Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Art of Conflict

For the most part, when I begin writing a new story of any kind or length I keep in mind what draws me into a tale. I think about characters, natural effects, inner workings, motivations/purpose, misunderstandings, settings/world building, and the physical.

So what enhances the elements I listed about?  Tension. Suspense. Mystery. Questioning. 

Basically CONFLICT. The intensity or subtlety of conflict surely varies from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, story to story. But what's most important is that you use it.

So how do we thread conflict throughout our stories without being too obvious about it?

Let's break it down into seven parts, because I like the number seven. I can halve it perfectly, placing three on one side and three on the other.

1. COC or Characteristics of Character - develop personality traits of characters that differ from each other. Put them in opposition. Use one character's demeanor against another's. Character changes due to past experiences can butt heads with the current reality, making for great tension and suspense.

2. Natural Effects - differences in gender are always useful and can be fun to play with. The weather or a specific plight in your world building can work, too. Family dynamics such as parents, other siblings, and extended family or friends can also be used to deepen a story line, which can take on a new life if used in subplots.

3. Inner Workings - this is where a story can really take off, drawing the reader inside the character and making them care. That is so important. Make them care. (Exercise to do while writing: think of your own life & experiences. What emotional conflicts have you or someone close to you experienced? What about mental struggles. For instance, the kid in school who just can't grasp the concept of mathematics or despises gym class. Other interesting areas in our inner realm could be self-doubt, guilt, pompousness, no-drive, depression, fear...we could go on and on.)

Middle/Balance Conflict 

7. Motivation/Purpose - you might think this could be listed under Inner and it could. But I wanted to separate it because of its importance. A character and a story plot must have a reason for existing in the first place or once again...who cares? And who decides on said motivation? The writer. So ask yourself question like:

  • what are my motivations for writing this story? Do I have a purpose, a lesson to teach? Am I sending a greater message?

3. Misunderstandings - Does it frustrate you when a writer sets up subplots to simply confuse or muddle the main plot, motivations, and purpose of the story? It sure does me, but it is extremely effective to keep me reading or watching. NOTE: but it must have a purpose and move the story forward.

2. Settings/World Building - Setting and world building can give imbalance to a story when need be, creating a sense of urgency, heightening the tension, and adding to the suspense. Taking two characters, who are already at odds with each other because of any of the above, and transplanting them in an unfamiliar environment can show character weaknesses and flaws.

1. The Physical - it could be a knockdown fist fight or a heated argument. You might use a group of people rioting or kids at a school pep rally or event gone wrong. Conflict can also be physically found on the romantic front, especially when it appears one half of the couple is playing hard to get or genially doesn't like the other. Mix in some physical meddling from another character, and you could have one heck of a conflict.

When developing conflict, remember it's a gradual succession of building blocks to keep the reader engaged. You have an infinite number of blocks to play with. Use them.


  1. Great post. Conflict is so important to a story.

  2. Awesome post, Sheri. Author motivation is extremely important when it comes to querying. I recently had feedback from an agent on my ms after winning a full ms crit. Let's just say our visions for the book weren't even on the same planet. I'm sticking firm to my vision because of my motivation for writing the book. It's the story that's most important to me. You don't want to end up with an agent who doesn't share your vision, who doesn't share you motivation as to why you wrote the story.

  3. Stina - that's awesome! You make a very important point. Thanks for sharing that.

  4. This is good stuff. I especially love using foils, as it highlights the characters' traits. Shakespeare was incredible at it. And using the world/setting as if it was another character is great too. Makes the story feel more alive and engaging.

  5. Sheri, this post is made of AWESOME!! I like what you say about misunderstandings having purpose!!

  6. Conflict is SO important. I especially like to use #2, having my characters in conflict with their surroundings. Great post!

  7. I love this post. I love it so much I'm probably going to come back and read it over and over and over again. I'm a new follower. LOve it!


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