An Easy Way To Notch Up Your Scene Conflict

An Easy Way to Notch Up Your Scene Conflict

An Easy Way To Notch Up Your Scene ConflictScene conflict is what keeps your story running, chapter after chapter, page after page. Conflict is the heart of each scene, and each of those scenes is one of the dozens of tiny engines keeping your plot moving forward—and your readers glued to the page.

It’s helpful to think of scene conflict as not so much an altercation, but rather an obstacle. It’s something that gets in the way of your protagonist’s scene goal and either full-on prevents him from gaining that goal or pushes him sideways to create consequences. (All of which, of course, prompts another scene goal for the scene after that and the scene after that and the scene after that.)

That’s the essence of scene structure, and the essence of a good scene.

But it’s not enough.

To create truly compelling scenes that defy your readers’ expectations in all the right ways, you’ve got to take it up yet another notch by creating not just scene conflict, but complicated scene conflict.

What Successful Scene Conflict Complications Look Like

In order for your scene structure to work properly, the scene conflict must arise directly from the character’s scene goal to create an organic outcome. Goal, conflict, and outcome must be all be related.

The good news is this will help you create a beautiful sense of unity and cohesion within each scene.

The bad news is it can also result in predictable scene conflict.

Readers instinctively understand the character’s goal is what sets the stage for the conflict to come—which means, they will usually have a pretty good sense of what obstacles might arise to create any given scene’s conflict. While this isn’t always a negative, it does mean, at the least, that you have a fabulous opportunity for upping the stakes, pulling some plot twists, and surprising readers in all the best ways.

Consider, Anthony Ryan’s fantasy Blood Song, about a young boy who is apprenticed to a Templar-like order of religious warriors. In an early scene, he is sent out on a routine survival test, in which he is dropped off in the woods and forced to make his own way home.

In itself, this scenario presents conflict enough. The character’s goal is to get back home. The obstacle/conflict is the rigors of the wilderness, which might slow him down or even kill him at any point. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

But Ryan did an excellent job of notching everything up. Instead of settling for his scene’s acceptable but predictable course, he added the unforeseen and decidedly more interesting complication of having previously-unknown assassins hunt his young protagonist for mysterious reasons.

Not only was his scene conflict complicated in an entertaining way, this new scenario neatly turned the plot and deepened the story’s subtextual undercurrents.

5 Steps to Help You Complicate Your Scene Conflict

Consider some of your recent scenes.

1. First off, make sure they do indeed possess scene conflict, and that this conflict is a logical and consistent obstruction of your character’s scene goal.

2. Take a step back and think about the progression of this conflict. Is it exactly what readers would expect to obstruct your characters’ goal? Is it the most likely and obvious obstruction?

3. If so, how can you change things up? Think about whether you can switch out the current conflict/obstacle entirely, in favor of something more original. Then ask yourself if you can add yet another unexpected element.

4. Make sure the complications are not random. They can’t be just more conflict for the sake of more conflict. They must be paid off at some point in your story, whether immediately or many chapters down the road.

5. You also don’t want to add so many complications you create chaos within your story. Creating a scene in which complexity and simplicity can live side by side requires attention and skill.

When you pull it off, you’ll delight readers and pull them ever deeper into the spell of your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What complications do you think you could add to your current scene conflict? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. For sure I’m going to add these in as I write my novel this month. (I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo yayyy. So excited!)
    With the other novels I’ve written, I can’t say I knew a whole lot about theme or character arcs or anything, but now I’m really hoping to dive into that better, and add a layer of internal conflicts at the same time as external. And also going to be paying more attention to the reaction after the action scenes.
    I like writing plot twists, but my best ones always seem to be the ones that spring themselves on me unplanned as I’m writing them and I just sit here spurting words out of the keyboard and wondering where in the world I got them from. 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Have fun! I’ve been re-reading one of my early novels today. It’s been interesting to me to see how I was instinctively using (and, sometimes, *trying* to use) proper scene structure and pertinent plot reveals. But I can look back and remember how hard it was, because I was running entirely on gut feeling, rather than a conscious understanding of the effect I was trying to achieve and how to achieve it.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. Nothing you write above was new to me. But. The reason I religiously read your articles and listen to your blogs is because you have taught me so much about writing. Even when you talk about ‘boring old things’ I know well… you suddenly say something in your own way and *bling* I’m thinking about it in a completely new way, or connect it to something I’ve never linked it to before. You always teach me something new, always add to the wholeness of my writing skills and always give us something new to think about.

    By the way… I was surprised when you said Patrick O’brian was your favorite author. He is mine, too. I have read and listened to his entire series many times, especially with Patrick Tull as reader. He’s like a member of my family.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Patrick O’Brian is the best. He just sheer astounding brilliance. I still haven’t quite finished the series. I’m nursing it along, rather dreading the moment when it’s all over.

  3. I think creating enough conflict is one of the hardest things about writing novels. I write mysteries so, of course, there’s a lot of conflict but layering it in to have red herrings, plot twists and multiple suspects can be difficult but it has to be done right or there’s no fun in it for the reader.

    The ‘book’ that came easiest to me to write and manage all of that was the one I wrote in serial form. The format makes you pick an overall theme for your protagonist or main characters. This might span several books (a series theme). Then there’s a sort of ‘season’ them for just that book. The layers of conflict come into play as you write each ‘episode’ for the ‘season’.

    The episode, normally a few chapters toward the final book, must have a self-contained conflict and resolution storyline but it must also drive the season and series plots forward. Not every book can be serialized, of course, but it works well for mysteries and the format helps to add in layers of conflict.

