Conflict is the oxygen books breathe. Without it, interesting characters become cardboard cutouts and plotlines transform into meandering sightseeing tours of someone else’s fantasy life. If something isn’t actively going wrong at ALL times then you don’t have a story for readers to care about. Even a fantasy-vehicle like Twilight would have withered without relationship dilemmas and in-fighting.
However, for a beginning writer it can be hard to incorporate conflict even once you’ve accepted it’s necessity in the larger story. Conflict opportunities can be hard to spot and even harder to fully utilize. However, with practice, it gets easier and easier to milk your storyline for every ounce of difficulty it can offer.
First, Let’s Get Comfortable with Character Suffering
In order for your story to have stakes, your character needs to suffer. First of all, this completes a conflict beat in a satisfying way. Think of all the boring movies you’ve seen where PROTAGONIST MAN successfully solves a problem that didn’t seem to be a threat in the first place. Boring, right? Second of all, a character’s suffering is part of how we identify with them. While we the readers have never had our parents killed by space-faring ferrets, we can still identify with things like grief and anger enough to feel attached to character’s that suffer them. Allowing your characters to suffer without fully handling the situation gives the reader the chance to root for them.
However, it can be hard to craft a cool, interesting character in your head and then let them fail or suffer without kicking total ass. A lot of young writers choose to make the cause of failure external (“Awesome Girl would have succeeded, if not for her evil twin sister!”) in order to maintain the vibe of pre-packaged cool, which often robs the character of any kind of growth. This is problematic because the readers want to see a character arc, while many writers have already built this character from the ground up in their heads and don’t want to have to go back and write about how uncool they used to be.
Now, just because you understand this problem, doesn’t mean you’ve moved past it in your own writing. Here’s a quick experiment that I’ve used to diagnose this problem in my workshopping partners before:
If you can’t make things awful for your characters without twisting the story to maintain their dignity or happiness, then you won’t be able to use conflict meaningfully in your story. The stakes will simply not be there. Superman is boring because even if the Earth is almost destroyed, he is never the focus of any serious risk on the level of character. Using conflict effectively will mean hurting your characters, sometimes irreparably, and failing to do so by wrapping them in sympathy or offering them some sort of compensation (like magical powers or the social regard of martyrdom) will only decrease the reader-character bonding power.
If you were unable to pass the piss-test, try taking a break or creating a new character. Once you’re ready to come back to the project, try running the test again until you’re comfortable with the idea of them being not amazing or in control.
Understanding Conflict Types
Now that we’re certain we can use any conflict we find, we’ll need to cover the three major types. It’s a good idea to try and incorporate all three to keep your plot fresh, though many genres do just fine using only two. I can almost guarantee that using only one will bore your readers: there’s only so many ways you can cut a cake, right?
This one is pretty self explanatory. These are your typical inner-struggles: whether to forgive, wondering if they’re a bad person, being conflicted over murdering an army of centipedes, whatever. This overshadows genres like romance, but is present in all of them. Some writers will try to give insight into the characters thoughts in order to convey internal conflict, such as writing the story in first person or showing direct character thoughts, but a lot of this can be implied through dialogue or behavior. Think of AMC’s The Walking Dead (spoilers ahead) for example: instead of telling us that Michonne had lost a baby, we simply saw her fight to never have to hold Rick’s until she was forced to, at which point, she responded in such as way that we were able to infer situationally why.
This type of conflict encapsulates everything from action scenes to petty arguments. Any time two characters find themselves or their goals opposed you have interpersonal conflict on your hands. This is an AWESOME way to infuse more conflict into your story and is present in most, if not all, novels.
However, interpersonal conflict isn’t necessarily overt or as obvious as two characters screaming at each other or breaking out into a fistfight. I once read an example in which a man and a woman were in an interview. During the proceedings, the man stared at the interviewer’s desk and focused on her pack of cigarettes in disgust. Meanwhile she assumed he wanted one but was too spineless to ask for one. Not once did they say anything less than civil to one another and they never spoke of the cigarettes directly, though the woman would move them across her desk and notice that he’d look away. This kind of tension is subtle, but that can be its own reward: when slipped in here and there, the reader who picks up on it feels especially rewarded for having caught on.
This one is kind of a catch all. It can be added by an organization or any group of people, like a mega-conglomeration, religion, or rival sports team. It can also be a situation in general, like an asteroid hurtling towards earth, a severe illness, or a financial problem. Anything outside of your character that doesn’t have it’s own personality with motivations attached to it is fair game.
When examining external conflict, it’s pretty easy to see how the conflict types all interact with each other. External conflict breeds interpersonal conflict which can set off internal conflict (or mix and match any other order you care to try). Handling external conflict in your novel is simple as long as you bear in mind that it has to make a passing amount of sense and be relevant to other conflicts. Look again at the chain reactions between your story’s conflict and ask yourself: “Do these really feed into each other in a meaningful way?” If yes, then you should be good to go.
Relevance can also be handled with foreshadowing when it’s not directly related to the sources of other conflicts. Without alluding to future problems, it can be frustrating for the reader to feel like critical plot elements came out of nowhere. For example, having your characters spend two thirds of a book fighting over their love interest only to have them both be swept away in a tidal wave no one mentioned is disappointing. If you mention the worsening weather and warning sirens but choose to strategically focus on how their love-triangle prevents them from addressing the evacuation, then it’s easier for the conflicts to gel and coalesce for the reader.
How To Find Extra Conflict Hiding In Your Manuscript
Finding Internal Conflict:
This one can be addressed hundreds of ways. First, I’d fill out a character questionnaire in order to figure out what situations scare them, make them worried that they’re a bad person, could die, could hurt their loved ones, etc.
