Conflict is the crux of storytelling and plotting. It is the root of every TV show, movie, comic book, and whatever. It means that if you can’t write conflict, you can’t write a story. Many writers feel intimidated at the prospect of writing conflict, which is weird. We experience conflict in our everyday lives. We are surrounded by chaos and turmoil. The point is conflict isn’t challenging to master, at least when you understand its basic parts.
Conflict is an important part of your proactive scenes. The leading problem writers have with conflict is how they define it. Many writers will think of conflict as anything wrong that happens to the character if it’s not desirable. They see it as a conflict, but only certain things count as conflicts when discussing structure.
Creating conflict happens way before you start writing scenes. Whether you’re writing a detailed outline or starting writing, it’s essential to have some sense of the story conflict and at least how it will begin in your story. Your story is not a concept.
Your story will not be about planting ideas and other people’s minds through dreams. It won’t be about getting to the beauty pageant on time, and it won’t be about building a social media platform. Your story is about characters struggling to understand how to live their lives. Moreover, your story will be about love, betrayal, greed, meaning, purpose, or other ideas.
Although external conflicts will arise in your story, they will be necessary. They are meaningless without internal conflict because external conflict is what happens. Internal conflict is why it matters. This is the reason a lot of books suck. It’s why, after you finish reading a book that maybe had a lot of action-packed climaxes and you don’t feel the characters. If you want to nail storytelling and craft a conflict that hooks your readers, stick around.
How to write a conflict? (With Example)
Conflict is the basis of the plot. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, period. It simply means a struggle, disagreement, or incompatibility that lasts long. A conflict can be as serious as the end of the world or as frivolous as which teen queen will rule the school. Examine books, TV shows, and movies from entirely different genres. Whether it’s romance, sci-fi, or horror, you will notice one common denominator, Conflict! The basis of storytelling revolves around one or more conflicts that the characters have to overcome.
So, there’s no getting around this. You don’t need life-or-death stakes, but your books feature some struggles. I am breaking down the 10 tips for writing conflict. I’m telling you how to break it down to its key parts, how to make it last throughout your novel, and how to use it to surprise your readers. These tips are pivotal to crafting a compelling story. You need them in your arsenal. Let’s begin!
Types of conflict:
- Character vs. Technology.
- Character vs. Society.
- Character vs. Character(s).
- Character vs. Supernatural.
- Character vs. Machine.
- Character vs. God.
- Character vs. Nature.
- Character vs. Self.
- Character vs. Fate.
1. Try to understand your character
Characters are in conflict when their beliefs and philosophies compete with other characters with differing beliefs and philosophies. Batman believes in justice and the rule of law and competes with Joker, who believes that the systems of justice and morality are facades that we all hide behind. How do you apply this idea to the writing process? Start with one character.
Most stories have a single central character. While there are many significant characters in a story, and in most stories, you can pick out one character that stands at the center of the plot and the conflict. Once you have this main character, you must build out their belief system. What elements of their worldview or philosophy will be challenged in your story?
You need to understand how your character sees the world, what decisions they will make, and what they want. Now that you understand your main character and their beliefs, you can begin building some other characters in your story. These characters will have beliefs that conflict with the main characters differently.
- Try to understand who your characters are, their beliefs, and what they want. How do you create interesting continual conflict throughout a screenplay?
When a character begins the story, we need to understand who they are and what they are capable of. When a character starts, they won’t make massive moves to defeat an antagonist. They will use the most minimal amount of effort. When you begin a story, the person your character is should not be able to fight against the forces of antagonism at the climax. They must go through lower levels of antagonism to change into someone who can take on the climax when it comes.
2. Focus on the character’s choice
If you’re struggling to pin down a conflict, look at your main characters and ask yourself what they care about most. At the start of The Savior’s Champion, Tobias cares about his family’s well-being. At the beginning of The Savior’s Sister, Leila cares about her sisters and the protection of her realm. Thus it makes sense for their conflicts to revolve around these elements.
If the characters care deeply about something, any issues involving those things will matter greatly to them. They’ll be invested in resolving this conflict. So readers are following this character’s experience, thoughts, and emotions. It’s also important to note that what your characters care about can change throughout the story. It’s especially relevant if there are relationships, whether they’re romantic, familial, or platonic, that develop throughout the story.
Note: The more complicated the plot becomes, the more avenues for care and conflict you can explore.
3. Give your goal and obstacle
This is the easiest way to create conflict. Take what your character cares about and put an obstacle before it. They care about getting into Harvard, but a handful of their peers are standing in the way. The two characters care about one another, but their communities come from rival gangs. They care about supporting their family, but they have to enter a deadly tournament to do so.
To create a conflict, there has to be an obstacle that stands in the way of what the character wants. The obstacle creates a barrier between the character’s goal and obtaining it. So that barrier creates conflict. If you have something bad that happens that doesn’t stop the character from doing what they want to do, that will create a scene where stuff is happening. Bad things might be happening, but the reader isn’t going to empathize because what’s happening isn’t connected to the overarching goal.
It’s how you can create scenes that feel very irrelevant. It’s essential to watch out for scenes where you’ve created conflicts that don’t move the plot forward that are designed to demonstrate characterization. This is a common problem where the character needs a clear goal.
So the bad things that happen demonstrate the state that the character is in or what’s going on in their life, but it isn’t connecting to the main plot line. The reader will feel that these scenes could be more cohesive and may become repetitive.
Note: Take a look at what your character cares about or their goal, and put an obstacle in front of it that makes it hard to achieve.
