Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Failing at Something

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: Failing at Something

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, loss of control, ego

Blowing an important business opportunity (failing to land a client, losing out on a promotion, doing or saying something that results in a demotion, etc.)
Getting fired
Having to file for bankruptcy
Having to file for divorce
Flunking out of school
Giving up on a venture before it has a chance to succeed (because it’s scary or risky, because it’s something the character has never done before, etc.)
Losing an important race, contest, competition, etc.
Failing at parenting (choosing not to be involved, failing to adequately connect, putting work before one’s children, etc.) that results in estrangement or a broken relationship
Failing to overcome an addiction, unhealthy habit, or pattern of behavior

Minor Complications:
Continuing to live in circumstances that are less than ideal
Living beneath one’s true potential
A pattern of underachieving due to a fear of failure or change
Having to start over with a new job, goal, etc.
Getting unwanted advice or commentary from friends and loved ones

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Being estranged from loved ones
A drastic change in lifestyle due to a new financial situation
Avoiding responsibility for the part one played; being destined to repeat one’s mistakes
The failure being made public
The failure triggering an addiction, negative thought pattern, or unhealthy response
Having to move or relocate (to find a new job, move into a cheaper home, etc.)
Giving up on a dream because it now seems out of reach
Being isolated or estranged from loved ones
Overcompensating for perceived shortcomings (digging oneself into a financial hole, overcommitting, having an unrealistic view of oneself and agreeing to things one can’t follow through on)
Trying to avoid negative feelings by rushing into a new opportunity before thinking things through logically
Becoming paralyzed; getting stuck due to indecision or fear

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Doubting oneself
A burgeoning fear of failure
Being obsessed with one’s failures; not being able to see one’s strengths
Struggling with embarrassment or shame
Feeling as if one deserves punishment
Developing a martyr complex
Taking responsibility for things that were outside of one’s control (a child’s choices, a sibling’s jealousy that contributed to a rift, etc.)

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: loved ones, friends, co-workers, rivals

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, anxiety, appalled, apprehension, defensiveness, denial, depressed, desperation, determination, devastation, disappointment, disbelief, emasculated, embarrassment, fear, guilt, humiliation, hurt, inadequate, insecurity, longing, moody, overwhelmed, panic, regret, remorse, resentment, sadness, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, shock, uncertainty, unease, vulnerability, worry, worthlessness

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Addictive, controlling, defensive, impulsive, inflexible, insecure, irrational, irresponsible, martyr, reckless, resentful, self-destructive, vindictive

Positive Outcomes: 
Learning from one’s mistakes so they aren’t repeated
Taking advantage of new opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without the failure (starting a new business, changing careers, enjoying time on one’s own instead of jumping into a new relationship, etc.)
Being able to see oneself realistically and accurately for the first time
Learning that the character is stronger than he or she thought and can deal with pretty much anything
Channeling the experience into a teaching or coaching opportunity to help others

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

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.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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[…] The Right Writing urges us to vary characters’ reactions to tragedy, and Becca Puglisi suggests using the conflict of failing at something and tells us the character-building detail writers shouldn’t […]