Welcome to the second part of my series on literary conflict! Last time, we talked about the different types of literary conflict and the role conflict plays in good writing. Conflict drives your story forward, so it should be present in any scene you write—and it should be believable and engaging. Let’s look at some different ways to incorporate conflict in your writing.
Risk & Emotional Connections
The most common way to create conflict is by putting your protagonist or another character at risk. Have them face their fear of giant spiders, give them a broken leg and put them in front of a train, put them in a situation where their greatest secret is about to be revealed, have them battle six armed demons or one nasty mother-in-law. But before you put a character at risk, it’s absolutely vital that you create an emotional connection between your reader and that character. Your reader should love or hate the character in question; if your reader doesn’t care about the character’s fate, then the conflict will fall flat and your reader will feel like you’ve wasted their time.
The interaction between your protagonist and another character (or characters) can introduce your reader to the underlying conflict quickly and effectively. Look at the following example:
“Pass the potatoes,” said Sally.
“Get the damn potatoes yourself!” Victor replied.
The tension is immediately apparent. The reader knows Victor is angry, and likely with Sally. Look at what happens when you alter the dialogue:
“Pass the potatoes,” said Sally.
“What potatoes?” Victor asked.
There is still tension, but it’s different. Instead of anger, we have confusion and perhaps the beginnings of a potato mystery.
Choose energetic words to describe the conflict, rather than just stating what’s happening. This helps to bring your reader into the scene, drawing on their own emotions and experience to feed the conflict in the story. Compare the following two sentences:
1. Debbie was scared, so she lit the fire.
2. Debbie’s heart raced and her hands trembled as she lit the fire.
The first sentence tells us what’s happening, while the second makes us feel what’s happening. Be deliberate in your word choices—and please don’t fall into the trap of overusing adjectives and adverbs, which can be really off-putting. (I highly recommend investing in a good dictionary and thesaurus for this reason.)
Contrasting Emotions & Opposing Goals
Another good way to build conflict is by putting two of your main characters in conflicting emotional states. For example, Stan is desperately in love with Amber and will do anything to win her love. Amber, however, is in love with Stan’s older brother, Billy, who prefers to fight aliens, but occasionally pays attention to Amber. This puts the characters in close proximity and gives you lots of simmering tension.
Giving two of your main characters opposing goals can also create conflict. For example, Klaus and Greta are desperately in love. Klaus wants nothing more than to get married and have a family, but Greta wants to become a rocket scientist and doesn’t really like kids. Lots of potential tension in that scenario too.
These are just a few examples of how you can incorporate conflict into your own writing. You can have different types of conflict within one story. You can also vary the intensity of the conflict in different scenes. The key is to choose believable conflict that suits your story and your characters—and then make your readers care about what happens.