The Necessity of Conflict

6 Ways to Create Riveting Conflict in Your Story

Who says conflict is a bad thing? Who says world peace is the most important goal of humanity? Who says arguing with your little brother when you’re a kid means you’ll grow up to be an ill-mannered ruffian?

Not a writer, that’s for sure!

Arguably, the single most important tenet of fiction can be summed up in the saw “no conflict, no story.” You can break every rule in the book (pun intended) and still have a whopper of a tale—so long as you remember to throw a dash of conflict in your story. Or, actually, a heaping tablespoon or two would be preferable.

The simple fact is: fiction has its very basis in conflict. If the main characters aren’t clashing, if there are no wars, if the aliens are content to stay unobtrusively in their own galaxies—then we really don’t have much of a story do we? Think about it. If Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had hit it off from the beginning, we never would have experienced all that wit and sizzle in Pride and Prejudice. If the North and South had simply resolved their differences over a handshake, Scarlett O’Hara would never have needed to escape a burning Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. And if the Martians had minded their own business back on Mars, Orson Welles could never have made history by freaking out thousands of people with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

So how does one go about manufacturing this most precious of story ingredients? Happily enough, conflict is actually one of the easiest (and most fun) bits of storycraft. As humans, we all know a little something about anarchy and chaos, and it really isn’t that much of a stretch to borrow some of that from real life and spread it around on the page. But just in case you’re feeling stumped, here are a few suggestions.

1. Create Personality Clashes

This is the easiest (and, often, the best) way to throw a little conflict in your story. Because character interaction is always at the heart of any story, it’s the character clashes that will produce your most consistent conflicts, and generally your most interesting ones as well. The key thing to remember about clashing characters is that they must clash for a realistic reason. Characters who get along perfectly for the first third of the story can’t suddenly, for no apparent reason, explode into a manic fistfight. Of course, we probably don’t want our characters to get along perfectly for the first third of the story (how boring is that, right?). Instead, we try to craft characters who will naturally push each others’ buttons. And I’m not talking just good guy/bad guy confrontations. Make sure your hero is surrounded by foils. If you find yourself with a character who tends to affirm your main character at every turn, spice him up by throwing a little unexpected rebellion into the mix.

2. Put Characters in Unexpected Situations

Many stories base their entire premise on this idea (think of the Pevensie siblings tumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or young upper-class Jim Graham sent to a Japanese prisoner camp in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.) But even if you don’t go quite that far, you can still take advantage of the unexpected by forcing your character into situations and relationships that go against his personality or inclinations. If you have a heroine who is terrified of speaking in public, why not put her in a situation where she has no choice? She’ll either cave under the pressure or rise to the challenge. Either way, the reader will be hooked.

3. Up the Ante

For a long while, I had tacked on my bulletin board a note which read, “Think of the ten worst things that could happen to your character.” Kind of sadistic, I know. But readers aren’t interested in stories about characters who sail through life without ever encountering hardship, danger, or sadness. Rip your characters apart, put them under excruciating pressure, and then when things look like they couldn’t possibly get any worse—make sure they do.

4. Combine Inner and Outer Battles

Nancy Kress, in her fantastic book Beginnings, Middles & Ends spoke about the necessity of including both inner and outer battles:

Every paragraph in your story should accomplish two goals: advance the story (the plot), and develop your characters as real, individual, complex and memorable human beings.

In other words, conflict has to occur not just on the larger scale of the novel (whether that be a family crisis or World War III), but also on the smaller theater of the character’s inner life. Every scene must include the outer battle (the physical reaction to conflict) and the inner battle (the psychological and emotional reaction to events). Any scene that lacks one or the other, is teetering on the edge of the Cliff of Not Enough Conflict.

5. Building to a Climax

Although it’s vital that every scene contain some level of conflict, it’s also important to monitor the general flow of that conflict. You have to open your story with enough conflict to grab the reader’s attention, then keep building on that conflict to keep him reading. But you don’t want to pour on the danger and the distress so thick in the beginning, that you run dry by the end of your story. Using foreshadowing and tension, build your conflict steadily to the high point of the climax.

6. Maintain Balance

Stories are about balance. A tale in which is there is no conflict is going to be just about as boring as watching condensation dissipate. But a tale that never pauses to let its characters (or its reader) catch their breath is boring in its own way. We have to find ways to adjust the level of the conflict. We have to give our characters a chance to slow down and get their thoughts gathered for the next attack. Stories must consist of both large- and small-scale battles. Mix things up. Throw in a variety of conflicts in all colors, shapes, and sizes and keep both your characters and your readers guessing.

Forget what the peace pundits (not to mention your mother) are always telling you, and heap on the conflict in your story. After all, a little peace and quiet never got an author anywhere.

Tell me your opinion: What is the chief source of conflict in your story?

6 Ways to Create Riveting Conflict in Your Story (1)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. Linda Yezak says

    Great, as always. I love the pic.

  2. So many people don’t perceive the conflict in there life or have so little that it seems inconsequential but it IS the thing that unifies all beings and humans especially.

    Absence of conflict in a story where we are attempting to ape life, just doesn’t ring true (or at least is suspect).

