Writing Compelling Conflict: Types of Conflict

When considering how to add complexity to the conflict in a story, it’s important to cast a wider net on what types of conflict you are considering. Don’t stop at old emotional wounds in romance, a lousy boss in a workplace drama, or fear or the future in a coming of age story.

Developing Complexity

The first thing to consider when adding or developing complexity to a story conflict is that the stakes have to continue to raise throughout the story or it will stagnate. This often entails multiple sources of conflict that arise as the story progresses.

Ways to increase the stakes in a story might include:

  • Making the main goal become more desired or needed because of changes in circumstances, such as a desired promotion becoming absolutely essential when a character is threatened with losing their housing unless they can come up with additional funds
  • Adding an external factor, such as an antagonist threatening harm if the character doesn’t back down from pursuing a goal
  • Bring someone else’s well-being into the conflict, such as a family member falling ill and needing additional care or financial help
  • Increase the reward or cost of failure, such as losing custody of a child if a character cannot stay sober and provide a for a child’s physical safety

Power Struggles

Another avenue for adding complexity is to create a power struggle. This raises the stakes of the conflict by creating more desperation. It is not only the character who needs to achieve something in this situation. The character also has to stop the antagonist from achieving a goal in order for him or her to achieve theirs.

Types of power struggles might include clinging to something the character has power over or needs to gain power over, or a bid to escape oppression or danger. Power struggles are relatable for most readers and utilize high emotion that can forge a connection with readers.

Time Conflicts

Adding a time conflict to a situation adds complexity because the character is no longer free to work through a problem in their own time. He must race against a deadline to figure out a solution. This heightens emotion and stress, and reduces possible options for solving the problem. It also set a specific deadline for the reader to focus on, which can help form a deeper bond with the character.

Love and Romance

Adding elements of love and romance to a story whose main genre is not romance can heighten other areas of conflict. Emotional bonds can create interconnected barriers between goals and desires. In an office setting, a romance may complicate career progression or lead to hostility and drama. Personal growth-focused stories can be affected by romantic entanglements when the relationship hinders or complicates reaching personal goals.

Work Conflicts

Difficult situations in a work environment can complicate a character reaching her goals. Situations might include being asked to break personal morals in order to please a superior or client, stressing or breaking a relationship by taking unearned credit in order to secure a promotion or favor, bullying or sexual harassment creating a hostile work environment, etc. Such stressors at work then spill over and complicate other areas of the character’s life.

Conflicting Perspectives

Perspectives that don’t line up stresses relationships, whether romantic, friendship, work-based, or familial. Pressure to change a perspective or do something that does not line up with a character’s perspective becomes a barrier in reaching goals or making desired changes. Consider how moral, religious, political, environmental, ethical, etc. perspectives might create internal and/or external conflict for a character.

Powerful Internal Conflicts

Complex characters do not always do the “right” thing or make good decisions. Making mistakes or poor choices helps add complexity to a story’s conflict. However, characters must come off as empathetic on some level.

Readers don’t have to like or agree with everything a character does or believes, but there should be at least one aspect of his or her personality that a reader can connect with. Harsh or unlikable actions should be based in an internal trauma or personal torment a reader can sympathize with and understand.

Without powerful internal conflicts, a difficult character will simply be unlikable. Such internal conflicts create obstacles for a character achieving his or her goals. If a reader can understand the reason behind the behavior or belief, he or she will still be able to root for the character to overcome the obstacle and succeed in reaching the goal.

Going Beyond the Main Storyline

Subplots are excellent opportunities to add these layers of complexity to a storyline. It allows different conflicts to be weaved together and cross-impact each other. Subplots can nudge characters into actions or choices that affect the main storyline and provide depth that would be difficult to achieve within only the main storyline.

A singular focus on the main storyline limits complexity and opportunities for character growth.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Complexity Between Characters

How complex conflict in a story needs to be can depend on factors such as length or genre, but it should always be complex enough that characters have to work to get through it.

If the main conflict can be resolved in a paragraph or two, it is likely too simple and unrealistic as the main source of conflict.

