Conflict in a Story: Perfect the Driving Force of Narrative

Posted on Nov 28, 2023

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Your book is really only about one thing: the conflict in a story. There simply isn’t something worth writing about if there isn’t conflict attached to it.

Nobody wants to read a book about a person who went to that concert in which nothing happened, and they went home perfectly happy and safe and all was well. That’s not an entertaining or interesting story.

It’s not a story at all. It’s an account of events. Story requires conflict. Conflict drives the plot, character development, and narrative. Without first beginning the conflict in the earliest stages of your brainstorming and plotting process, you’ll likely get stuck and even write a book that’s unsatisfying to the reader.

But that’s why I’m here to teach you all about crafting conflict in a story that makes sense, develops your character, and pushes the plot forward in a way that gets readers hooked.

Here’s what you’ll learn about conflict in a story:

  1. What is conflict?
  2. What creates conflict in a story?
  3. Examples of Creating Conflict
  4. Potential Conflict in a Story
  5. Standalone Conflict VS in a Series
  6. Introducing Conflict
  7. Conflict Progression
  8. Conflict Resolution

What is conflict in a story?

Conflict in a story is any time the events are contrary to what would best serve the main character. Whenever there are problems preventing the protagonist from succeeding, it’s conflict.

Stories are derived on the basis of conflict. Nobody has a story idea that’s just about a person doing something. It’s always about a person trying to do something but certain things keep getting in the way. You’ll see this all the time in the way authors explain their stories as well as in book descriptions—but more on that in the section below about potential conflict.

What creates conflict in a story?

Natural barriers to the character succeeding is what creates the conflict. The key to being a good storyteller isn’t how well you can create conflict in a story, but how natural that conflict arises within the story. It doesn’t seem like an author is just trying to make a character have a hard time.

Instead, great conflict is about setting up the pieces so that when they fall, they block the main character from accomplishing what they set out to do.

Which means conflict is created in the entire wealth of the story you plot—all the characters, the customs, the world building, and more.

Examples of Creating Conflict in a Story:

If your main character’s objective is to hide their identity from everyone around them, but your world has a custom that each person is to take part in a ceremony that brands them with their country’s symbol, it becomes a conflict when your main character lacks such a symbol.

If your main character has to aid the heir of a country in finding a partner to rule beside so they can earn their freedom to leave this country, it becomes a conflict when that main character ends up falling for the heir in the process and is now required to choose between the heir or their dream of leaving the country.

If your main character is in line to inherit the family fortune, it becomes a conflict when the will is disputed for a fake and an unfamiliar relative shows up with the real documents.

What you want to avoid when creating problems for the characters is the type of conflict that feels disjointed from the plot itself. When a random, brand new character shows up to thwart the protagonist with no foreshadowing and for reasons that don’t add up, it takes the reader out of the story. You’ve lost their suspension of disbelief.

Starting with Potential Conflict: What Sells the Story

The very reason readers buy a book is become of the suggested conflict given in the book description. All book descriptions contain information about the main character, what they want, and what is getting in their way. It’s how readers become interested in the story itself.

I’ve coined this term potential conflict.

Because it’s not always exactly what the conflict will be in the story, but more about what conflict can arise based on what the author has described of the character, world, and plot. Yes, by reading the book description, we’ll know what the book is about, and our imagination will fill in the blanks about what else could go wrong.

That’s the potential conflict of a story. And the greater the potential for conflict, the more intriguing it is to readers, and the more likely they’ll be to buy and read the book.

Here are some examples of breaking down the potential conflict of real book descriptions:

Tress of Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

The only life Tress has known on her island home in an emerald-green ocean has been a simple one, with the simple pleasures of collecting cups brought by sailors from faraway lands and listening to stories told by her friend Charlie. But when his father takes him on a voyage to find a bride and disaster strikes, Tress must stow away on a ship and seek the Sorceress of the deadly Midnight Sea. Amid the spore oceans where pirates abound, can Tress leave her simple life behind and make her own place sailing a sea where a single drop of water can mean instant death?