Now, for the most important step: immediately put them in that situation and watch them freak out. Stressful, isn’t it?
Consider what they have to lose in any given situation and then poke that bear– the married mother having a secret affair with a space alien probably fears discovery, or at least harsh self-reflection if not Alien Love Police. Is your character insecure about a trait? Make sure it comes up. Still upset about something that happened in the past? Someone’s definitely throwing that in their face at the next company christmas party.
Remember: it’s not enough to just have something threatening happen to them. We need to see the character respond to the threat, we need to see how they feel in the actual moment. Avoid having them handle everything perfectly and then talk about how upset they were later– this robs characters of relatability.
Finding Interpersonal Conflict
If you read my post about using scene cards to plan your manuscript, this will be easier. If not, it’s still simple enough to go through each scene and note which characters are present. If someone is already locked in conflict with someone else in that scene, you’re fine so long as it’s not a small problem with a rapid solution. If no one is in direct opposition, or you haven’t written the scene yet, consider who is there or could feasibly be present. It’s always best to use an established character, though in a pinch you can invent a waitress or bystander to do the job. Then, decide where they come into conflict with each other. This can be directly in response to another conflict source, such as the asteroid hurtling towards earth and the fact that there is only one spot left on the spaceship out of here. It could also be in the form of a micro conflict that leads or feeds into other problems, like cutting off someone honking at your character in traffic, only to realize they are the person your character is about to interview with.
Interpersonal conflict is typically simple to find between characters. If not, this is a sign that your characters are not well developed enough to stand on their own. In new writers I’ve encountered, this is usually because a character only exists to validate the main character. For example, I once workshopped a piece where the main character had a little sister who had no other thoughts or motivations beyond supporting and complimenting her brother. The harsh truth? She was completely worthless and super boring, even when she directly related to the plot.
Go back and do a quick character sheet on these characters, even if you don’t intend to spend much time on them. Remember that each character thinks they’re the main character of their own story. Even if their involvement in this one is brief, make sure their attitude is still appropriate in the larger scheme of their non-existent narrative.
Finding External Conflict
This is probably the easiest one for me to come up with. In many cases, your external conflict relates to your main plot line– the asteroid about to hit, the evil villain about to kill the hero’s family, the impending war between nations, etc. The number one thing to remember is to break that main conflict up into steps. For example, I workshopped an entire novel where at the beginning, the main character stated their intention to save their family. This was great: I also like my family and I could relate to this instinct. However, she did absolutely nothing to accomplish that goal for the next three quarters of the novel: she mosied around New Orleans finding a job and going to nightclubs until the conflict found her almost on accident and she reacted. This was hard to read because not only was it difficult to root for someone who wasn’t even trying to do the things she said were important to her, but it also made the rest of the conflicts she had (interpersonal and internal) feel completely unrelated to the book. After reading the novel, we discussed how the writer could insert opportunities for the heroine to encounter problems relating to the main plot, such as finding out information or nearly being caught by the authorities.
In some cases, you’ve got your main conflict addressed but there still isn’t much external conflict. For example, many romance plots revolve around the “will-they-won’t-they” aspects of storytelling and rely on the characters getting in each others’ ways to drive the narrative. In these cases, I recommend calling on the immediate environment to invent short-term conflicts that can complicate or lead into other conflicts. In writing my latest novel (a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western), I found the main conflict lagging, so I sat down and came up with a list of random things that could go wrong based on the situation/environment. Thus, my main character: got bit by a rattlesnake, suffered severe dehydration and starvation, got stabbed twice, and almost drowned. Not only did this bump up the action, it also gave my character opportunities to suffer, be proactive, and fight with her love interest. Ultimately, it also gave me unexpected complications to later situations, such as how she’s supposed to take down the big bad while she’s so damn tired and injured all the time.
Milking All the Conflict!
This leads to my final point about finding all types of conflict: look for the places where you mentally resist addressing obvious problems. In cases where I find myself going “Oh, no! But then that would be a huge problem for my story because….”, those are the exact spots where the natural consequences of the situation or character actions would present massive problems for the story.
Dig out your pickaxe, buddy, because there be gold in these hills.
For example, in my post apocalyptic novel, I realized that because the region had been evacuated due to a past environmental disaster. Therefore, the roads would be blocked with rusted out vehicles that stalled as people tried to take the main highways to safety. Since the region is now uninhabited, there wasn’t anyone to clear the roads afterwards– begging the question of how my characters were traveling in the first place with an SUV. Obviously, that large of a vehicle wouldn’t be able to slide between the cars on the typical US highway, but nor would it be able to stand up to long-term off-roading.
Mentally, I tried to come up with some lame “but someone came through afterwards because of REASONS and cleared them” before I realized that this was actually a good opportunity to throw problems at my characters. Now, a trip that should have taken two days took WEEKS with all the rerouting issues, which eventually led to the destruction of their vehicle, which led to them obtaining horses, which was a huge problem because they didn’t know how to ride or care for horses, which turned out to still be the best move possible for them because they could now move in between the stalled cars. By the time I was done realizing how difficult this made things for my characters, I realized how much more sensible this made the situation for my antagonists: instead of assuring the reader that they never caught up with them because of unspecified REASONS, I could now point to the fact that they were stuck rerouting the same crappy roads my characters had struggled with.
Instead of twisting your story into knots trying to make it convenient for your protagonist or so that things unfold exactly the way you picture them, examine those problems by themselves. What makes things difficult for you as a writer are often GREAT conflict for characters.
Seriously, have an attitude of: “Well, look at what you did, idiot character number one. What are you going to do about it?” Then, sit back and watch them chisel out a frustrated, imperfect solution. Not only will the story flow more organically, but it won’t feel like you were pulling punches in order to make it work in the first place.