Conflict in Writing: Part Two

monsters_and_dames_2012_by_zatransis-d4r5x0iPart Two: How to Incorporate Conflict in Your Writing

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.

Word Choice

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.


Image credit:  Zatransis deviantART

Conflict in Writing: What is Literary Conflict and Why do You Need It?


Part One: What is Literary Conflict?

Welcome, dear readers, to the first part of my article on literary conflict. You’ve probably heard about literary conflict. You might have read that conflict is the essence of good writing or that it is essential in creating plot. You know your writing should have conflict, but what does that really mean? Should your protagonist be starting more fights? Does your story need more ninjas?

Um, no.

So, what exactly does literary conflict look like?

Conflict is what gets your protagonist out of bed in the morning. It makes your story move and allows you to take your characters from one scene to another without losing momentum or confusing your readers. While conflict can play out in many different ways, it will always fall under one of two categories: Internal or External.

Internal conflict is also described as Person vs. Self. When the conflict is internal, it will involve a struggle within the protagonist. For example, let’s say your protagonist, Fred, has very strong beliefs about kale. Fred thinks anyone who eats kale is a freak of nature. Then Fred discovers that his daughter loves kale and has been eating it in secret for years. Fred is facing an internal conflict: does he banish his daughter from his life or does he let his daughter’s love of kale change his perspective about people who eat kale?

External conflict is conflict between your protagonist and an external force. There are three main types of external conflict, which we will look at now.

  1. Person vs. Person: This type of conflict typically involves another person (or sometimes a group of people), who your protagonist struggles with throughout the story. The struggle can be psychological, physical, or emotional. This type of conflict is often characterized by the classic good guy vs. bad guy scenario. Some examples include James Bond vs. Dr. No/Goldfinger/General Orlov/Etc.; Dorothy vs. the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz; and Frodo vs. Gollum in the Lord of the Rings.
  1. Person vs. Society: This type of conflict involves your protagonist’s struggle against institutions, laws, or traditions of the dominant society in which he or she lives. This type of struggle usually involves the protagonist coming up against an element of society that either frustrates their attempts to reach their goal—or forces them to make a moral decision. Some examples include Twelve Years a Slave, by Soloman Northrup; Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; and The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  1. Person vs. Nature: This type of conflict involves your protagonist in a struggle against the natural world, which can include animals, natural disasters, and weather. Some examples include Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe; and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

In addition to the above, some argue that Person vs. Technology/Supernatural/ Fantasy/Etc. should also be considered as types of conflict. However, if your protagonist happens to be a vampire locked in a bitter fight with a werewolf arch-nemesis, you are essentially writing about person vs. person conflict. And if your protagonist is railing against the use of dragons in warfare, you are looking at person vs. society conflict. Similarly, if your protagonist is trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, you are basically writing about person vs. nature conflict.

This brings us to the end of part one of Conflict in Writing. Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll talk about some different ways to incorporate conflict in your writing.


Image credit:  scumbugg deviantART