Writing Compelling Conflict: The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict drives a story. Lack of conflict or weak conflict makes a story drag and languish. Unrealistic conflict drives readers away.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces. In fiction, a character struggles against another force, such as another character, the environment, him/her-self, etc. There can also be multiple forces the character is at struggle with. In fact, there generally should be multiple forces. Usually this is accomplished through subplots and competing needs or desires.

Conflict can be broken into two categories: Internal and external.

Internal conflict arises when a character experiences opposing emotions, ideas, or desires. The conflict causes emotion or mental anguish and often manifests in external struggles in relationships, professions, or meetings goals.

External conflict arises when the character gets involved in a situation where he/she struggles against an outside force which stunts his or her progress toward a goal. This is typically marked by action of some kind. The type of action depends on the storyline and goals.

The Purpose of Conflict

Conflict is what keeps readers reading…until it doesn’t. Conflict keeps the story moving forward by pushing characters to make decisions, take action, and engage with the story world. If there is no action or the action isn’t compelling enough, that progress stops or slows to a point that readers may lose interest.

Developing deep, rich conflict will keep readers engaged and interested. Change in the story and character push the reader to keep asking questions, such as what will happen next or will the hero accomplish her goal. Wanting answers to those questions are a big part of what keeps a reader’s attention.

Conflict also helps a storyline feel more realistic. When everything works out too easily, readers get bored and move on because they know that in real life things rarely go so easily. Readers want there to be struggles in a story. They relate to the character’s experiences because they struggle to accomplish goals in their own lives.

The deeper and more realistic the conflict is, the more the reader will be drawn into the story and become invested in the outcome. Conflict helps the reader see his or her self in the story. Believing that the character will succeed or meet a goal helps gives hope that the reader will eventually have a similar outcome.

Having said that, conflict should make the reader doubt that everything will work out happily. If it is too obvious or certain that the character will get everything he or she wants despite facing challenges, it can cause the reader to lose interest. Remember that questions and the need for answers to those question compel the reader to keep reading. If those questions are too easily answered, interest flags.

Even in romances, where a Happily Ever After ending is often required, how and to what level the characters end up happy should not be obvious to the reader in order to maintain a questioning experience.

That doubt keeps readers engaged with the storyline.

Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

Writing great scenes that connect with readers

What makes a scene stick with a reader? Is it the emotion, the revelation, purpose? It can be any or all of these things when done well. Let’s take a look at what makes a great scene.

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A great scene has a purpose and climax. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, reveal important information, or develop the character, it probably shouldn’t be in the book at all, but it certainly won’t stick with the reader as meaningful or important. Identify the purpose of the scene and build the other elements around that purpose, leading to the climax.

A strong scene has good pacing. Things need to happen in a scene, whether that’s action, the character learning something, romantic tension increasing, or the reader putting clues together. Break a scene down to the individual elements that will support the overall purpose. Skip unimportant details that don’t serve a purpose. Watch out for long sections of exposition or narration, don’t stay inside a character’s head for too long, and stay focused on movement throughout the scene.

An impactful scene shows rather than tells. Telling becomes boring very quickly and tires out the reader. While some long passages of dialogue are needed to explain a lot of information, break it up with movement, action, or input from other characters. Use all five senses to bring the scene to life and show what the characters are experiencing. Don’t tell the reader the character is upset, show them through body language, dialogue tone, or physical action.

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A memorable scene creates an emotional connection with the character. This connection may come in many forms, whether it’s disgust, sympathy, romantic feelings, or compassion. A scene should reveal something about the character that makes them more real and shows their depth. This can be done through backstory, dialogue, action, etc. Readers connect more with characters they have something in common with, whether it’s something major like an abusive childhood, or jealousy over a friend doing well. Use traits and experiences that are universal to build a base for connection, then delve deeper into more personal or unique traits to deepen the connection.

A good scene has real conflict. Conflict can come in any form, but it should be integral to the scene. Internal conflict delves deeper into what makes up a character and where they are on their journey of change. External often conflict moves the story along and pushes the character to discover their abilities and strength.

A complete scene shows change and development. Change is a critical factor in any story. The characters, situation, and possibly setting change or develop through the story and character arcs. Each scene should show where the story/character is in the arc and where they are heading next. Change and development isn’t linear. Use ups and downs to create more tension and a more interesting arc. Characters need to fail and struggle. Nothing should come easily, but it should continue to progress.

