Every writer’s mission is to pen a story that draws readers in, offering familiarity when it comes to certain genre expectations while also delivering something fresh so to be distinctive and memorable. This is how to cultivate a loyal–and, fingers crossed, rabidly obsessed–reading audience.
But heck, there’s a lot of stories out there. And didn’t someone say there’s only so many plot forms to choose from? Is “fresh” even possible?
When you know where to look, you can find a kaleidoscope of unique ideas and apply them to any type of story to transform it.
A Story’s Secret Weapon: Conflict
One of the easiest ways to offer that thrill of “newness” for readers is to activate the power of conflict. In fiction, it is the crucible that tests, bruises, and shapes our characters. Externally, it pushes the plot onward by supplying the resistance needed to force characters to scrutinize their world, make choices, and take action to get what they want. Internally, conflict generates a tug-of-war between the character’s fears, beliefs, needs, values, and desires. Ultimately, it forces them to choose between an old, antiquated way of thinking and doing, or a new, evolved way of being, because only one will help them get what they want.
Conflict touches everything:
plot, characters, arc, pacing, tension, emotion, etc.
No matter the genre or the type of plot, conflict allows you to make a storyline fresh. The scenarios you choose can be adapted to your character, their circumstances, and the world where everything is taking place, personalizing the experience for readers and drawing them in closer to the characters they care about.
The other beautiful thing about conflict is how you can find it anywhere: the character’s career, relationships, duties, etc., or it can come from adversaries, nature, the supernatural, or even from within themselves. And that’s just to start.
But no matter where your character is and what is happening, there’s one eternal source for conflict that can always lead you to a complication, obstacle, or blocker to clash with your character’s goals: the setting.
Maximize a Scene’s ‘Where’
The location of each scene contains inherent dangers and risks, meaning you can mine those to create problems and remind the character of the cost of failure. Drawing conflict from your setting also gives it a greater role in the story. Rather than be a “stage” for action to unfold, your setting becomes a participant.
Here are some things to keep in mind to draw the very best conflict from your setting, making important story moments more intense, and offering that fresh gauntlet of challenges for your character to navigate.
Choose Settings Thoughtfully
Some setting choices are obvious. If you need your character’s car to break down in an isolated area, then a country road, campsite, or quarry might do the trick. But conflict very often happens in an ordinary setting, like a retail store or at home. In cases like these, when the story has dictated where events will occur, up the ante by choosing a specific location that holds emotional value for your character. Instead of choosing just any store, pick one with an emotional association—such as the place the character was caught shoplifting as a teenager. Good or bad, any setting that plays upon their emotional volatility will increase their chances of saying or doing something they’ll regret.
And while we’re talking about emotional value, don’t underestimate the symbolic weight of the objects within the scene. The backyard may be a generic place to have a difficult conversation but put the characters next to the treehouse their son used to play in before he got critically sick, and you’ve already heightened their emotions, potentially adding additional conflict to the scene.
Use Natural Obstacles
It’s also important to think about which settings contain infrastructure that will make the character’s goal harder to reach. Maybe it’s a ravine the protagonist will need to cross, a locked door to get through, or a security guard to evade. Remember that the character’s journey to achieve their goal shouldn’t be a walk in the park. Conflict is necessary in every scene, so choose settings that contain obstacles or provide poignant emotional roadblocks.
Think about how conflict naturally evolves. The character has an objective. They put together a plan and start pursuing that goal. Then complications come along and make things interesting. Luckily, there are lots of ways we can manipulate the setting to create additional conflict scenarios.
Level-Up Setting Conflict
Mess with the Weather. Unexpected showers, a heat wave, an icy driveway, the threat of a tornado—how can small and large weather considerations create problems for your character?
Take Away Transportation. No matter what setting you choose, your character will need to move from one place to another. What kind of transportation disruptions will make it harder for them to get where they need to go?
