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Writing

How to Write Compelling Conflict: Create Conflict in Stories

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

The key to successful storytelling is creating conflict. Writers establish the conflict of a story soon after they introduce their main character. Conflict is the element that kicks off the action and gets the story started. Writing compelling conflict is something every writer should know how to do.

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What Is Conflict?

In literature and film, conflict is a clash between two opposing forces that creates the narrative thread for a story. Conflict occurs when the main character struggles with either an external conflict or an internal conflict. There are six different types of conflict you can use to propel your story:

  1. Character vs. self
  2. Character vs. character
  3. Character vs. society
  4. Character vs. supernatural
  5. Character vs. technology
  6. Character vs. nature

2 Reasons to Create Conflict in Your Story

Conflict is a literary device that builds tension by challenging the main character and forcing them to test their values.

  1. Provides purpose. By establishing the conflict in the beginning and resolving the conflict by the end of the story, you give your story direction, motion, and purpose. Without it, a story would drift along with no beginning, middle, or end.
  2. Helps character development. When a character goes up against an opposing force, their actions and emotions reveal their character traits. This creates compelling characters that are multi-dimensional and more relatable to the reader.
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9 Ways to Create Conflict in Fiction Writing

To master the craft of building tension in your stories, follow these ten tips for writing conflict.

  1. Determine what kind of conflict your story needs. Your genre will often dictate the type of conflict you write. Thrillers often have a character vs. character conflict, while speculative fiction may feature a character vs. supernatural conflict. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a character vs. nature conflict plays out in a dramatic battle between Santiago, a fisherman, and an enormous marlin that he hooks. As self-doubt creeps in, Santiago’s internal struggle creates a character vs. self conflict as well.
  2. Decide what your character wants, then put an obstacle in their way. In fiction writing, conflict builds when something prevents your character from getting what they want. You can raise the stakes by making their desire an obsession. If you always give your characters what they want, your story will lack tension. Only conflict moves a good story forward. This is what your characters need in order to grow, so don’t let them get off easy. Don’t just think of conflict as dramatic action, it can come in any form—it will depend on what your characters want and what stands in their way of getting it.
  3. Create characters with opposing values. Create characters who are not just good or evil, but who are opposed to one another in a more interesting way. Think of someone you know in your own life, like a best friend or family member, with whom you’ve clashed. What was the source of that conflict? How did it resolve? Each character’s values will inform their decisions and impact their story arc.
  4. Create a powerful antagonist. In creative writing, the conflict must be dramatic. Create an opposing force that is just as strong, if not stronger, than your main character. Your protagonist needs to work to overcome obstacles and reach the story goal. A strong antagonist will create a compelling emotional conflict. They will also force the character to transform in some way, creating an enthralling character arc.
  5. Sustain the conflict’s momentum through the middle of the story. Your job during the middle of the story is to make the hero’s quest as difficult as possible so that at every moment it seems less likely that the hero will triumph. You must raise the stakes along the way and create obstacles of ever-increasing intensity while keeping your eye firmly fixed on your conclusion. Introduce new problems. Complicate things. Keep reminding the reader of the stakes.
  6. Strengthen conflict with subplots. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga The Lord of the Rings, the struggle between Gandalf and Saruman is a secondary story that escalates the tension and central conflict of Frodo’s quest to deliver the ring. Create a subplot to build a complex storyline with several layers of conflict. Use subplots to build a backstory that raises the stakes and introduces secondary characters who bring new tensions to the story.
  7. Raise the stakes. Remind readers what your hero faces and the goal they want to reach, then raise the stakes. Give the character something to lose or create another character who is after the same goal. When you raise the stakes and escalate the conflict through the plot, the climax should reward the reader with a big payoff.
  8. Think of your story visually. When writing a novel or short story, think like a screenwriter and play the movie in your head. What visual elements would capture the conflict best? Write those scenes into your story. Many bestsellers are made into movies, so conflict often does have to translate visually. For example, in the science fiction novel The Hunger Games, the film adaptation captured the conflict, ramping up the tension to create a heart-pounding cinematic experience as Katniss battles to survive.
  9. Read other fiction. From classics like Robinson Crusoe to popular modern works like Harry Potter and The Handmaid’s Tale, other works of fiction can offer an education in how to generate conflict. Great writers write conflict and build tension that feels authentic.

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