Conflict is no secret sauce to telling stories, it’s the basic ingredient. It’s essential for the plot to progress and the characters to evolve. Without a genuine conflict, the story will just be a narration of events that lead up to nothing exciting. 

In this article, we will understand what is conflict? Why is it crucial in all stories? And how to construct it to drive the plot and create tension for the readers. Let’s dive in headfirst. 

WHAT IS CONFLICT? 

Simply defined, conflict is the element of struggle. It’s a barrier a (central) character must overcome in order to achieve their wants and desires. It’s essentially what goes wrong in the novel. Let’s take the most basic example: In the Little Red Riding Hood, the conflict is the Big Bad wolf. Without the bad wolf, the red riding hood would safely reach all the way to her grandmother, no threat to her life; no tension for the readers. Now, that’s a story no one is interested in, right? 

There has to be some scandal in the industry, some turmoil in the family, some sleaze in the college, some spy around the corner who’s wreaking havoc to the hero’s aspirations and good intentions. You can give minor conflicts for the characters to resolve, so eventually, that leads them to get over the major conflict of the book.

Let’s take a look at what are the types of conflicts that can be worked around a story: 

External conflict

It takes place between a person and someone or something else, such as nature, another person, an event or a situation.  It’s that simple.

Character vs character 

The most common type of conflict in novels. A classic example: Hero against the villain.

Superhero comic books are entirely based on this conflict. The superheroes are out to protect the law, the villains are out to break it. This conflict of interest leads to their clash. This basic conflict gives birth to many other interesting characters like the sidekick to the heroes and henchmen for the villains. The origin stories of both the protagonist and antagonists are rooted in the conflict.

Batman vs Joker is the best example of Man vs Man conflict. 

Character vs. nature 

Popular in both books and films, this is when characters have to face the wrath of nature in various sorts of forms.

The highly acclaimed film Castaway, where Tom Hanks has to deal with his own struggles as he is stranded on an island. Here, his character has to face both kinds of conflicts, internal; to cope with loneliness and external; to survive the extremities of nature.    

Character vs. society 

Cyberpunk and dystopian novels all mainly rely on a conflict where the character is standing up against society. 

In Fahrenheit 451, this conflict is well represented through Montag’s struggle against his oppressive, dystopian world. After witnessing a fire in which a woman sacrifices her life, Montag realizes that he is deeply unhappy with what he does for a living. This drives him to become a fugitive who bands together with a rebel group called the “the book covers”.

Character vs technology 

Common grounds for sci-fi novels, the plot is generally based in the near or far future where technology has become highly advanced or out of control to a degree of threat to humanity. This inspires the main character to pull out the plug on the evil tech.

In The Evitable Conflict by Isaac Asimov, the machines in the far future decide to take control of humanity and break the first law of robotics. It’s in the hands of Stephen Barley, who’s been elected World Co-ordinator for a second term to save the world from a mad mechanical takeover. 

Internal conflict 

When a challenge arises from within the character, it leads to either a mental or emotional anguish. The character has to struggle internally with their emotions; with decision making or go through significant changes in their lives. 

Character vs self 

The sole internal conflict is character vs self. The story revolves inside the character’s head. They become emotionally or mentally unstable because of some external cause and the resulting effect is an internal conflict. These stories are about how the character transitions from that internal struggle if they grow out of it or succumb to the pressure. 

How to design a conflict: 

Conflict is embedded in every story. If you have a story to tell, it will naturally have a “situation” which unfolds gradually to its tragic or happy ending. Here are some things to remember  to make your conflict sincere and engaging:

1. Keep your genre in mind 

The type of story you write plays a role in deciding the type of conflict it should have. A historical fiction book will rely on significant historical events the conflict will be based upon. A romance novel will build on what stands between the lovers and how they split or reunite. 

2. Define the problem 

Start with a problem the characters will have to solve in your book. Situations like: Getting back the stolen codes for the nuclear reactor; bringing back the kidnapped child safely or masterfully stealing someone’s identity to start a new life in the city. It could be anything. This will help you define the plot, the story and the theme of the book. 

3. Create conflict with a purpose 

There shouldn’t be conflict just for the sake of it. Create a backstory for why they dare to do what they do. Why did John Wick brutally assassinate the crew members of mafia for killing a dog? He had his reasons. Every memorable character has substantial  Your characters should have strong motives.   

4. Differing goals and agendas 

Give the major characters a motivation which clashes with that of others. That’s how you naturally create strife among them. Don’t show them bickering sitting in a room. Make your characters shrewd, scheming individuals who will go to unbelievable lengths to defeat their opponents. 

5. Play on setbacks and failures 

Internal conflicts happen when the character loses something they wanted or valued with all their hearts. They have to struggle to live without it or let go of it and grow out of that particular situation.

And that’s the story of conflict we have for you. For writing practice, check out writing prompts. They’re basically ready chunks of conflict you can elaborate on to create stories. Do give it a try and let us know if you have any doubts regarding conflict, plot or character in the comments.