Add an Audience. Falling down in private is totally different than doing it in a crowd of people. Both may be physically painful, but the latter adds an element of emotional hardship. Who could you put in the environment as a witness to the character’s missteps or misfortune?
Trigger Sensitive Emotions. Conflict is easier to handle for an even-keeled, emotionally cool character. So use the setting to throw them off balance. If they’re struggling to put food on the table, place them in a locale where wealthy characters are eating lavishly and throwing away leftovers. Likewise, a character with daddy issues can be triggered in an environment that highlights healthy and loving father-daughter relationships. So when you’re planning the setting for a scene, ask yourself: What could I add specifically for my character in this situation that will elevate their emotions?
Exploit What They Don’t Have. If your character doesn’t have a light source, place them in a dark place, like a cave or deserted subway tunnel. No weapon? Surround them with physical threats. If they’re lacking something vital, capitalize on that.
Make Them Uncomfortable. Vulnerability sets the character on edge and elevates their emotional state. So whenever you can, put the character in a location where they have no experience, don’t know the rules, or aren’t really suited to navigate it. This can work for small- or large-scale settings, from a character who has to traverse an alien planet to someone who’s averse to kids having to host a child’s party.
Use Symbolism. Nothing impedes progress like fear and self-doubt. Think about which symbols can be added to the environment to remind the character of an area of weakness, a past failure, a debilitating fear, or an unresolved wound.
Add a Ticking Clock. One sure-fire way to up the ante is to give the character a deadline. Instead of them having unlimited time to complete the goal, make them dependent upon elements within their environment, such as having to avoid rush-hour traffic, reach the bank by four p.m., or get home before sunset.
Setting-related conflict is fantastic in that it can be endlessly adapted, helping you keep the tension going in every scene no matter where your character is.
Need More Help with Unleashing the Power of Conflict?
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles Volume 1 & 2 are packed with ideas on how to make conflict work harder in your story. Find out more.
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.
Raymond Walker says
Despite what I think is exceptionally good advice from Angela, I wonder if you cannot overpower the readership with extended conflict. I enjoy conflict in novels and lots of it so was intrigued by this post. I agree it is essential (except in very few novels) and the more the merrier. As far as I am concerned. Yet, during even the most conflict filled novels the reader needs a rest. Or some humor, an oasis if you will.
Even “Olympos” (don’t worry my spelling is correct, I did not mean “Olympus”) by multi award winning author Dan Simmons, who tells of a multi-faceted display of eternal conflict that starts on “Mount Olympus” home of the Grecian gods during the siege of Troy but lasts for so long a time that it continues on “Olympos Mons” (the highest mountain on Mars which dwarfs Everest).
Oh yes, Zues and the other deities of the Greek Pantheon, supported by the ancient greek heroes are besieged by the heroes of Troy with the help of a machine intelligence from one of the moons of Jupiter, Scientists, and soldiers from throughout the ages and upon Olympos Mons in an endless war the last gods of Greece must make a stand.
Athena and Hera, with the help of Odysseus and Demeter ravage the humans and swat aside nuclear weapons as Archaeon, Paris, and a bunch of twenty-second century marines, mine the lower fringes of Olympos Mons.
Dan Simmons meant it to be the ultimate conflict novel but even he had to take a breath here and there and if you have read his other novels this was as clever and majestic as most. He was always a clever writer wither writing about American history, Polar expeditions or nineteenth century England. Lol- he just decided to really go for it in this one.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I agree, definitely there can be too much conflict. This is why we need to think about what the conflict is doing, and is it needed. Too much not only can exhaust readers, it can also turn a story episodic. If the conflict is just throwing up a delay after delay, keeping the character from solving their problem/achieving their goal, that’s not helping the story…it’s hurting it. Conflict can complication the situation, forcing the character to work harder, but it also pushes them to try something new, adopt different problem solving strategies, and poke them in the direction of growth and change if they want to succeed.
Like all things, a balanced approach is the best course. Some parts of the story will have more conflict that other and we should just make sure we can justify it being there.