4. Use conflict by understanding the genre
You already know that conflict is mandatory in all genres, but not all genres treat conflict the same way. In specific genres, conflict needs to be life and death. But in other genres, the conflict must be light or even funny. It’s why it’s important to understand your genre, especially if you’re writing a multi-genre story or a story that fits into a subgenre.
If you’re writing a murder mystery, the stakes need to be life and death. But if you’re writing a romantic comedy, the stakes need to be much lighter because your goal is to make the reader laugh.
Many romantic comedies include stakes like losing your job or getting a crush to like you. These are real stakes, but they’re not the end of the world. Compare this to sci-fi, which often boasts stakes that are the end of the world.
Note: Creating a conflict that fits your genre will help ensure that you meet your target audience’s expectations.
5. Make every chapter matters
Each chapter needs to move the conflict forward in some way. It doesn’t have to be huge, like a plot twist or a cliffhanger. It can be the tiniest inch forward. So long as the conflict evolves, you’re on the right track. That is a problem that’s often overlooked. Writers will devote an entire chapter to nothing but character development or a tiny funny moment that deviates from the plot.
Note: The conflict needs to remain relevant from chapter to chapter.
6. Create questions
This is one of the easiest ways to see if your conflict is relevant from chapter to chapter. Conflicts usually create questions. Will they survive? What’s her SAT score good enough? Who’s the father? It’s OK to answer questions throughout your story. Otherwise, readers are going to get bored or confused.
- For every question, you answer, try to create at least one new question.
They don’t have to be back to back or related to one another. But every chapter should end with some questions still lingering. Because if all the questions are answered, there’s no reason to keep reading. Answering questions will automatically create new questions.
7. Avoid sagging middle syndrome
Sagging middle syndrome is when the middle of your novel meanders. The plot is abandoned, the stakes remain the same, and nothing significant happens. Often sagging central syndrome comes down to abandoning the conflict. The conflict has been put on the back burner while the author explores subplots or filler for pages upon pages. Don’t do this.
Every chapter needs to move the story forward, even a tiny bit. You can intensify the conflict, answer questions, and create new questions. The point is the middle of your novel has to be engaging. You can’t abandon the conflict because the readers will get bored and put the book down.
8. Add some new conflicts
Conflicts can change. A lot of writers overthink conflict. They’re worried that they can’t make it last throughout the novel. The thing is, it’s super common for conflicts to evolve. It happens across all genres. The conflict at the novel’s start doesn’t have to be the same as at the end.
Take the Savior’s Champion. The conflict at the novel’s start is that Tobias needs to find a way to support his family financially. This conflict is resolved in chapter three. He enters The Sovereign’s Tournament, which guarantees his family income for life. But now we have a new conflict.
Tobias is stuck in this tournament, and his goal is not to die. Then he develops feelings for a woman he’s not supposed to fall for, which puts his life in greater jeopardy. Then he learns that she doesn’t want to be associated with the tournament, which creates a new goal.
I encourage you to examine TV shows, movies, books, and comics, and you will notice this happening. Even if the goal remains the same, the obstacles may change, and that’s a great way to keep your readers engaged.
9. Raise the stakes
To keep the story engaging, you must ensure the conflict remains engaging. A conflict that stays the same isn’t attractive. Thus, we have to raise the stakes constantly. You can do this in multiple ways. As we already covered, you can change the conflict itself. But you can keep the goal the same and worsen the obstacle. Instantly the stakes have been raised even if the conflict remains the same. On the flip side, we can keep the obstacle the same but intensify the goal.
Maybe originally, your character wanted to save their family, but now they have to save the whole world. It’s your job as a writer. As the story progresses, think of ways to make the conflict even direr. It also applies to lighter stories. A job promotion isn’t life or death, but if new competition rolls in, that will raise the stakes.
10. Surprise your reader
Certain conflicts are expected in specific stories, and that’s fine. There’s always going to be a murder in a murder mystery. There’s always going to be haunting in a ghost story. But subverting expectations is a great way to surprise the reader and put a spin on a particular conflict. It doesn’t mean you betray the genre. That is the last thing you want to do.
You won’t break genre rules, and you can still put your own spin on certain tropes or cliches. For example, miscommunication is a common conflict in the romance genre. One character only hears part of a conversation and assumes the worst, or they witnessed something and misinterpreted what happened. Miscommunication is a real thing that happens in genuine relationships.
So it makes sense to include it in romance. Usually, this conflict lasts for the whole novel, which can annoy readers. It’s a perfect opportunity to subvert a common cliche and surprise your readers.
In The Savior’s Champion, Tobias and Leila have a miscommunication that leaves Leila pissed off for no reason. Based on reader expectations, I could have allowed this miscommunication to continue for the entire book, but I resolved it in the next chapter. They have an adult conversation, and Leila listens to Tobias. Then she apologizes for overreacting. This is how subverting expectation works. You take a conflict that typically occurs in a certain way and then write it differently. It’s a great way to move the overall conflict forward while surprising the reader.
The writer needs help thinking of ways to fill out space in the novel. They need help giving the character steps that are interfered with to create a relevant conflict. An important thing to remember with the conflict in a proactive scene is that it doesn’t matter if the character does or does not achieve their goal. You still need to have a conflict in the scene. So even if the character achieves their goal, they still need to overcome some conflict.
Create greater and greater conflict. A big mistake writers make is that they get to a scene and try to inject conflict into it artificially. They try to give the scene some purpose without knowing why it needs to be in the story rather than trying to inject conflict into a specific scene. It would help if you focused on creating your characters and their goals in a way that creates conflict organically when you place the characters into a particular scene. Once you know your characters and how the scene might move the story forward, you win.
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