Story conflict has many purposes. It provides opportunities for failure and growth, elevates what’s at stake, and escalates emotion for the character and readers. We also know that our stories will need many instances of conflict, both at the story (macro) and scene (micro) level. But how do we know what kinds to add to the mix?
First and foremost, conflict must further the story. There are lots of interesting and compelling scenarios that we authors might like to pursue. But, as with every aspect of storytelling, we must separate ourselves from the process to make sure we’re not projecting ourselves—our interests and desires—onto the character and the story. Sure, we might want to write a drunken brawl scene, but would that scenario be likely for our protagonist? Will it reveal something about the character, like a weakness or need, or is it just there to “spice up” a boring scene?
The best way to incorporate convincing conflict scenarios into a story is to pull them organically from the elements that are already there. Conflict is lurking all around your characters and the story world, so grab a stick and start poking to see what shakes loose.
Start With the Story’s Cast
Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—each one can cause us grief on a number of levels. The same is true for our characters. Anyone interacting with them is a potential source for trouble.
This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial. Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point, will rub him the wrong way, or have goals that are in opposition to his own. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept?
Then—you guessed it—build characters with those traits, habits, histories, and goals into the story. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise. Not a planner? Not a problem. When you need a reasonable conflict scenario that will provide a certain outcome, consider who in the character’s life you could use to make that happen. This handy directory of adversaries might provide inspiration in this area.
Let Your Characters Talk
Once you’ve assembled your cast, just let them talk, and conflict is sure to follow. Dialogue is a great troublemaker because it can cause minor, surface-level tension or set the ball rolling for something huge, like the end of a relationship or a global clash. You’re already including it in your story, so make it do double duty and use it to initiate problems for your character. Here are just a few conversational techniques you can use to generate conflict in a scene.
So much of conflict is unintentional—meaning, the person causing the problem isn’t trying to ruffle feathers. Often, it comes down to basic personality quirks, such as someone who is always interrupting, a tactless party who unknowingly causes offense, or a chronic multitasker who doesn’t listen carefully and makes your character feel undervalued. Of course, any of these irritations can be applied to the protagonist instead of the other party, and you get the same result.
Enough of these slight aggravations can add up throughout one conversation (or over the course of many) and lead to explosions. When a character loses control of their emotions, they are much more apt to speak their mind, cut the other person down, or reveal information they meant to hold back. And what do all of these responses lead to? More conflict.
Purposeful conflict in dialogue can be subtle or overt, depending on the situation and the goal being pursued. The character may be looking to manipulate an exchange to achieve a specific outcome, inflame everyone’s emotions, damage a reputation, or completely eviscerate an enemy with words. Characters who are purposely looking to cause trouble in a conversation might…
- Make a threat or say something to intimidate
- Deploy insults, sarcasm, and belittlement
- Manipulate the conversation toward a topic or away from one
- Shift the focus to someone else to put them in the hot seat
- Purposely ask about something that will make the other person uncomfortable
- Deceive the other party through lies, omissions, and exaggerations
- Bring up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional reaction
- Reveal a secret, stance, or mistake to damage a rival’s standing in the group
- Ask questions the character knows the other person can’t answer, making them look bad
- Call the protagonist out (for a mistake, something they said or did, etc.) to steal their self- esteem
- Deliberately provoke an argument
- Make insinuations (about someone’s loyalty, capabilities, etc.) to sow doubt
- Make a derogatory statement and pass it off as a joke
- Suggest disloyalty if the other party doesn’t agree, which forces them to do just that
When two or more characters are battling it out in conversation, each is seeking the upper hand. The exchange may appear respectful if others are watching or a certain level of decorum must be observed. In these cases, it may not be what the characters say as much as how they say it, or what doublespeak or innuendo they can safely deploy to score a hit that will go over someone’s head. When a comment does leave a mark, show it by using body language, facial tics, and vocal shifts to reveal the character’s waning level of emotional restraint.
One of the main drivers for conflict in dialogue is that the parties involved don’t always have the same purposes. One person might be trying to connect with the protagonist while the protagonist only wants to gain information. One may be seeking to protect a secret while the other is trying to bring it to light. Another person might be pursuing a conversation because they want to show off their knowledge while the other participant only wants to prove their own rightness.
Motivation plays a huge part in conflict development at all story levels because conflict typically arises when characters don’t get what they want. So when you’re planning your protagonist’s conversations, consider what they’re after. What are they hoping to achieve through that discussion? Then pit them against someone whose goal is in opposition to theirs.
This is just a sampling of the conversational techniques you can use to generate authentic conflict. If you’re ever at a loss for ideas, think about the conversations you’ve recently had that irked you, even a little bit. Examine the tactics involved and add them to your character’s interactions with others.
For more information on how to effectively and genuinely add this important storytelling element to your writing, check out the Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1) and (Volume 2). In total, you’ll find over 230 unique conflict scenarios, neatly grouped by category.
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.