How To Write Conflict – Creative Writing Basics

Conflict Definition In Novels

Writing a novel or story that works means including some essential ingredients. From a reader’s point of view (which is the only POV that should interest us!) conflicts between characters , and how they are resolved, is the energy that keeps them turning the pages. Is that a good thing? You bet – it’s why we write!

An author must take the characters he’s painstakingly created with loving care, and introduce turmoil of varying severity into their fictitious lives. How to write conflict, that is, creating, sustaining and resolving the events causing it, is a vital skill to develop when telling a story.

I’m not just referring to the main obstacles in the hero’s quest, but normal everyday stuff, like jealousy between friends, being irritated by someone’s arrogant attitude and any number of similar attacks on a normal person’s sanity.

Writing Conflict Can Sometimes Be Helped By The Novel Genre

Conflict In A Novel

The genre of your story can direct you towards the kind of conflict that needs creating. The conflictual events are the catapults that shoot the novel forwards and they are ever-present. The genre will loosely dictate the kind of situations that can unfold, giving rise to a particular kind of conflict. In a fantasy world, a dragon might breathe fire all over us, or simply be very annoying, continually telling us where we are going wrong.

A sci-fi novel presents a whole gamut of possibilities, from evil scientists to slimy aliens bent on entering our bodies by any means possible! (Made myself shudder a little there!) The kind of conflict, the severity and the nature of the event causing it will surely be affected by the genre.

In a historical novel, a character stepping out of the scope of accepted normal social behavior could be a source of conflict, while in an adventure novel, a hero dragging his legs through a jungle swamp while covered in leeches might deliver the goods.

Conflict Often Surprises The Characters In A Novel – Sometimes the Author Too!

essential conflictFor all levels of conflict, the astute writer looks for new and interesting ways to deliver conflictual situations, perhaps introducing something entirely new into the genre – readers love this!

Many stories within a genre follow the same old formula and it can get boring, frankly. There’s an old adage from movie making that comes to my mind, when the producer says ‘Give me the same old story that people love, but tell it in a new way.’

You know that the story arc needs a certain structure if it’s to grab and hold the reader, but it’s not a straight-jacket. There’s plenty of room to bring surprises into your conflicts. Try to work within the genre in a different point of view. Be fresh. Don’t follow the same old pattern with the inevitable clichés.

Remember when the first Girl-Vampire book came out and was a massive hit? I can’t even remember what it was called now, but within weeks there were any number of vampire romance novels bedecking book-store shelves all over the world. Don’t do it!

Conflict Brings Tension Brings Emotional Highs Brings Happy Readers

Lets not get confused about terms here. People often say tension when they mean conflict, and vice-versa. Lets separate them in this way: Conflict is the actual physical or verbal situation, while tension is the emotional state resulting from it, so conflict causes tension and not the other way round. It’s up to the author to write prose that conveys the emotional turmoil felt by the characters to the reader.

Depending on the narrative point of view, emotions can conveyed by thoughts, actions or dialogue – the only tools a writer has, in fact. The crux of the matter is to help a reader feel involved in what is going on and what the characters in the novel are going through. It needs to matter to them, if your book is going to be successful.

More Details About Writing Conflict In Novels, Please

Conflict in relationshipsConflict is the life-blood of any story, whatever the theme, genre or setting. It may be external to the characters or the emotional turmoil between them, but it should always be there.

You might think that the only important conflict in a story is at the climax, when the hero and villain clash for the last time, but you would be wrong. The first thing to realise while crafting your masterpiece is that conflict is everywhere. It’s clear and present, but also promised just around the corner.

It’s conflict that makes relationships interesting to read about, particular if it focuses on an issue the reader can readily relate to. It is conflict that persuades, cajoles or angers our hero into new directions and pushes him to overcome challenges.

Creative Writing Is All About Conflict, In Varying Degrees

The wise author introduces it often, even if it’s hardly noticeable and subtle. It may be the taxi-driver who is rude, a suspicious lover or a demanding parent. The important thing is that the whole gamut of emotions is displayed – this is all about real life, folks!

A novel should reflect real life, but more so, accentuating daily conflicts to show how they conspire to impede our hero’s progress to succeeding at his quest. Of course, the main conflicts will naturally be well-marked by the careful writer in the story planning stage, in the form of barriers of ever-increasing tension to the hero’s desired conclusion.

This is what the story arc is all about: Building to the climax in the rising action phase, before relaxing back into a stable situation in resolution phase.

Example Of Writing Conflict Into A Simple Story Scene

Everyday ConflictMany situations can cause conflict, even planning a pleasant night at a restaurant. The reader loves it because it’s more vibrant and real than witnessing an obviously fictitious take amble on with few highs or lows. This is not what fiction is all about.

Imagine a couple planning to go out for an anniversary meal – it’s amazing how something so banal can quickly become uncomfortable and a source of friction between two people who normally have a close relationship:-

“I thought we’d go to Giovani’s this year, for a change,” Mike muttered from behind his newspaper. His mind recalled the warm look his wife gave always directs towards the manager of Pete’s Diner, their regular dining spot.

“Oh darling! We met at Pete’s. I know it’s corny, but it’s a tradition. I love it.”

“Just thought it’d be a change, that’s all. Pete’s isn’t the same since Vince took over.”

“He strikes me as rather nice. Quite dishy in fact, if a girl was interested.”

Mike squirmed in his seat. “Takes all sorts, I suppose.”

“Is that what it’s about? Vince?”

“Don’t be silly!”

“It is, isn’t it? You’re jealous. How funny.”