While some writers are more storyline focused that character focused, character are still an integral part of developing complex conflict. A great place to start when integrating characters and conflict is to develop inherently conflicting characters. Jane Austen’s works are prime examples of pairing up conflicting characters, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

All stories should have complex and conflicting characters, but in character-driven stories, conflict MUST start with the characters in order to provide believable opportunities for growth and development. Internal conflict is key in character driven stories. Differences in personality, beliefs, desires, or goals will push characters away from each other, creating a stumbling block they must work to overcome if the relationship is to work or the goal is to be met.

This type of conflict may be derived from aspects such as specific character traits, race/nationality, political/religious/morals views, money, career, family, social status, long terms goals, etc.

Conflict Between Groups

This same idea can be expended to character groups. Conflict between specific groups can create obstacles for a character reaching their goal or desire or achieving personal growth. Members of specific groups (work, social, athletic, racial, religious, etc.) have certain types of goals or core beliefs.

When pitted against a character with opposing goals or beliefs, he or she is forced to make difficult choices or changes. This can be a great source of internal conflict with external ramifications.

It’s important to consider this type of conflict when initially developing a character and setting the goals the will work toward in the story. Once you have each character profile compiled, compare the profiles of the two main characters.

Where do their goals clash? How will those opposing goals hinder a relationship (friendship, romantic, or familial)? Determine whether the opposing goals are deeply held enough to provide rich and believable conflict or if they need to be further explored and developed.

Love Isn’t Enough

Resist the urge to lean too heavily on the “love conquers all” idea. While we all might like to believe that love will fill in the gaps between conflicting desires and goals, it doesn’t. Not long term, anyway. Readers know this and need more than love to explain why the story will continue to work out after the last page.

Giving up too much or making too many personal sacrifices that aren’t met equally will eventually lead to resentment and distancing. It isn’t necessary to explain everything, but if you have succeeded in creating complex conflict between two characters, put an equal amount of effort into making sure your explanation for why it will work out in the long.

If a character changes a core belief or goal, there needs to be a strong and valid reason for that change, and falling in love isn’t enough of a reason by itself. Something needs to change internally for the character. External reasons for change are often short lived.

Sacrifices between characters may not be equal, but there should be a balance that makes sense for the story and characters. If one character gives up or changes a major belief or goal and the opposing character gives up nothing and only gains, this will not feel believable or long lasting to most readers. Both opposing characters need to grow and change.

Looking at Jane Austen again, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had to make internal changes and reevaluation their goals and desires by the end of the story. If only Elizabeth had changed to be less hasty to make judgments of others and Mr. Darcy was allowed to remain haughty and dismissive yet win still Elizabeth over, the ending would have felt dissatisfying and unrealistic.

When developing conflict in a story and between characters, take the time to determine whether it is complex enough to be believable and create a satisfying ending for readers.

Writing Compelling Conflict: Crisis vs Conflict

The difference between crisis and conflict may seem slight, but it’s very important and can have a huge impact on a story.

Crisis is an event or action (an emergency), while Conflict relates to the impact of an event or action on a character or characters. Think about an action movie versus a drama. Action films focus on events, and often have a succession of events that add more crisis up to the climax. Dramas are more focused on the fallout, rebuilding, or working through involved after a crisis or trauma has occurred.

Crisis cannot sustain an entire story (in most cases) in a realistic manner. It’s exhausting for readers to be constantly immersed in major events. Conflict, however, is the basis of a strong story arc. There are events and crises woven into the story arc, but there is also time between events for development, growth, reflection, failure, and change.

Crisis centers on action, excitement, and/or danger. The reader’s attention is intended to be held by constant new events. This method often leaves too little room for character development and meaningful story progression. It relies on highlights rather than deep diving.

While Conflict does include action, excitement, and/or danger, it centers on how the characters experience the events, how living through a crises affects him or her, and how each individual character recovers from a crisis or deals with the consequences.

To illustrate the difference, consider these examples.

Crisis: Someone holds up a bank and the character witnesses a fellow customer get killed.

Conflict: The character survives the hold up and is plagued with fear for her safety, is having difficulty functioning at work, and is pulling back from relationships.

Conflict deals with long term effects of crises and can involve in multiple interrelated crises over the course of the story arc. Crisis is a single event, and instigates conflict. This is why it’s important to have a balance of the two. Use crises to spark dramatic change, but develop conflict through the character’s thoughts, emotions, and actions that are caused or exacerbated by the crisis. This provides more opportunities for development and growth and will ultimately create a deeper and more engaging story.

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?