is being chased by two antagonists, one who wants to thwart my MC’s goal of doing the job he’s been hired to do, and the second wants to stop my MC from becoming intimate with the antagonists ex-fiancée who he’s not willing to give up as easily as she’s willing to cast aside.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Always great to layer our conflicts in our subplots as well. For every goal, we need to examine possible ways to complicate the hero’s ability to achieve it.

  11. My protagonist is impregnated by her step-mother’s brother. An abortion is haphazardly done leading to her losing her womb. Now, she wants revenge but her she only wounded are ex-lover thereby pushing her into the street where every man wants her body. Now, she must keep her body, hide from the police, her family and still get her revenge…

  12. Excellent advice and excellent examples, as usual. Thanks!

  13. This is great advice. Thanks so much! In my WIP, I’m having problems with this exact thing. I’m afraid my character’s goal is a little too vague, too large, and I’ve been thinking I need her to pinpoint something specific. Right now, she and a friend are going back in time to try to stop a law from being passed, so that in the future, an epidemic won’t be wreaking havoc. (Haha, loooong story.) I think this is just what I need. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Time travel stories are ripe for this kind of complicated conflict. If you change something in the past in an attempt to fix the future, who knows what else you’ll mess up!

  14. Jennifer Stogner says

    Great article, as usual. This one is probably one of my favorites. Thanks so much! (:

  15. Complications are my bread and butter. If the conflict isn’t constantly building through complications, it can go sit in my reject pile. =)

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Doesn’t get much simpler than that! Except, of course, for getting it to actually play out in the manuscript.

  16. I’m probably horrible like that but I always like to have several secrets and problems brewing. Sometimes there is ill intent but sometimes its just mothers meaning well and trying to help when they should just be getting very far away (preferable all at the same time or in quick succession) and since I always seem to have such flawed characters it can only get worse until ofcourse its alright again. But I do find they have to work and struggle before earning a happy ending.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Nothing wrong with layers of conflict! It makes the mare go ’round in fiction. Depth is always a good thing.

  17. Robert Burroughs says

    I am so glad I follow you on Facebook, I just noticed how much useful information you post. This is the kind of stuff I spend hours searching for.

  18. I’m amazed at what authors need to decide before they write a rough draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some people prefer to just dive in and think about this stuff in the revision phase, but I find it much more efficient to plan ahead.

  19. Nice article but you do realize Black Hawk Down was not a story but real life? Michael Durant was shot down and captured in Mogadishu. The conflict in the movie was not fiction.

  20. Christine Hall says

    Hi Katie. Christine Hall here. Great article. I’ve written three novellas and worki g on the se ond short story. Not sure where to go now.
    Please make sure I’ve subscribed to ur blog.

    Thanks, Christine hall

Trackbacks

  1. […] If a little of the right kind of conflict is good for your story, then how much fun can you get out of doubling your story's conflict? The answer: oodles.  […]

  2. […] K.M. Weiland: How to Double Your Story’s Conflict in Seconds […]

  3. […] How to Double Your Story’s Conflict in Seconds […]

  4. […] Helping Writers Become Authors explains conflict as “Goal + Obstacle = Conflict.” According to their article, in order to double your conflict, all you need to do is add some complications to the equation. Basically, make it as hard as possible for your character to accomplish his or her goal. […]

  5. […] Helping Writers Become Authors explains conflict as “Goal + Obstacle = Conflict.” According to their article, in order to double your conflict, all you need to do is add some complications to the equation. Basically, make it as hard as possible for your character to accomplish his or her goal. […]

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