All right, hands up: What’s the one thing we can’t get enough of in fiction but we avoid like a screaming toddler in real life? Conflict.
It’s ironic that something we try to avoid in the real world is the very thing we can’t get enough of in books. Psychologically speaking, though, it makes perfect sense. Books do not significantly trigger a reader’s fight-or-flight instincts, making it safe for them to experience conflict—after all, that bad stuff is happening to someone else. Yet, if the story is well written, it draws them in so they’re right there with the hero or heroine, feeling some of that dread, anger, and confusion. They identify with the character’s experiences because their own real-life ones have taught them the agony of uncertainty and fear and what it’s like to feel completely outmatched.
In a nutshell: conflict contributes to reader engagement.
And with all the books on the market, keeping readers involved and interested all the way to THE END should be one of our biggest goals. It’s crucial that we employ this storytelling element thoughtfully and purposefully, but with conflict in every scene—very often, multiple conflicts per scene—that’s a lot of drama. How do we keep those scenarios from becoming redundant, flat, or melodramatic? The key is to use different kinds.
The variety of conflict is what makes a story crackle with power—whether we’re talking about the ones at the heart of an overall plot, or scene-level complications meant to pressure the character and raise the stakes. The best stories don’t stick to the same type of conflict over and over. They pull from multiple forms that work naturally with the story’s main premise to hit the character from all sides.
As Angela and I were writing The Conflict Thesaurus, we had so many options for scenarios that it became clear we’d need to categorize them to keep them manageable. Because we’ll soon be releasing Volume 1 into the wild, we’re going to spill some of the beans a little early and share the categories we came up with, along with a few of the book entries from each. This breakdown should give you an idea of the various kinds of conflict that are available so you can use a strong variety of scenarios in your story.
Relationship friction can be the good kind (lighthearted teasing between siblings or an intense glance shared by two lovers), but often it’s the other—the type that creates a bristly moment of silence after an argument or the sting of hurt when a secret is carelessly spilled. Conflicts that create problems in relationships result in your character’s emotions being easily activated, increasing the chance they will lash out, cross a personal or professional line, or make a mistake that leads to more trouble.
Examples: A Romantic Competitor Entering the Scene, Losing One’s Temper, and Peer Pressure
Duty and Responsibility
Another way to bring conflict to your character’s doorstep is to think about how duty and responsibility can pile up and disrupt the status quo—especially when it comes to their personal and professional life. A career is necessary to pay the bills, but it becomes a source of conflict when the demands of the job leak into family life. Likewise, if the paycheck can’t keep up with the mortgage or one partner is carrying the biggest load at home, tensions will rise.
When a character’s home—that most sacred and safest of places—becomes a powder keg, how much additional conflict will blow her world to bits? It won’t take much additional stress for her fragile ecosystem to shatter.
Examples: An Elderly Loved One Requiring Care, Having to Break a Promise, Needing to Disobey an Order
Failures and Mistakes
The aftermath of a failure or mistake can go one of two ways. If a character panics, their emotions go into overdrive and they become fixated on the worst-case scenario. They believe they must act immediately to prevent catastrophe, only they aren’t calm or objective enough to think things through. This usually lands them into even more hot water, which is bad for them but good for you and the story because…conflict!
A failure or mistake is also an opportunity to learn and grow, so this is the second path characters can take. Failing hurts, but it can act as a checkpoint that forces characters to look at their route and make decisions. If a character reflects on what happened and realizes they need to try again, then we know they’re open to change. This becomes a powerful character arc moment.
Examples: Dropping the Ball, Doing Something Stupid While Impaired, Getting Caught in a Lie
Moral Dilemmas and Temptations
A dilemma is when a person faces a choice between two values, duties, or convictions that align with their sense of integrity. Moral temptations involve decisions that push the character to choose between right and wrong. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the temptation part makes it anything but.
Dilemmas and temptations—especially in extreme circumstances—can cause a character’s values to shift. Moral conflicts are not only great for forcing your characters to examine who they are and what they believe, they can also reinforce a story’s themes on right and wrong and personal identity.
Examples: Being Offered an Easy Way Out, Leaving Someone to the Consequences of Their Own Actions, Having to Steal to Obtain Something Vital
Increased Pressure and Ticking Clocks
Sometimes you want characters who are working under pressure or a short timeline to rise to a challenge; other times you need to explore what will finally break them. Pressure can help you do both. It’s also great for creating tension for readers as they wonder whether a character can handle the new threat. How can they work past this new challenge? Can they beat the clock? This additional stress will keep readers turning pages late into the night, anxious to discover if the character can circumvent this latest development or not.
Examples: Being Given an Ultimatum, Unwanted Scrutiny, Being Made to Wait
Sometimes you need truly agonizing conflict—the type that forces the character to choose between bad and worse. Lose-lose situations are especially dangerous because they bog characters down in an emotional quicksand of fear, obligation, and guilt. This negative psychological spiral often results in them sacrificing their own happiness and needs.
Examples: Being Unable to Save Everyone, Being Set Up to Fail, Conflicting Internal Needs and Desires
Conflict is what we use to poke at a character’s soft spots, raise the stakes, and maybe encourage a specific path to self-growth. So when you’re choosing conflict options for your character, vary the forms. This ensures that the problems they’re facing will spread like cracked glass, threatening multiple areas of their life and making things exponentially more complicated and difficult for them.
PSSST! There are more categories, but this post was getting too long. We had the same problem with The Conflict Thesaurus, so we decided to split it into two volumes. Scenarios from the categories discussed here are included in Volume 1, which can help you brainstorm all their possible impacts on your character and story. The second volume will cover additional harrowing categories, including loss of control, power struggles, losing an advantage, ego-related scenarios, and miscellaneous challenges. This installment is slated for release in September of 2022.
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.