creating conflict in every
Writing Craft

Creating conflict in every scene​

Why you need conflict in every scene

Stories need conflict. Without it, there’s no tension, and, frankly, no reason for anyone to read your story. If you want someone to be interested in your characters, they have to wonder what will happen to them. They have to have a problem. No conflict=no story

Conflict is the essence of life

Life is a series of conflicts. We move from one longing to another constantly. The Buddhists call this the condition of Samsara. We always want something, and once that is resolved we immediately move to another desire. Use this tendency to propel your fiction forward. Picking out your character’s main conflict is simple, but what are the mini-conflicts that come up on the way to the main goal? These are the building blocks of your scenes.

Using conflict as the basis for your writing will also deepen your characterization. How your character responds to the problem become the means for showing her characterization. If your character needs money, will she beg on the street, steal it, or try to find a job? Three different responses to the same problem.

Conflict is also a great method for world building. Paint your character’s universe through his difficulties maneuvering through it, and avoid the dreaded info dump. Ex. Your MC needs to get to work but the space cruiser won’t start, and he can’t call a repair bot because he forgot to charge the iChip in his brain. An entire setting drawn through conflict. No info dump necessary.

Conflict is the essence of the storywriting conflict

My daughter has over 200 picture/board books, removing those that are non-fiction, nearly every single one of them has a definable conflict. The main character wants something, but something else stands in the way.
The mouse gets a cookie, but he’s never satisfied. Baby lama doesn’t want to go to bed, The bunny wants to run away, but mama always comes for him. The pigeon wants to drive the bus.

There is no need to resort to monsters, villains, or fear. Conflict can be very subtle and still be effective. In my current favorite children’s book “Barnacle is Bored” The barnacle does nothing in the book but whine about how he’s bored. His conflict is mental and in the end, he changes a mistaken view.

There are several schools of thought about how many types of conflict actually exist, anywhere between 4 and 7 depending on how narrowly you draw your classifications.

Different types of conflict

person v fate

In the classics, this might be a character who was given a dark prophecy at birth and spends his entire life trying to escape it. (Oedipus) But a contemporary version might be a person born in an inner city trying to escape the cycle of crime and poverty.

person v self

This is a story about an inner conflict. The protagonist must overcome his or her character’s lie to end their conflict. The above example of Barnacle is Bored is a person vs. self.

person v person

This is the protagonist/antagonist model or hero vs. villain. In this example, the two main characters have competing goals. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort.

person v society

Here a person struggles against cultural norms or an unjust society. This doesn’t have to be a dystopian setting. This could be a coming out story in an ultraconservative religious family or an independent woman in Victorian England. Person vs. society will happen anytime a character’s worldview is not in sync with the majority.

person v nature

The main character trying to survive the elements. Hurricane Katrina stories, lost at sea stories, and the Donner party are all examples of this type of conflict.

person v supernatural

Think more crisis of faith than vampire hunting. This is a more broad version of person vs. God. In this conflict, the person is struggling with their religious faith, or sometimes the god will be actively antagonistic. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Job are classical examples, but inspirational fiction is an entire category devoted to this conflict

person v technology

This might sound like the realm of pure science fiction, (I, Robot or The Terminator) but the struggle between people and technology is as old as the industrial revolution. The working class hero John Henry defeating the steam engine is a perfect example of this struggle.

Mixing conflicts

While this list may seem exclusive, your story can have several different types of conflict. A person who is coming out in his ultraconservative family will likely also be having a crisis of faith as well as a conflict with his surrounding community. That does not mean there can’t also be a villain, (perhaps a minister who pushes for conversion therapy?)

Adding conflict to your story

The internet is full of worksheets where you can plot out your character’s inner and outer battles, but all of them can be summed up in two questions:

What does my character want?
What/who is standing in her way?

By asking yourself these questions at every part of your story, you will ensure that there is conflict present in every scene.

Every scene has to have conflict

Without conflict, we have no story. Even small character building scenes have to have conflict. No one wants to read five pages of your character playing with his dog, (or even five paragraphs) Now reimage the scene with conflict. The dog is old and struggling and your protag wondering just how much longer the dog has and if he really just being selfish when he sees how much pain the dog is in? Notice how this is much better characterization than just playing fetch.

Character moments must have some seed of conflict in them.

Is mom always asking when your 30-something protag is getting married? Is the sister constantly reminding your protag of that time she left her when they were kids? Work these personal conflicts into their interactions.

Without conflict, there is no story

Conflict is more than defeating the villain. It is the method for telling a character’s complete story, for drawing their characterization, and for building their world. Life is a series of conflicts, large and small. Take your readers through your character’s conflicts and they will live your character’s story.

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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