Writing Conflict in Fiction

Unforgettable stories and characters must be more than some quirky or autobiographical details. If you give your lead character the right kind of conflict, readers will stay glued to the page.

Writing Tip for Today: Not all fictional conflict is created equal. Here are some tips for writing effective conflict:

So What?

In fiction we talk a lot about creating high stakes. The character’s goal must be worthy of readers’ time. One way to determine if your story stakes are high enough is by asking, “If my character doesn’t get the goal, so what?”

I’ve often used the story of a writer whose story character wanted to play the French horn in the school band. OK that’s a goal. But the conflict is missing: So, he did. If the person wanted to play but his parent couldn’t afford a horn, that sets up conflict. So what? He will be ridiculed for being poor or perhaps tempted toward a life of crime by stealing one.

High stakes can ripple outward: The personal consequences, relationships, city, nation, world or galaxy of not attaining a goal will mean disaster. The magnitude of the disaster brings the stakes higher and higher. Of course, you won’t apply galaxy-sized stakes to a story about a kid who yearns to play the French horn (unless he’s a super-space-hero), but the more rings of stakes you have, the higher the conflict stakes.

The more rings of stakes, the higher the conflict.

Balance Inner and Outer Conflicts

Piling on outer conflicts can quickly become unbelievable if they aren’t balanced by the character’s inner conflicts.  Readers want to identify with any protagonist. But if you don’t write in the character’s inner struggles, the story can feel like just “one darned thing after another. Your character’s inner motivations, shortcomings and desires must drive the outer conflict.

The kid who wants to play French horn might have an inner need to prove he’s as good a musician as his late father, whom the boy never got along with. The boy might dream of acceptance or belonging—two worthy goals most all readers can relate to in some way.

Balancing inner and outer conflicts keeps a story from being either too introspective (navel gazing) or too shallow. The best conflicts are physical actions driven by the inner needs of a character, expressed in emotional signals to readers.

Growth and Change

Over the course of your story (both short and novel, memoir too), the conflict must shape and reshape your character. Few want to read about a character who never bothers to grow or change, who hasn’t learned anything or who loses or wins and who doesn’t care. Ambivalence is best left to Russian literary masters.

Try a simple test: write down your character’s main lesson, change or growth for every chapter (in short work, each scene). How does he/she react when she/he loses? Maybe your character starts out thinking the goal will be easy to get. In subsequent scenes, the obstacles should change your protagonist in both the outer as well as the inner realms. Readers crave characters who can learn from mistakes and yet not give up too soon.

By the resolution, how has your character changed emotionally? Is she/he different in how they view other people or life in general? You don’t want to write these changes in a preachy or moralistic way (and then the boy saw the light and changed his tune), but readers should have a satisfying sense that change, redemption or growth is possible.

Here’s a free pdf to help you write effective conflict in your work:

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.