A good story should be full of conflict. And the conflict should build as the plot progresses.
Without high conflict readers will nod off to la la land.
But writing conflict in a story is more complicated than simply having characters shout at each other and throw punches. You’ve got to understand the psychology of conflict and why readers care about the conflicts characters go through.
Here are the top 4 tips for writing high conflict in a novel.
- Read my 39 storytelling techniques for more.
1: Conflict must ask questions that are hard to answer
A typical “This guy is evil so I’m going to kill him” is flat and stale.
It doesn’t ask any questions. It’s just filler.
Better are those stories that ask questions.
In Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea the protagonist has been disgraced and has failed to catch a fish for the longest time. He needs to catch the fish in order to redeem himself and to for his own self esteem. But at the same time he genuinely comes to care about the fish and feels guilty for trying to catch it. The Old Man And The Sea asks “Is it right for this fish, this living being, to die so the old man can finally claim his glory”?
By asking questions that are hard to answer you make the reader / player / viewer keep going with the story because they want to know what answer you present.
2: Conflict must have a satisfying conclusion
While laying out your plot, remember to head towards a satisfying conclusion.
This one goes without saying. If after a lengthy book or a two hour movie the conflict resolves with little more than a fizzle, you’re going to make a lot of people disappointed.
But satisfying conclusions are not just about huge fights. Sure, the end battle in Return Of The King is mind-blowing in scale. But it’s also about a lot more than that. The emotional satisfaction runs deeper. It’s about freedom and peace on Middle Earth, about the characters all being there for one another, about brotherhood, about humanity and whether humanity can redeem itself of the wrongs it’s made. There’s one spellbinding moment in which Tolkien says yes, humanity can redeem itself. It’s when Frodo and Sam are climbing towards Mount Doom and need Aragorn his army to distract Sauron’s army. Doing so, however, will potentially cost the lives of every human in that battle, because the orcs have a larger army.
Sauron focuses his eye on Aragorn, testing him. Can Aragorn resist Sauron? Aragorn turns to Gandalf and his cohorts. They’re not sure whether Aragorn has succumb to Sauron. Then Aragorn says “For Frodo” (probably the best two words in any fantasy ever), and in these two words he unites humanity in the fight against Sauron. Those two words, “For Frodo” say absolutely everything. In those two words, Tolkien unites humanity and creates one of the strongest senses of brotherhood and camaraderie in any novel. And he resolves his conflict in the most satisfying way, by not making it about the grand battles, but simply saying “Humanity has wronged. But we can redeem ourselves. We can fight together for unity, love, and goodness of man, and when we bond together like that, we can overcome all evil.”
Conclusions simply do not get any more satisfying than that.
So, how to write a good story: Make sure the end of the conflict is satisfying visually, dramatically, emotionally, and poetically. The conflict must answer the questions the story raised, and it must give an emotional and poetic answer to those questions.
3: Make Your Story’s Action Rise Like Yeast
One of the most common weaknesses of poorly constructed fiction is that it keeps the action and the stakes either too high or too low, with very little gradation.
Well written novels, movies, and games involve rising stakes and action. You set the scene and there’s a level of conflict and something at stake. The conflict gradually rises, with a few twists and turns here and there, and it’s not until the end that you hit peak of conflict and action.
Romeo and Juliet is a great example. The two fall in love despite being from rival families. The stakes are already quite high when Romeo goes to the party, because if he gets caught he certainly will be in trouble. Then he visits Juliet while she’s on the balcony. Get caught here and he’s even greater trouble. Their love rises, and as their love rises the stakes rise until, at the end, both their lives are on the line and ultimately they commit suicide. That’s rising conflict and rising stakes, and it keeps the reader hooked.
4: Inner conflict should be logical
A big part of writing your characters is creating internal conflict.
Writing inner conflict is a lot harder than writing external conflict. External conflict follows logic. If your protagonist has to take down a supervillain, he’ll generally train to get strong, find the supervillain and fight them. Logical. Inner conflict is less logical because it’s based on emotions. It might be realistic, for example, to say “He didn’t sleep the night before and hadn’t eaten, so he was feeling low and didn’t feel like he could take on the supervillain that day. So he went home and had good night sleep. Waking up the next day feeling restored, he had a lot of self confidence and thought he might be able to save the world on such a day”. Obviously that’s not going to work.
Fictional inner conflict has an order and logic often lacking in real life. In a novel, your protagonist’s inner conflict will escalate and resolve logically, usually following a similar pattern to the external conflict.
Your character feels down and out, so they set out on a journey, on that journey they learn things about themselves and find power, they come to recognise their own importance, and they finally feel empowered enough to complete their mission.
It’s a lot more logical than real life. And it observes the rises, the twists and the turns of the external conflict and the plot.
These 4 tips will put serious conflict in your novel. The drama will pop and readers will be hooked to your story.
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