Why and How to Utilize Conflict in Stories
Think of a story where the protagonist moves seamlessly and easily from one situation to the next. When they say something like, “Here’s the plan…” things actually go according to plan. Where unexpected obstacles don’t pop up.
That would be the. Most. Boring. Story. EVER.
If you’ve never given it much thought, think back to every good book, movie, show, or any other form of entertainment you’ve ever enjoyed. Did things tend to go smoothly for the main characters, or did they go from one disaster to another? In all likelihood, there were a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of obstacles to overcome, and unforeseen problems all over the place. And that’s what makes it fun.
There’s always the initial conflict—the thing that gets the story rolling. Often times, this is a problem that doesn’t get resolved until the end of the story (if ever). If it resolves earlier, a new conflict must be introduced before the original conflict concludes, creating a sense of even greater tension—basically: “Whew, that’s over! …OH NO, SOMETHING WORSE IS HAPPENING!”
In my current novel, my protagonist—Rosalind—discovers her house is haunted. That’s the first problem. You also catch glimpses at other problems, like her strained relationship with her absent mother, and her struggles to deal with her father’s new girlfriend. As Rosalind tries to resolve her primary problem of a haunted house, things only get worse. Every attempt to fix it makes her situation even more unstable, and in fact raises additional problems she hadn’t even thought of before. By then end of it…well, naturally I don’t want to give you spoilers, but things end up pretty crazy.
My basic rule for writing is this: Give your characters a plan, then think of fun ways that their plan can go horribly wrong.
As it has been so eloquently stated, “Chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them.”
Conflict creates excitement, intrigue, and suspense. It also lends a very necessary level of realism to your story. Readers dislike scenarios when things go too smoothly. If it’s “too easy” then the story isn’t rewarding.
Your conflicts and obstacles don’t have to be outlandish (they can, though! As long as it suits your story), but they definitely need to be there. Remember: “Coincidences that get your characters into trouble are excellent, coincidences that get them out of trouble are cheating.”
So, your characters need to sneak into a concert? Don’t just have them get noticed by security, have them get caught by their enemy, who has tickets and knows your main characters didn’t get tickets. This person can now tip off security AND mess with your characters in their own way. Or they can just take matters into their own hands.
Are your characters rushing to make it to the airport before their plane takes off? Don’t just have them miss it—have them get in a car accident on the way, or get arrested in security for some suspicious (but ultimately innocent) items in their suitcase.
I’ll consent that not everything has to go wrong every time, but it should at least go a little differently from what the characters (and readers) had planned on. If they’re going to the grocery store, have them bump into a friend who drags them out on the town, or gives them some interesting piece of information. Just so long as it’s unexpected, and interesting, and engaging for your audience.
Have fun with it! It’s supposed to be enjoyable for you. Your readers may ask you questions like, “Why are you so mean to your characters?” or “Why did you have to kill ____?” or “What the hell is wrong with you?” but it’s all out of love! A story that makes a person feel is a story that’s doing its job.
How do you introduce exciting conflict into your stories?