Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Physical Exhaustion

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.


Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, no-win situations, miscellaneous challenges

The character’s body being pushed past it’s limits due to exertion
Being depleted due to poor nutrition or starvation
An illness that ravages the character’s strength
Forced wakefulness that takes a physical toll

Minor Complications:
Sustaining an injury due to slow reaction time (a cut, a burn, etc.)
Dropping something of value and damaging it
Being unable to finish a task
Becoming a danger to others when one’s abilities decrease due to exhaustion
Making mistakes that cause them to have to expend more energy to correct (falling down a hill on an obstacle course which must then be re-climbed to continue, for example)
Having to ask another to take over because their strength is depleted
Poor decision-making that leads to mistakes

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Injuring another person due to inattention, losing a grip on something, or their strength giving out
Suffering a serious fall or injury
Forcing others to endanger themselves to perform a rescue
Causing an accident that disfigures another or causes their death (slipping while working a saw and cutting into another hand who is holding the board, etc.)
Pushing the body past its limits and causing a permanent injury or lifelong chronic pain

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Putting their own welfare above others vs. adhering to responsibility
Insecurity over being perceived as weak or unworthy by those who matter
Self-loathing and shame at their own weakness if this situation is because they didn’t take care of their health, or they are out of shape, etc.)
Resenting their own need for help
Wanting help yet being angry for needing it

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: The character themselves, people who are reliant on the character (family, teammates, people who are caught in a difficult predicament who must work together to survive it, etc.)

Resulting Emotions: anger, anguish, defeat, defiant, despair, desperation, determination, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, inadequate, powerlessness, regret, resentment, resignation, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, tormented, unappreciated, uncertainty, vulnerability, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: abrasive, cocky, grumpy, haughty, hostile, irrational, melodramatic, perfectionist, pessimistic, prejudiced, resentful, self-destructive, uncooperative, ungrateful, whiny

Positive Outcomes: 
Characters sometimes need to be brought down a peg and realize that everyone struggles. This can allow them to have greater empathy for others, and a better appreciation for those in a similar situation.
A character who refuses help out of a belief they are beyond such a need or because of a past hurt will find themselves challenged on the validity of such a belief, either learning the power in community and teamwork, or giving them an opportunity to move past trust issues by being forced to accept help and thereby seeing not everyone is bad.

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

And if you would like more ideas on how to use Physical Exhaustion to add conflict to a scene and how to describe it through your character’s behaviors, actions, and visceral sensations, take a look at our mini-guide, Emotion Amplifiers.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers.

If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough, and then give our Free Trial a spin.


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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5 months ago

[…] i […]

6 months ago

I write crime and exhaustion is a “must have” conflict device for my bad men. There is only so far amphetamines can carry someone and then they hit the wall. Or, you know, so I’ve been told…


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