Five Ways to Create Conflict in Your Story

Author and writing teacher Larry Brooks is famous for saying, “No conflict? No story.” But it can be difficult to understand what creates conflict effectively in your fiction.

Because conflict is NOT melodrama. You know, when one character goes on a rant and steps on everyone’s toes and is basically a drama llama.

There are genres that employ melodrama (young adult, chick lit and rom com), but even then, use it sparingly. If your reader starts rolling their eyes over it, you’re risking a horrible outcome: they close the book and stop reading.

Conflict should be organic to your plot, so when you’re brainstorming the story, think of events, places and circumstances that are rife with conflict.

Here are five things that will up the conflict quotient in your story:

  1. Raise the stakes
    One thing that is often misunderstood by fiction writers in non-suspense genres is the idea of stakes.
    Story stakes don’t have to be life or death. What’s at stake simply has to matter to the main character enough that they’re willing to hop out of the frying pan and into the fire (ie. The plot of the story).
    The simplest way to raise the stakes is to add a time deadline. I have to earn $1,000 by the end of the week or I’ll be evicted from my apartment.
    Another way to raise the stakes in a story is by upping the negative consequences. Obviously, we know if they don’t dismantle the bomb in 37 seconds, things will explode. But you can also increase them by putting a relationship at risk or even the character’s reputation.
    If your story seems to lack tension, consider raising the stakes.
  2. Misunderstanding
    We experience misunderstandings every day of our lives. We thought the webinar was at 3PM Thursday but it was on Tuesday at that time.
    Someone turns away when we smile at them, and we immediately assume they’re mad at us. We analyze every interaction we’ve had with them and try to figure it out.
    It could be they saw a squirrel in the opposite direction. They didn’t see us at all, but we’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion. As that fits organically in your story, it’s a great way to increase the tension and add conflict.
  3. Miscommunication
    Most people aren’t great listeners. Many of us stop listening once we think we know what the person is going to say.
    But what if that isn’t what they say at all.
    Suddenly, there’s a miscommunication, and we’re going to act on our mistaken information.
    This will put your characters in hot water. I’ve seen this used most effectively in romance and chick lit, but nearly every genre has potential for this device. If people talk to each other in a scene, the possibility of miscommunication exists.
    Use it wisely, but don’t overuse it because that will bring the eye roll from your readers.
  4. Clashing personalities
    People want different things. The loud girl always gets heard while the quiet one has great ideas but no one listens when she tries to express them.
    Some people joke in tense situations. Other people think that means they aren’t taking things seriously. And then the clash occurs.
    Whether it develops into a full-blown argument or keeps one character from sharing important insight because they’re feelings are hurt, personality clashes are essential in most fiction genres.
    When everyone gets along, it’s boring. A story is more interesting when people are pushing back against each other.
    When casting your story, make sure to include different personalities with traits you know will clash at various points in the telling. This will keep readers on the edge of their seats, even if you’re writing a romantic comedy that doesn’t have a drop of suspense or mystery in it.
  5. Betrayal or reveal a secret
    Your characters have secrets. Knowing when to reveal those secrets takes practice. Too soon and the tension releases like a balloon. Too late and you risk irritating readers who want to “know already” forcing them to stop reading or give a poor review.
    Having one character betray another is a familiar trope and it brings a hailstorm of conflict. Especially if the betrayal is unintentional.
    Like blurting that your friend is pregnant when it’s supposed to be a big secret.
    Notice what I did there? Sometimes these two happen concurrently which is why I tied them together in this post.

If your beta readers tell you a scene was boring, consider how you can use one or more of these plot devices to create conflict in your story. What makes a scene tense for you?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.