How to Craft Powerful Conflicts In a Story

conflict in a story

In real life, conflict is a force we tend to avoid. But in fiction, conflict is a driving force that demands the readers attention. Powerful conflict in a story will engage your readers and keep them on the edge of their seat. This article will go over how to craft conflict that will blow your readers’ minds!

So, what even is conflict?

Conflict is a fundamental element of fiction. It occurs when a character wants something so badly, but there is force blocking their path. In the character’s attempt to reach their goal, conflict needs to occur in order to capture the readers attention.

One major common fault amongst talented young writers is that they create passive characters. This is understandable. As writers, we are observers of human nature and behavior, which is why we tend to craft characters that observe, reflect, and suffer. But, a character’s passivity transfers to the page, thus making the story passive and boring.

Understand what your character wants

When creating conflict in a story, you must know your characters desires. To earn readers’ attention and sympathy, the protagonist must want something intensely. Your character’s desire should be so deep to where your reader has no choice but to root for their success.

“It is the intensity of the wanting that introduces an element of danger.”

Janet Burroway, “Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft”

Before you even pick up your pen, decide what your character wants. This will help make the conflict seem more natural and powerful when the antagonist steps in the picture.

Examples of Conflict

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. Here are some of the main tools writers use to craft conflict:

  • Man Vs. Man
    • This occurs when your protagonist goes head-to-head with the antagonist to reach their goal.
      • Harry Potter V. Voldemort
      • A divorced couple fighting for custody
  • Man Vs. Nature
    • This occurs when your protagonist has to go against an animal or a force of nature (storm, fire, etc.) to achieve their goal.
      • A sailor in the midst of a storm
      • A character awakening on an unknown island
  • Man Vs. Society
    • This occurs when your character is fighting against a man-made institution to reach their goal.
      • Offred in the The Handmaid’s Tale
      • A character trying to stop slavery
  • Man Vs. Himself
    • This is an internal struggle within the protagonist. They may be stuck between choosing Good V. Evil or Logic V. Emotion, and they have to make the correct choice to reach their goal.
      • Walter White in Breaking Bad
      • A character trying to overcome addiction

Conflict -> Crisis -> Resolution

Once you decide what your character desires, you have to ensure it follows this formula: conflict-crisis-resolution. I will break down this important and invaluable process below:

  • Conflict
    • In this stage, it’s essential to get your fighters fighting. There should be something at stake here. What is it that your character is fighting for and why is it so important? What do they have to lose and to gain if they don’t reach it? Have a series of small battles that build toward a BIG fight.
      • Think of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Potter had to risk his life so that he could find the stone. If he didn’t reach it first, Voldemort would use it to rejuvenate his body. If this happened, Voldemort would bring destruction and death among the wizard world, including Harry and his friends. Make sure your stakes are high so that the conflict keeps the reader engaged.
  • Crisis
    • This is when all hell breaks loose. The crisis action is the major battle in the text, when it’s either life or death. If your character wins this battle, it must be drastic and life changing for them. The crisis action is the last battle and it changes the story.
      • Examples: When Harry Potter finally faces Voldemort. When Walter White decides to kill the men who murdered Hank. When your character does drugs knowing it could end their life.
  • Resolution
    • The fallout of the crisis action results in a change and leads to the resolution. This is where the reader sees how the protagonist walks away from the battle. How it affected them mentally and physically.

Building Tension

Okay, so now that we understand how conflict works; I’d like to talk about how it builds. First, understand your character’s desire and why the antagonist stands in the way. Then, think about how you’re going build up to the crisis action. What smaller battles should happen along the way to build the tension and lead to the crisis action?

It’s essential for writers to understand incremental perturbation, otherwise known as “successive complications of the conflict.”

In most efficiently plotted stories, these perturbations follow not only upon one another but from one another, each paving the way for the next.

John Barth, Famous American Writer

The easiest way to think about perturbations are to think of them as little battles. Each battle has to build on the other until they finally lead to the crisis action. So, how many perturbations does a story need? If there’s too few, they will lead to an unconvincing climax. The magic numbers tend to be 3, 5, and 7 in folk stories and myths. But it’s up to your story and your own judgement to decide. Developmental editors can also come in handy when it comes to evaluating if your story’s plot, conflict, and other elements are working.

Incremental perturbation is how you build tension in your story. This is how you keep your reader on the edge of their seat. This is how you keep them flipping the pages. Because they want to get to the climax, but they don’t want to get there too easily or it will spoil the fun!

Final Thoughts

Writing conflict isn’t easy. But if you follow these steps, you will be surprised to see how easily conflict can happen within your text. Have more suggestions on how to craft conflict in a story? Please leave a comment below! This is a safe space for writers to share ideas and learn from one another. And don’t forget to subscribe to receive insider writing tips and beta reading and editing discounts sent straight to your inbox!

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