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The above scenario may end well or not, but it serves to illustrate how a simple trip out to the restaurant for an anniversary meal can bring conflict. How much more interesting than if his wife had simply said, “OK, dear. Whatever you say.”

Conflict can be almost non-existent, generated by a fleeting encounter with a rude store assistant, but it’s a good idea to have a little in every scene and conversation throughout a novel. In real-life, we might pretend to brush off this type of irritation, but in reality they stay with us, coloring our mood for the rest of the day.

Support characters are, by definition, of minor importance and can be used to bring small conflicts of the nature described above, while the closer relationships of the main characters serve to present deeper emotional upsets. The biggest conflicts should be created by the main antagonist, the villain of the story.

Sarah Crawford talks about “Writing Better Fiction: How To Increase Conflict and Tension” in the video:
Video Transcript:

Conflict is essential for any good story. It’s nice to have interesting characters but if there’s no conflict there really isn’t a plot. If you think about all the books that you love, I guarantee you somewhere in there, you’re going to find some conflict.


So if you’re looking at a your fiction and you’re thinking about ways that you can increase the conflict and amp up the tension so that your readers will be more interested in what’s going on, I’m going to give you a few tips that will help you to do that.


The first thing you want to do is to raise the stakes. One way to accomplish this is to ask the question, “what will happen if my protagonist does not reach his or her goal by the end?” In a story like The Hunger Games, for example, this goes to the extreme, and you know if Katniss doesn’t reach her goal by the end, she’s going to be dead.


Sometimes its more subtle than that, especially if you have the story centering around internal conflict, but if you are going through and you’re looking for ways to amp things up in your plot to keep the readers interested, ask yourself if there’s anywhere where you can raise the stakes.


The next thing you want to do is to complicate the story. No one wants to read about normal people going about their day and nothing happening, so ask yourself “what kind of obstacles can you throw in your protagonist’s way”? How could this situation that they are in get any worse? What kind of problems or issues will come up that they have to deal with?


It’s always nice if you put your characters in a situation that seems impossible, where the readers are asking themselves “how is she going to get out of this?” You want to keep the reader interested, that’s the most important thing, especially if you’re writing with the goal to entertain your audience.


Don’t let your characters off easy – put them in difficult situations, put them in trying situations, give them obstacles, make them go on a journey or rise to the occasion or overcome challenges. These are the kind of things that people want to read about.


The next thing you can do, give your characters conflicting goals. If you have a character that wants to get divorced, for example, and then their husband wants to stay married, that’s obviously going to create some conflict. Now one of them is going to have to sacrifice or compromise or by the end they’re going to have to reach some kind of resolution.


One of them is going to have to change or learn something or grow. One good way to help with this is to go through and list all of your characters and write out what each character wants. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll discover things about the story that I wouldn’t have even thought of otherwise.


Another thing that will definitely increase the tension and the pressure is to give your character a deadline. This could be something as intense as “you have to solve this puzzle by the end 10 minutes or the bomb’s going to go off”. It could be something a little less intense like “you have one month to sell your house”.


Whatever it is, if you give your character a time frame in which the goal has to be accomplished, that puts more pressure on your character and it kind of will increase the tension and raise the stakes. When you’re thinking about conflict it might be a good idea just to write out what you think the conflict is. You would be surprised how many people could write a hundred pages of a novel without actually knowing what the conflict is. I know, I’ve done that before!


You definitely want to know what your main conflict is. It’s good if you can use a combination of internal and external conflict. Internal conflict is when someone is having conflict within themselves. External conflict is when a character is having conflict with an outside force.


It can be another person or a situation, so you want to use a combination of the two. Once you’ve figured out the main conflict that’s going to run through your story the whole way, you can go through each scene and ask yourself “is this escalating the conflict? Is this propelling the plot forward? Does this increase the tension?”


If not, what are some ways that I can raise the stakes or make the situation more difficult? What are some obstacles I can put in my character’s path? Are there any… are there any unexpected situations that might come up?” Things like that.


Alright that’s all I have for today leave me a comment down below and let me know what you think about conflict and tension and if there are any helpful ways that you like to think about increasing the conflict. Don’t forget to subscribe to my channel and subscribe to my mailing list, The Daily Writer, if you want to receive daily writing inspiration.

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6 Replies to “How To Write Conflict – Creative Writing Basics”

  1. Interesting. It strikes me that you might have a background in writing movies? I just finished a book about movie script writing and it talks constantly about ‘having conflict in every scene’, no matter what.

    i always considered the main conflicts encapsulated in the rising action part of a story to be the main focus, but i see that little, everyday conflicts can make a story seem more believable – that kind of stuff happens to me all the time!

    1. Hi Pete, yes it’s sometimes a fine line between events that ‘might’ happen and reality. The trick is make it believable for the reader and then you’re home! Thanks for the comment.

  2. As an average reader, I always look forward to a conflict. The best type of conflict in my opinion is the ones that introduces a turning point or a plot twist to main storyline. You’ve made a great point with the statement “conflict often surprises the characters in a novel”. It gives the novel more complexity into the story and haves you thinking what if? or how could a character affect the ending by making a particular decision at the time.

    Great article and I can definitely learn from this. Which genre do you think can have the most impact of conflict in your opinion?

    1. Thanks for your comment Christian. I reckon that’s the great thing about writing conflict – a good writer can make it intense in any genre.

  3. A great insight on creative writing. Not only for novels. But you can also aply this when writing blog posts. Loved the article. Can recommend everyone to read it…:)

    1. Nice one! I think all that’s good in a creative writing style sits well with any reader, whether reading for fun or a technical journal! Nobody want sot be bored with what they read. thanks for your comment.

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