    Readers who only read the fully compiled novel rather than following the serial along for 10 weeks before I released it in novel form have marveled at what I constructed. I’d recommend serializing your work to any author (especially in mystery or action/adventure) who is struggling with layering in plenty of conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is hard. We might even say the art of conflict is the art of the novel itself. The trick is to create a seamless chain of cause and effect *without* allowing it to seem contrived.

  4. Ugh, my greatest struggle is making all the conflict spring from the protag’s pursuit of his goal. Honestly, I have trouble narrowing down a single story goal for the protagonist in my fantasy WiP. I would say his goal is to return to his homeland- but that’s only after he begins remembering who he is. I suppose his ultimate goal is survival, and most of the scene conflicts could be related to that somehow. But this is definitely something I need to work on. It’s tricky, too, since I’m juggling a lot of subplots and need to make sure not to drop any. I’m also sure I’m guilty of disobeying numbers 4 and 5. Writing is just so complex- so many things to keep in mind! Then again, that’s why I love it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s fine (preferable, even) if characters have multiple goals, as long as they’re all tied together in some way. For example, we often see stories in which the protagonist is pursuing an external plot goal–but along the way, he also wants to win the love of a fair maiden. This only works when his motives for glory and love are related, and/or the fair maiden’s presence is only possible *because* of his pursuit of the external goal.

  5. I’ve read advice that says you should always be asking: what else can go wrong? How can you make things worse? Beat up on your protagonist to the limit, and then some. But I don’t know, it makes me feel like a sadist torturing my characters for a cheap thrill. As the protagonist in my own life, I hope no writer’s doing that to me. Like you said, conflict needs to be plausible and original. I’d rather design major conflict into the story well in advance, keeping it relevant to the theme and major characters, and at least somewhat realistic. I shouldn’t have to shoehorn it in, and if it’s complex I can’t. For minor conflict, internal dialog can raise the tension by exposing my protagonist’s fears and uncertainties. I also don’t like continuous conflict. It may be great for the climax, but I need rest areas where the tension and pace are subdued, if only for contrast. I hope the reader likes that too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This isn’t bad advice, by any means. But the pitfall is that if you follow it to the letter, what you often end up with is melodrama. The key is to always be mindful of your plot. Yes, you always want to look for ways to raise the stakes and create complexity within the conflict. But it must always serve the end goal of the plot and not exist just for gratuitous thrills.

      • True about the melodrama. I guess you always have to be somewhat of a pantser, even with a good outline, if you want to keep it lively and organic.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes! I adamantly believe every writer is a mix, to one degree or another, of plotter and pantser. Both are entirely necessary skills for writing a good story.

  6. Ahhhh. All your posts are so brilliant and insightful! I’ve actually been suffering from writers block for the past few days, but I think you just gave me the tools to break out of it. Thank you! <3

  7. Thanks again, Katie, for helping others write better material. This blog provokes a question, though. Trying to invent enough conflicts ti fill a novel is driving me crazy. Does EVERY SCENE really have to have conflict?

    Don’t some scenes need to serve another purpose, such as reveal things we didn’t know about characters, their lives, attitudes, desires, or past events that influence the present? Don’t we need some scenes to show the characters’ relationships developing in positive ways, or their activities in pursuit of external goals, or how their experiences in the story lead them to change their internal or external goals? Aren’t the changes that form a character’s arc also reflected in activities and situations that don’t involve conflict or struggles?

    And does this differ from one genre to another? It seems like conflict defines mysteries and thrillers. While a love story or fantasy needs some, it’s not the “meat” of the story. Or is it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are about four variations of scene type:

      Scene = action = conflict.
      Sequel = reaction = tension (or the promise of conflict to come).

      Then we have two types of scene that don’t qualify for proper scene structure:

      Incidents and happenings–which I’ve posted about here: Incidents and Happenings: Scenes That Aren’t Actually Scenes

    • Hello Dana,

      I am still fairly new to this and have been working on this myself so I thought my recent epiphany might help. I read somewhere that the individual conflicting goals of your characters will provide interest and the necessary conflict to propel the reader forward. For example, if you had a character that was a die hard Yankees fan and you needed a scene to show that, you could write one where he and a friend discuss their mutual love of the Yankees. This reveals his attitude about the club but might not keep readers interested long enough to find out why that was important. However, if his friend were a Red Sox fan, that adds conflict and their rivalry adds a new flavor for their friendship. This also makes the scene more interesting to the reader. That is my take on it. Hope it is helpful.

  8. “4. Make sure the complications are not random”

    I have an additional query to no.4^. Do the progression complications in a scene stem from the same source of conflict?

    So if a character was called in to be a part of jury and the inciting incident (of the scene) was her finding out it was a murder case. Would all the complications opposing her scene goal arise from the conflict of morals vs ethics? It’s a bit hard to explain with the lack of context. But is all the complications leading up to the revelation or disaster of the scene building upon the main conflict introduced by the inciting incident??? Depending on how the character interacts with those complications (changing tactics) could it also branch out to other conflicts? Or does one scene usually only hold time and space for one source of conflict? Just person vs person not person vs person AND person vs environment?

    (I’m guessing that person vs self is always present anyway for use of subtext so I won’t refer to it as part of the query….unless i am wrong 🤔 which in that case, do share haha)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Any and all conflict within a scene should be a natural progression of cause and effect. For example, if the point of the scene is that the character doesn’t want to be on the jury for a murder case, then you wouldn’t want the complication to be that someone ordered the jury foreman the wrong lunch.

      That said, it is usually best when a scene can focus tightly one one main thrust. John Ford once said (paraphrasing) that “a scene should about one thing.”

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