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Conflict is not a secret sauce to telling stories; it’s the basic ingredient. It moves the plot forward and makes characters more engaging. Without genuine conflict in your story, it’s just a narration of events where nothing exciting happens. So, let’s find out how to create conflict that is engaging. We also have some examples of conflict in literature to ease the process!
Before you learn how to create conflict, of course, you need to learn what it is.
Simply defined, conflict is an element of struggle. It’s the barrier that a (central) character must overcome in order to achieve what they want or need. Essentially, it’s what goes wrong in the story.
Let’s take the most basic example: In Little Red Riding Hood, the conflict is the Big Bad Wolf. Without the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood would safely reach her grandmother with no threat to her life. If this happens, there is no tension in the story. Now, what reader would want to read a story like that?
There has to be some scandal in the industry, some turmoil in the family, or some personal enmity between your characters. These are the big and small issues that amount to conflict in a story. Conflict can be major (societal problems like sexism) or minor (familial struggles, personal enmity). A story becomes more interesting if characters have to solve a series of minor conflicts before they combat the major one.
For example, Arya and Sansa’s enmity in A Game of Thrones is a minor conflict while the same between Ned Stark and Cersei is a major one.
Did you know that there are five major types of conflict? It’s impossible to know how to create conflict in a story when you’re unaware of the different shapes it comes in! Let’s tackle that head-on.
These are the five major types of conflict:
However, they can be further divided into two major types of conflict: external and internal. Let’s now consider how these five types of conflict fall into the external or internal variety.
External conflict is the tussle between a character and an outside force. This force can be another character, or nature, or even the situation they’re in.
Yes, it’s that simple. There are four types of external conflict:
This is the most common type of conflict in all stories. A classic example: Hero against the villain.
Superhero comics and movies are entirely based on this conflict. The heroes are out to uphold the law while the villains are out to break it. This conflict of values and interests leads to their clash. The origin stories of both the protagonist and antagonists are rooted in such conflict.
Most often, character vs. character struggles have the basis of a conflict of values. Often, this works with or alongside a conflict of interest to make different storylines. For example, what if Batman and the Joker together want to stop the Riddler? Here, Batman and Joker have conflicting values, but their interests are the same. This makes for an engaging story, doesn’t it?
Therefore, the character vs. character conflict can take any shape based on the surrounding circumstances. It’s the most common conflict because it’s that versatile: you’ll find it everywhere!
Popular in both books and movies, this is when characters have to face the wrath of nature in different forms.
The unpredictability and immense power of nature makes for a strong challenge to the characters. Often, this conflict is quite difficult to overcome.
While every apocalyptic movie comes to mind, forces of nature don’t always mean geographical occurrences like a tsunami or a volcano. A disease like cancer is also a force of nature. So, stories like The Fault in Our Stars and The Normal Heart are also examples of character vs. nature type of conflict.
When a character feels out of place in the social life around them, their struggle amounts to this type of conflict. Cyberpunk and dystopian novels often feature a conflict where the character stands up against unequal or oppressive social structures.
This conflict is well represented in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 through the protagonist’s struggle against his dystopian world. Another notable example can be Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Most tragic plays feature this conflict in some capacity. The protagonist’s inability to overcome their conflict with the surrounding society eventually leads to their death.
Common in sci-fi stories, this conflict usually unfolds in a future where technology has become highly advanced. Technological advancements then reach a level where machines and A.I. begins to pose a threat to humanity. Naturally, the human characters then have to battle technology.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Evitable Conflict, machines in the far future decide to take control of humanity and break the first law of robotics. This is a pretty typical example of conflict between character and technology.
This conflict is appealing because it brings back the Renaissance-era questions of intelligence, creation, and divinity. The next time you watch a Terminator movie, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about!
This struggle happens within the mind of a character. Internal conflict in a story is a character’s battle with their own emotions, opinions, or ambitions. The most popular example of such a conflict is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
There is only one category under internal conflict:
Hamlet can’t arrive at a decision about how to exact revenge upon his uncle. He struggles with his own self, and not any outside force. This is an example of the sole internal conflict, which is character vs self.
This type of conflict often brings forth themes of mental instability and madness. Often, characters succumb to this struggle and lose their grip on reality.
This also features as a minor conflict in many stories. In this case, it helps the characters become better or more able versions of themselves, allowing them to evolve.
Conflict is embedded in every story. If you have a story to tell, it will naturally have a “situation”, unfolding from a beginning to an end. The question is, how do you refine this situation into an exciting battle between different powers?
How to create conflict from the base elements of a story like character and setting? This is nothing short of a craft, and we’re here to help you master it.
Here are our five tips for writing conflict like a pro:
Remember, the conflicts in your story aren’t just hurdles that your characters need to cross. Conflict needs to serve a thematic and literary purpose.
Basically, it should make sense why character A is against character B. Or, for that matter, how character A battles against a robot uprising. The place to do this is in your characters’ backstories and character traits.
Ground your conflict in your characters, and show your readers how it affects them. Conflict, external or internal, is only effective if it has a purpose.
Remember the scene in Marvel’s The Avengers where the six superheroes interact for the first time? Why is this scene so effective?
No one likes to watch people agreeing with each other. Dialogue gets interesting only when people disagree, and the plot becomes gripping when they try to find ways to counteract each other.
Make sure to set different, opposing goals for your major characters. It’s a given that heroes and villains will be set against each other. But your story becomes more engaging when friends or allies also have distinct, clashing viewpoints.
It’s like Batman and Joker working together to defeat the Riddler. A narrative is entertaining when not just the characters, but also their agendas are in conflict with each other.
The easiest way to set the narrative in motion is to start with a problem. It can be a mystery, a theft, or an old secret being revealed. How many times has a movie begun with a gimmick being stolen?
Give your characters simple goals like getting back the stolen item, rescuing the kidnapped child, or searching for the lost treasure. This helps you develop the plot, and provides a chance to complicate or deepen the theme of your story.
A way to make the middle of your story is to fail your characters. Make them lose the battle, or fail an exam, or get negative results in a crucial experiment stage.
Your protagonist’s struggles with their emotions and mental health help the readers get to know them better. How they deal with failure may also lead to other conflicts you can explore. So, don’t be afraid to let your characters get defeated.
There are certain conventions about how different genres feature conflict in a story. Take cues from the types of conflict you observe in other works. When you sit down to watch an apocalyptic movie, don’t you expect to watch humans struggle against nature?
If you’re writing a story in fifteenth century England, your conflict is likely to feature the Wars of the Roses. If it’s romance you write, the main couple’s struggles to be together will form your central conflict.
Your characters’ struggles need to align with the generic conventions your audience will come to expect.
Still have some questions on how to create conflict that’s compelling? We’ve answered a few in the next section. Keep reading!
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