Writing Conflict: Obstacles vs. Dilemmas

When writing fiction, conflict is often at the top of the must-do list. Conflict makes us think of action: the bad guy chasing, the hero fighting his way out of a jam. Yet a quieter kind of conflict can create more tension that a space war scene.

Writing Tip for Today: How can creating emotional dilemmas create more conflict than the story’s obstacles?

Obstacles and Stakes

Yes, every story needs obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. If it were easy, readers couldn’t care. Yet satisfying and compelling obstacles arise out of worthy story stakes. The So What test can help you determine if your obstacles are worthy and your stakes are high enough.

An obstacle in fiction is whatever stands in the way of your character’s goal. The story stakes are the consequences if the obstacle can’t be overcome. Use the So What test to gauge your story obstacles and stakes. If your character doesn’t overcome what’s standing in her way and she does not attain the goal by end of story, SO WHAT? What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Your answer will help determine if the obstacle and stakes are big enough to compel readers to care. Unless you are very skillful at producing emotional tension, saying the character will be sad is usually not enough to keep readers reading. I like to find obstacles and stakes that are the most dramatic and realistic as possible without wandering into melodrama.

Dilemmas and Stakes

Conflict makes us think of action, say a battle. Dilemmas feel internal. One is an outer result, the other emotional. Whenever you end a scene, a succession of events must occur. First, the character reacts. This may be external, internal or a combination. Next, the character wonders what he should do next. That’s the dilemma. Finally, he makes a decision and returns to action.

One mistake writers often make is to write scenes that lean too hard one way or another. Too much external “doing,” and the character feels shallow. Too much internal “thinking and feeling,” and readers can lose track of what’s happening on stage. Blend these two elements and readers feel the full weight and excitement of the story.

As you write a scene’s sequel, avoid straying too far into the character’s head. Readers can feel trapped with little or no outside action. Even as your character ponders the dilemma, you can add action that mirrors her thoughts and feelings. But beware: eliciting feelings through gritted teeth and clenched fists alone will feel cliché. Instead, zoom the camera closer to the character’s thoughts and self-talk as he works his way to a decision.

Action and Emotions

The best conflict combines realistic action with genuine thoughts/feelings. Internal dilemma bridges the action and decision. To hold readers’ attention, this bridge must keep tension rising. If a sequel loosens tension, readers feel let down. Keep your sequel taut by weaving actions with thoughts/feelings during the dilemma bridge.

You’ve learned to weave in back story instead of chunking it all in one place. Do the same for your character’s dilemma. Try to avoid retreating into your character’s head—readers still want to see that character as they stew over what to do next. Think of your own life. What do you do when you face a thorny dilemma? Show your character in action as she deliberates.

Show your character in action as she deliberates.

All this inside/outside writing won’t deliver unless you set your story stakes high enough. Every action and every dilemma (this writer calls it thinking about a problem) must reflect a serious story stake. To keep readers reading, imagine your story stakes as concentric rings, with the character at the center. How will these stakes impact relationships? Community? Country? World and galaxy? Adjust your story stakes upward if you find your action/dilemma falling flat.

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.

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