Conflict is a powerful tool for storytellers, allowing us to place roadblocks, challenges, adversaries and more in a character’s way so the road to their goal is much more difficult. Deployed well, conflict creates tension and intensity for reader, capturing their attention for the length of the book.
So what does deployed well mean?
For conflict to have a strong foundation, we need to focus on three things. First, readers need to feel connected to a character for them to care when something bad happens to them. For example, if a car hits a dog-kicking, old-lady-scamming protagonist and breaks both his legs, will your audience be upset? Not at all…in fact they may actually cheer. But if the protagonist is a single mother of three who scraped and saved to go to night school and create a better life for her family, seeing such a terrible event happen to them will really rip your readers up. So, building flesh-and-blood characters readers will connect to is crucial for scoring a strong conflict hit.
The second thing conflict must do is present a character with a problem that’s not easy to resolve. A danger or threat that can be avoided if the character simply does one thing will feel like a cop-out to readers (unless you’re purposefully luring the character into a trap so it leads to spectacular, unexpected fallout).
The third component of well-written conflict is that it will be original in some way, giving readers something they’ve not seen before. And this is where some writers trip, especially if they’re working with a conflict scenario found in many stories, or it’s common within a genre. Romance readers will have experienced plenty of stories where a romantic competitor enters the scene, Fantasy readers know that at some point, an adventurer will get injured, and anyone who reads superhero stories has seen more than a few characters discovering they have unwanted powers.
The thing is, readers expect to see these conflicts, so we need to include them. But we shouldn’t copy what others have done. Instead, we should find a way to make the situations fresh…and hopefully more difficult. Here are some ideas:
Make the Outcome Uncertain
To keep readers from easily predicting the result of a conflict scenario, sow some doubt—a.k.a., don’t go easy on your protagonist. Put them at a disadvantage—or, if you’re feeling evil, give them an easy win that isn’t a true victory. Maybe a character with friends in high places gets a big promotion, only she doesn’t realize her “friends” are setting her up as a scapegoat for their criminal behavior. Winning can also trigger unforeseen consequences. If your character doesn’t pay now, make her pay later.
Withhold Something the Character Needs
When a character has everything—information, financial backing, a mentor, the support of others—it’s an easier skate to the finish line, and what’s the fun in that? Think about what your character needs most to succeed, and take it from her. If she needs medicine, put it in a glass vial that, at a critical point, will shatter. When she needs a map to navigate, let it be ruined by a dunk in the river. Knowledge, a way to communicate, a weapon…characters who are forced to act when they don’t have what they need often screw up, leading to more conflict.
Make the Stakes Personal
Every story should have high stakes, where something is at risk if the character fails. But when the stakes are personal, winning becomes more crucial because of what they could lose. Get to know your character and the people, places, and things they hold dear. Then endanger them: a child’s life, the character’s job, their reputation, or their marriage. Most characters will walk through fire to protect the people and things they cherish.
Consider a No-Win Situation
The most heart-wrenching times for your character are when they have to make a decision in which someone will pay regardless of their choice. These story moments take courage because the character must decide between two equally bad outcomes. Do they save their daughter if doing so means abandoning their son? Do they stay and risk capture, or run and risk death by exposure? No-win scenarios create obvious tension for characters but also for readers, who recognize an impossible situation when they see it and wonder what choice will be made.
Keep Your Character Moving
Did you know that if sharks stop swimming, they’ll die? This is a lesson we can apply to storytelling because when a character settles down for too long, the tension flatlines. So, keep them moving. If they find a haven, fill it with hidden dangers that compel them to leave. If a romantic relationship is becoming routine, introduce a disruptor—a secret being exposed, a hopeful ex-lover showing up, or a complication that forces a physical separation.
This goes for inner movement, too. If the character isn’t moving forward and resolving their internal conflict, create a crisis that jeopardizes everything they’ve worked for. Remind them that they need to keep evolving to get what they want, even if this means facing hard truths or examining old wounds.
Shake Up the Team
If your character is relying on others, find a way to introduce dysfunction and friction. Disagreements, misunderstandings, egos, rivalries, or a sense of entitlement can shake the foundation of a relationship, create a power struggle, and leave your character without their much-needed backup.
Tighten the Timeline
There’s nothing like a ticking clock to pile on the pressure, so think about how you can shorten a window of opportunity, move up a deadline, force the character to wait, or give them an ultimatum. Characters who rush can get sloppy and make mistakes, compounding the conflict.
Pull the Trigger
All characters carry some baggage from the past. If they’re navigating a change arc, they’ll have an unresolved wound, and chances are, they’ve buried it deep. The problem is, for them to move forward, they need to deal with whatever is holding them back. A well-placed trigger can cause that wound to resurface.
Maybe your character Tamara has been avoiding her cousin who captained the boat the day her sister drowned. But now she must work side by side with him to save their family’s business. Or your character must perform a wellness check on someone who lives in the building where her abusive parents raised her. Exposing your character to fears and painful memories can awaken them to the realization that the past is holding them prisoner.
Include a Sacrifice
A character facing a challenge that’s beyond her must make some hard choices if she wants to avoid losing everything. Maybe she must abandon one goal to put more energy into another, or give up on a passion to stand by a friend. Sacrifices are meaningful and will cause readers to care, so don’t be afraid to use them.
Turn to Your Genre
Every genre will have specific opportunities to ramp up conflict. Does your character live in a historical time when certain illnesses were prevalent, or their rights were restricted because of their race, gender, or religion? Is there a specific technology that is hampering your character’s ability to move undetected in a future world? Pull organic conflict from the very bedrock of your genre by considering the character’s reality and the challenges they might face.
Don’t Make Violence Your Go-To
As you seek ways to power up conflict, it can be tempting to use violence to hammer home a threat. Sometimes this is warranted and fits the scenario, but other times it’s used as an easy way out. Before going to this extreme, pause to see what’s best for the story. If you decide to use it, don’t make it the only tool in your bag of tricks. Writers should also think twice about using gratuitous violence to characterize, especially in situations that directly target women or children.
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.