Potential Conflicts:

A girl with no skills for being on a ship and no experience being away from her home island has to venture on a deadly sea. It’s clear how much could possibly go wrong that it’s intriguing to find out in what way these things will go wrong.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.

Potential Conflicts:

There is a lot that can go wrong for a highly hated son trained to kill people, especially one who also has magic abilities. All of that, plus coastal raiders has a lot of room for things to go very wrong.

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, left without a trace when he was nine years old. He doesn’t know what happened to her—only that her books have been banned—and he resents that she cared more about her work than about him. 

Then one day, Bird receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, and soon he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of heroic librarians, and finally to New York City, where he will finally learn the truth about what happened to his mother, and what the future holds for them both.

Potential Conflicts:

Going from a quiet life to one where you chase down clues with the hopes of discovering what happened to one’s missing mother has room for a ton to go wrong, like problems with his father. Or maybe run-ins with other people connected to his mother. Or maybe even the rethinking of one’s childhood based on the stories she used to tell. I haven’t read this book, so these are all potential conflicts sifting through my mind, intriguing me.

So how do you actually make good on the potential conflict in a story? You can’t set up all this intrigue and then not deliver. Here are some ways to do that.

Writing Conflict for a Standalone VS a Series

First, let’s talk about how the conflict in a story differs between a standalone and a series. The way you both create conflict and how you unfold it will change because of how long you can take to resolve that conflict.

A single story housed in one book has much different progression than one that can span several books.

Here are the key differences between conflict in a story for standalone VS a series:

  • Standalone – initial conflict is introduced in the beginning, and is usually the conflict for the whole book, with additional problems arising and resolving by the end.
  • Series – the first book has a main conflict that’s clear from the book description, and through the course of solving that conflict, the larger plot of the series is revealed and not completed until the end of the series.

The biggest difference is that with a standalone book, the main conflict in a story is known from the beginning. With a book series, the main conflict for the book is known in the first book, but the overarching conflict for the series as a whole is discovered later in the first book.

How to Write Conflict in a Story: Balance & Progression in the Narrative

The conflict in a story won’t jump out at the reader right away. Sometimes it does, but other times it unfolds slowly and even the main character doesn’t know of the conflict before it comes to pass. Knowing how to introduce the conflict in a story, progress naturally through solving it in ways that produce more conflict, and then resolving all the problems you created is part of what makes this form of art so hard for many people.

Here’s how you can do all of that.

Introducing Conflict

The beginning of books are really important, and many things happen during them that authors have to be intentional about. One of those elements is introducing the conflict in a story.

Sometimes this is obvious. With The Hunger Games, the conflict was ever-present and we learn of its vastness from the very beginning. Katniss breaking the rules to hunt outside of legal territory lest her family starves showcases the major conflicts of an oppressive regime. The additional conflict in a story in this case appears when Katniss has to compete in the games.

  • The main conflict of book 1: Katniss competes in the Hunger Games
  • The main conflict of the series: Katniss (and others) must take down the oppressive regime.

In other stories, it can take longer to show the main conflict, like with Harry Potter. At first, we see the Dursleys as a conflict, of course. Harry lives under the stairs despite the great wealth the Dursleys display in the form of abundance gifts for Dudley’s birthday. It’s not until later that we see Harry is a wizard and a famous one and he’s famous because he defeated a dark wizard when he was only a baby. Those conflicts are layered on, but they all take place in the first part of the book.

  • The main conflict of book 1: Harry has to navigate an entirely new world as a very young wizard and stop Voldemort from returning.
  • The main conflict of the series: Harry has to ultimately defeat the dark lord to save the world.

Introducing the conflict of your book can happen in a few ways, and depends on if it’s a standalone or a series.

