Writing Compelling Conflict: Relationships and Conflict

Relationships are excellent sources of conflict for a story.

After identifying internal and external wants for the main characters, note where their goals/desires come into conflict with their relationship goals. These are opportunities to develop stumbling blocks in the relationship and on an individual level.

The relationship in question doesn’t have to be romantic. Family and friend relationships are also important opportunities for conflict and can also have a strong impact on a character’s development and growth.

If one character in a relationship feels driven to excel at work because he or she craves financial stability due to growing up destitute, while the other character is working toward moving to a small town where life is simpler, this will inevitably cause stress the in relationship and move the characters toward a crisis where both parties have to make difficult decisions. Those decisions will then impact the relationship and the individual characters.

A great example of this is from the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” One character is trying to save her small, independent bookstore while the other is trying to build and promote his mega-bookstore. Neither goal is inherently bad, but there’s no way they can both win. This destroys their chance at a relationship, at least in person.

Conflict and Growth

Each obstacle should be paired with something the characters will learn, either on a personal level or within the relationship. Conflict without purpose does not move the story forward or help the characters progress through their arcs. Each stumbling block placed in a character’s path should necessitate a choice, spawn realization, or push him or her to take action.

Getting through conflict does not always have to mean positive movement or growth in a relationship, however. Characters may make the wrong choice or suffer/cause emotional or mental harm and experience a setback rather than growth. Conflict should do both in a story, though the ultimate outcome is typically the characters reaching a resolution of some sort in their relationship. People in relationships often hurt each other and say things they don’t mean during arguments. Follow up these moments of setback with self-reflection or discussion with a neutral party who can offer some clarity.

Moments of conflict in a relationship may be internal or external. Ideally, a mixture of the two will provide variety and a more interesting pattern of growth in a relationship and in the individuals involved. Characters and relationships are most often in need of development in several areas. Alternate between what skills or areas of progress characters are challenged on as they move through the arc.

Obstacles should be introduced in a logical order and each one should be resolved before the end of the book. The exception to resolution would be some relationship obstacles being saved for subsequent books in a series. When ordering when characters face conflicts in a relationship, consider how a real person builds on skills or developmental steps. Learning not to internalize negative feedback from an abusive partner would be achieved before taking a stand against an abuser and leaving, just as learning the basics skills or a sport is necessary prior to playing at a competitive level.

Without conflict, relationships stagnate. Planning and executing moments of conflict in a character’s relationships will improve their depth as a character and inspire movement and growth in the story and character arcs.