  3. Someone once asked me, “Why can’t you write nice stories?” And my immediate response (although I didn’t voice it)was, “You mean a story about one of those mythical families that gets along in perfect harmony? How boring!” Conflict, whether we like it or hate it, is the most interesting thing about life – and thus also about fiction.

    • Katie,

      We did have a family like that we called it the Brady Bunch and it was terribly boring.

    • My secondary character is the protag’s love interest, but I have 2 problems:

      1. the external conflict for the love interest I planned adds nothing to the main plot
      2. I noticed the love interest has no goals outside of the protag

      I don’t want the romance in my story for the characters to like each other just because.

      The characters do not like each other instantly, but I fear that without goals outside of the love interest, it will end that way.

      My other problem is that the love interest doesn’t start off with any goals until he sees the love interest in the vision. His arc doesn’t start until he sees this vision.

      How can I come up with goals for my love interest that don’t involve the protag?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Look for goals the two characters have that will either support each other’s goals or get in each other’s way.

  4. Oh, yes, using psychology to build up characters is a great element! It allows the characters to clash by themseves! Like in my WIP I have a mind-person hero and a heart-person heroine, so he refuses to admit his feelings and she will go crazy trying to make him open up! lol

  5. That’s an excellent example of how inherent personal conflicts can drive a story. It’s believable and interesting simply because it’s all a natural outflow of the characters’ established personalities.

  6. I agree! What makes it interesting is the fact it´s natural 😛

  7. This is a really brilliant post, especially helpful to me at the moment when I’m about to start writing my first fiction novel. I’ll have to come back to this to refresh my memory at a later date.

  8. By the way – Up the ante is genuis! That’s definitely a point I’m going to use.

  9. Congrats on the beginning of your first novel! Enjoy the ride.

  10. I’ve yet to actually meet a writer who doesn’t understand, at least sub-conscioulsy, that stories are about conflict. However, I have met more than a few who seem to be uncomfortable with it. Their story will have it, but it will be watered down, sometimes even polite. They’ll write a story with obvious elements of violence, but the characters’ reaction will lack real feeling. There will be mild anger where there should be rage. There will be silence where tears should be. Not even internally do their characters react in ways indicating the effect of the conflict.

    Do you have any advice for writers who have this problem?

    • thomas h cullen says

      The catch here, is that in sincerely trying to remedy this problem you may have to alter some core aspect of your story – God knows, when writing The Representative I was forced to fundamentally re-consider the whole essence of the piece, in order to be truly respectful to the reality that I’d aspired to create.

      It can be dealt with…..but would you be willing to revamp a core component of the story?

      That’s the price you’d likely have to pay.

      Hope that helps.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My first step would always be getting the author to question *why* he’s so deeply uncomfortable with facing conflict on the page? The issue is usually in the person, not the writing. Second, it’s important to remember that conflict is nothing more than an obstacle placed between the character and his goal. As such, it definitely doesn’t have to mean guns blazing. Authors who are uncomfortable with violence can still create meaningful conflict without ever going there.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Like introducing the cause for internal moral conflict.

        Throw a spanner in the works, necessitating the need for the protagonist to re-assess the situation they’re confronted with.

  11. I don’t write romance, but I always include strong romantic thread in my books. Why? It’s the ultimate source of conflict and tension. The novel I’m currently editing involves the crash of America as we know. And my protag is on the run from federal authorities. But I also gave him not one, but two love interests (one of which framed him for murder), put his rich white hide in a workers camp full of diverse, poor, and angry victims of the collapsed economy, and gave him a 16 year old girl stowaway, because teenagers are the second best source of tension and conflict. I broke his leg, too. If you can think of anything else, let me know. Once you’ve had your novels rejected enough, being nasty gets easier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Romance is easily the most complicated and potentially conflict-laden relationship in the human experience. And it’s like a car wreck. Readers can’t look away!

    • thomas h cullen says

      That was entertaining. You have a good sense of humour.

      My text (I don’t refer to it as a book or story, but preferably just text), The Representative, is itself in manner of perspective also about the United States.

      Again…..in only a certain manner of thinking.

      It’s also definitively political.

  12. This is just what I needed to kickstart some new conflict in my novel. I love it! My favorite part was the suggestion to focus on inner conflict and outer conflict at the same time. Nice organization for this post and supremely helpful too!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Outer and inner conflict create the layers that take stories from simple to complex. But their symmetry is a beautiful thing to behold, because, when done right, one powers the other, in an endless cycle of cause and effect.

  13. My conflict is both people around protagonist who hate him and a monster who is tracking them through a foreign town. I think having the beast attack once and then have it hanging over their heads for a while is a great way of bringing out the best in all my characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Non-human threats often serve only to bring the human conflicts to the fore.

  14. I have a problem with #3. I have seen this done sooooooooo many times in TV/movies. The problem is when you crank it up and then make it even worse you now have to do something ridiculous to get them out of it and that is when it all falls apart for me because it strikes me as gimmicky and unrealistic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a good point. There is definitely such a thing as raising the stakes *too* high. This is why it’s so valuable to know how a story will end before we start writing it. If we know where the conflict needs to be at the end, we can start it in a place that allows us to up the ante by realistic degrees.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Just in case you’re feeling stumped on how to create conflict in your story, here are a few sugges… […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.