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Writing compelling conflict in romance

Conflict is what keeps readers reading…until it doesn’t. When readers get bored, they get a new book. Developing deep, rich conflict will keep readers engaged and interested. Let’s break down conflict in romance and discuss how we can craft conflict readers won’t be able to turn away from.

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Internal and external conflict

Identify what the characters want. These should be internal and external desires or goals. Internal goals may be feeling loved or having a stable life, and those impact external goals like getting a promotion and ensuring financial security or taking a risk on a relationship.

Once you’ve done this for both characters, note where their goals/desires come into conflict. These are opportunities to develop stumbling blocks in the relationship. If one MC feels driven to excel at work because he or she craves financial stability due to growing up destitute, while the other MC is working toward moving to a small town where life is simpler, this will stress the relationship.

I always think of “You’ve Got Mail” when looking at conflicting desires. One character is trying to save her independent bookstore while the other is trying to crush it in favor of his mega-book store. 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.

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Risk of failure

Don’t look at this as just the risk of the relationship failing, but explore all types of failure that could impact the relationship. This risk MUST matter and be big enough that the reader feels anxiety over the fact that it could all fall apart.

Failure to finish a degree or accept a job in order to relocate for a relationship can build resentment. Failure to confront something in the past can push a character to run from a current relationship. Failure to prioritize a relationship over work/money/ambition will result in missed opportunities and damage a relationship.

An interesting example of this is the movie “Run Fatboy Run” where the MC signs up for a marathon after his ex-girlfriend (who he ran away from on their wedding day) and the mother of their child’s new fiancé brags about running it. Whether or not the MC actually finishes the race doesn’t really matter to anyone but him. He needs to fulfill an internal goal of proving he can finish something difficult and not run away. There’s no external risk of him failing to finish the race, but the internal risk is quite high.

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Realistic steps/progression

Developing realistic steps and reactions is hugely important in developing realistic conflict. Characters have to be able to connect with and understand the characters’ choices, even if they don’t agree with or like them.

Love at first sight doesn’t mean smooth sailing into the sunset. A fast and intense beginning to a relationship often leads to belated problems because the couple makes decisions before they’re prepared to make them or before they know each other well enough.

Friends to lovers romances are great opportunities for conflict, because there is always bound to be fallout with other friends, families, and the problems that come with knowing each other too well, such as knowing all their past relationship details and indiscretions.

If the conflict is largely internal, a character must take logical steps to address it. This may include therapy, opening up to another character, confronting someone who hurt them, etc. A promise of love from the MC doesn’t heal decades of trauma or abuse. Nobody overcomes deep issues in one day, and no one else can “fix” them.

External conflict, such as two coworkers going for the same job and being unable to keep work and their relationship separated, takes delving deep into emotions and actions. The conflict progression may look something like the characters not talking about it, to slipping in disparaging comments at work, to taking specific actions to derail their work or respectability, and so on. As the risk that they might not get the job over the other intensifies, so will the emotions involved and the willingness to take action.

Think about the movie “What Women Want” and the progression they go through as coworkers basically vying for dominance in the company and the progressive actions Mel Gibson takes as he becomes more desperate to win.

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Resolution

If the main source of conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it’s most likely much too simple and not believable. If the resolution is not believable, the reader will walk away unsatisfied and likely lose interest in the writer.

It’s important to resolve the internal sources of conflict leading up to the external source, since that is often where the real conflict begins. Internal change allows the characters’ underlying goals to become similar as the story progresses. Once their underlying goals are better aligned, it’s easier for them to see how to resolve the bigger conflict pushing them apart.

It is imperative that the resolution satisfy the reader. Reread the first chapter and ask yourself how you want the story to end. Then ask yourself, what are you willing to see each character give up in order to achieve that ending? The female MC giving up everything to fulfill the man’s goals is bound to get more than a few eye rolls from readers.

Lastly, ask yourself what steps make sense for each character to take to get from page one to the satisfying end you’re imagining. If those steps aren’t there or fleshed out enough, even the best ending will fall flat.

Consider the Disney version of Cinderella in comparison to Drew Barrymore’s version “Ever After.” Which has a more satisfying ending and why?