If it’s a standalone: the conflict in a story here will be known from the beginning, and if not the beginning, soon after. Here, too, you’ll open the story with the main character’s everyday life, along with its challenges (or conflicts).

If it’s a series: the conflict of the first book will be different than the overall. Which means the story should open on a character dealing with “ordinary life” stuff for them. For Katniss, that looks like hunting to feed her family. For Harry, that meant dealing with the Dursleys. During this, the reader will gain insight into their everyday life and most importantly, their wants.

Conflict in a story is only evident when there is a want for something else. There is no conflict if a character doesn’t care if something happens. Only if they want something other than the events happening is there conflict.

If you want to show conflict in a story, you have to start with what the character wants. Because if the reader knows what they want, anything that runs counter to that is a conflict that needs to be resolved—a goal the character has to work to.

How to show what your character wants:

  1. Make it plainly stated as a goal or desire
  2. Make it clearly assumed—Katniss wants to survive the games, Harry wants to get out from under the stairs (peaceful life).
  3. Show their normal life, and write a lack of satisfaction in it.
  4. Show them pining after someone or something specific in contrast with where they are right now

When what the character wants is clear, the character motivation is strong. That’s necessary when you move through the progression of the conflict.

Conflict Progression

Conflict often changes as the story goes by, or the character is working their way to resolving the conflict. The truth is that when it comes to conflict in a story, there are often many of them that will get resolved before the story’s climax. But before you pile on conflict after conflict, you have to show the character progressing with some of them, even if it won’t help the main conflict.

A great example is in the first Harry Potter story when Harry arrives at Hogwarts and is approached by Malfoy. The conflict in a story here has to do with Draco offering friendship, and Harry denying it, clearly making an enemy in the process. This one decision causes conflict for him with Malfoy through all the books, and is finally resolved in the last, but we’ll talk more about that later.

How to show progression of conflict in a story while keeping it interesting:

  1. Make the character take action toward the conflict. Even if they fail, the reader will see they’re trying, and that will feel like progress.
  2. Allow the character to solve the conflict in a story, only to create a new one. Katniss showing respect for Rue by putting up three fingers feels like she’s resolved the conflict of needing to help keep this small child alive, but in doing so, she’s started a movement that puts a target on her back.
  3. Use the “yes but no and” rule. When an event happens and the character succeeds (“yes”) create a situation that would set them back despite that (“but). And when the character doesn’t succeed (“no”), create an additional challenge on top of that (“and”).
    • Remember to alternate these, and that sometimes, the character can succeed for the sake of succeeding. In this case, they will have closed the loop and resolved that specific conflict.

Overall, you want to show the character taking action toward solving the conflict in a story. They won’t always succeed, and that will help keep the story interesting, but they should always be trying (unless they’re actively avoiding certain issues and that’s a character trait, flaw, or weakness of theirs)

Conflict Resolution

One of the most important parts of conflict in a story is the resolution. If conflicts are left open, the story will feel unsatisfying. But there’s a certain way you’ll want to resolve the conflict to make it feel natural and satisfying.

The character arc and plot should come to a close together.

Meaning, the main character’s biggest flaw has to be grown out of in order to do what they need to do to succeed in the end. Harry couldn’t defeat Voldemort by himself, despite the years he spends trying to isolate himself. He needed to finally give in.

In the end, the conflict in the story should be solved, unless it’s a book series and you’ll get to it in the next book. For those, you will have to close the main story loop for that book. In The Hunger Games, Katniss survives the games, but in doing so, she’s started a movement that threatens the oppressive regime and makes an enemy of the president. Those conflicts are to be resolved in the next book.

Conflict in a story can be tricky if you’re not sure where to take the plot. The ultimate measure of conflict is to know your character well and put challenges in their path that are necessary for them to grow and fulfill their character arc as well as the plot.

But that’s not all you need to write a great story. To learn more about the full process of writing a quality novel, check out this free class:

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