Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Being Unable to Save Everyone

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Being Unable to Save Everyone

Category: Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks, Failures and Mistakes, Duty and Responsibilities, Loss of Control, No-Win Situations

Trying to rescue family members from a burning building
Arriving on the scene of an accident where multiple people have critical injuries and being unable to get to them all
Rescuing people who are drowning after a boat capsizes
An opportunity to liberate people in captivity but being unable to free everyone
Having a transport which can save some from a war zone or other imminent threat, but having limited seating
Sniping from a distance to support ground troops, but being unable to take out every enemy
Having two threats happening at the same time, and being forced to choose one to respond to (two bombs needing to be diffused, synchronized attacks happening on two different battle fronts, etc.
Coming across multiple people with the same illness, condition, or poisonings, and having only enough medicine or antidotes to help some

Minor Complications:
Remaining objective when faced with having to choose who to save when there are people the character knows
Having to choose between people the character cares about equally
Becoming paralyzed by the enormity of the situation and inactivity causing further challenges or risk
Having to reason with others who are involved and try to get everyone working together to save as many as possible
Arguments with others over who to save and why (if the threat isn’t immediate where they have no time to think, only act)
Increased risk and danger to the character and those they are trying to save as the clock ticks down
Unshakable guilt and remorse
Damaged relationships and the anger of others due to the choices one made

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Making a decision too late (and therefor being unable to save someone, or possibly anyone)
Being injured in the process or falling victim to the same condition (being captured while trying to liberate others, inhaling toxic fumes while helping others escape, etc.)
Being held criminally responsible for the situation when the character did their best (a doctor being sued by the family of someone who was not attended to during a crisis, for example)
Being blamed or used as a scapegoat by others trying to use the tragedy to their advantage
Being cast out or shunned (by one’s family, community, etc.) for choosing to save certain people over others
Suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath (reliving the trauma)

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Knowing they acted as fast as they could but feeling guilt over being unable to save anyone
Beating themselves up in the aftermath for split second choices made in the moment of crisis, yet knowing they could not have done more
Knowing they made the right choices over who to save but being unable to voice this to others for fear of repercussions
Being angry at themselves for a lack of foresight (so they could have been being better prepared, trained for the crisis, or prevented the event in the first place)
Guilt and shame if their own actions unknowingly contributed (a doorman saving building tenants from a fire only to discover that the person who started it accessed the building through a door the doorman forgot to lock)
Feeling terrible for the victims yet relieved they themselves were spared

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: family and friends, the people involved in the situation (especially the victims), bystanders who have to live with the trauma of what they witnessed

Resulting Emotions: anguish, conflicted, connectedness, defeat, defensiveness, defiant, depressed, despair, desperation, determination, devastation, flustered, grief, guilt, horror, inadequate, panic, powerlessness, rage, regret, self-loathing, shame, terror, tormented, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: cowardly, disorganized, flaky, forgetful, impulsive, indecisive, insecure, irresponsible, perfectionist, scatterbrained, self-destructive, selfish, unintelligent, weak-willed

Positive Outcomes: 
A greater appreciation for life and what’s truly important
A close call and the brush with tragedy causing the character to reevaluate their own relationships
Choosing to no longer hold onto grudges because life is too short
Realizing life is precious and deciding to live life free of regret
The character re-prioritizing their life so what’s most important comes first and they live for today
Becoming better able to share emotion with others, ceasing to hold back
Gaining perspective about their own place in the world and what they want out of life, leading to a stronger focus on achieving meaningful goals
The situation leading to a mission to become more skilled or better prepared in the future

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

This conflict thesaurus is still being developed, but if you would like to access our entire descriptive collection (14 unique thesauri and growing), visit our main site, One Stop for Writers.


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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