How To Write Conflict In A Story
Updated: Jan 19
“A Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle” – Robert Olen Butler
Storytelling is an art that has been around since the beginning of humanity; storytelling branched out from inscriptions on walls to films, books and many other means. So, what differentiates each story from one another? The main way to make your story stand out is by having a gripping conflict.
Every writer has made the mistake of focusing on everything but the conflict. Even famous screenwriters such as, Aaron Sorkin, was committing such mistakes in his earlier days; He says in his masterclass - that he needs to have his intention and obstacle set before starting the story, otherwise he would go back to his old habits of writing snappy dialogues that did not add any value to the story.
What is a conflict?
Before understanding why a conflict is important, let us understand what is a conflict.
A conflict is a force working against you.
You want ice cream, but your mom says no, that is a conflict. Similarly, you want to become the CEO, and you can get the position only by getting rid of the current boss, this is also a conflict. A conflict brings together two opposing forces; in a movie, the protagonist struggles for something, while an antagonist works against something. The conflict allows the story to develop and eventually reach a resolution between the opposing parties.
Importance of a Conflict
“Story is a metaphor for life, and to be alive is to be in a seemingly perpetual conflict” - Robert McKee
Conflict is needed to keep viewers engaged, to create an emotional response, and to ultimately, push the story forward. Without conflict in a story, the film, show, or novel, may seem a bit boring and not be memorable for the audience. It’s also true that conflict can be defined by all of the “types” that exist — internal, external, people vs people, people vs society, etc. And while all of those things are helpful, it’s not a fully developed definition. A gripping conflict allows the viewers to think past the characters in the movie- they can realize truths about life and create an open mind for opposite beliefs.
Types of Conflicts
As I said, a conflict is much more than the specific “types” I am about to mention, but they are a great starting point for a budding writer to keep mindful of when writing a story. So, on the surface level, we have two types of conflict, namely -
1. External Conflict: They are conflicts that the character faces in the external world. To put it simply any obstacle that is created from outside is an external conflict. These conflicts generally have to do with the character’s worldly goals and someone is trying to prevent the character from attaining those goals.
Let’s take ‘Jab We Met’ as an example, Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) wanted to be with Geet (Kareena Kapoor) but couldn’t because of Anshuman, Geet’s boyfriend. Anshuman here is the obstacle that is standing between Aditya’s pursuit of Geet.
2. Internal Conflict: A personal or psychological battle within the mind and psyche of a character. They are internal choices that the character makes, it is these choices they make that help us see any character development within the characters as the story progresses.
In ‘Jab We Met’, Aditya has a moral dilemma of whether to help Geet reunite with Anshuman or not. Weren’t we all in tears when he watched Geet reunite with Anshuman? But everything did work out in his favour at the end and the movie is, well, iconic.
While some stories have simple conflicts, it doesn’t necessarily have to work out that way for all stories. A conflict is much deeper and complicated, which is why it further gets divided into the following:
1. Character vs. Self:
“The story must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.” - Maxwell Anderson
In every story, at some point, the character faces an internal dilemma. It can be a struggle of choosing between the desires or morals of the character. Strong inner strife evokes more empathy amongst the audience for the character. Inner strife can stem out of either debates that occur within the character, or desires, duties, fear- any situation that forces the character towards self-development.
In the classic ‘Lion King’- Simba was driven out of his home due to fear and manipulation. Years later when he was reminded of his duties as the heir, we saw the dilemma within Simba; his fear of facing his pride with the guilt of his father’s death vs doing right by the pride and resuming his rightful duties as the king of Pride Rock.
2. Character vs. Character(s):
“Character vs character” can be your standard good vs bad struggle (cop vs robber, hero vs villain etc.), but it can also be much subtler confrontations such as romantic entanglements, familial issues etc.
In ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’, we see Kabir (Ranveer Singh), Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), Kamal (Anil Kapoor), Neelam (Shefali Shah) as a dysfunctional rich family. As the film progresses, we see the siblings clashing with their parents questioning the toxic beliefs they were raised with. Throwing light upon the fact that, rich or poor, the daughter is the “paraya dhan” and only has to stay home, while the sons are the heirs of the family assets and carry forward the lineage.
3. Character vs. Society:
It is essentially pitting the character against social norms that society tries to enforce on us. It is a great way of commenting on toxic societal standards and encourages the audience to be free.
The movie ‘Thappad’ is an eye-opening story- it forces the audiences to question the dynamics of a married couple and establishes the fact that physical violence even once is inexcusable.
4. Character vs. Nature:
We all know the ultimate boss in a fight is mother nature; so, in a story where the people are up against mother nature itself, you better believe it’s going to be a thrilling experience. Whether it’s wildlife, natural disasters, the weather, or a post-apocalyptic landscape, the antagonists in this type of conflict cannot be reasoned with. Stories that feature a character vs nature conflict will usually centre on a character’s survival.
‘Life of Pi’ is a classic example of this conflict. We see Pi not only up against nature but also Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. If we analyse the movie more closely we can see that movies with this type of conflict also incorporate “character vs self” conflicts; we see Pi struggling between his upbringing as a vegetarian battling the urge to eat fish for survival.
5. Character vs. Machine:
Such conflicts can be used as a medium to comment upon the long going debate “is technology a boon or bane”. The conflict can be as big as robots taking over the world, to as modest as, grandparents trying to understand how to use smartphones.
‘Her’ is a portrayal of the evolving relationship between a human and technology. The movie shows how humans are more close to technology than to fellow people; the movie takes this human and technology bond to a point where they are romantically involved. We also see how the AI system teaches itself things and end up learning emotions. It is a thought-provoking film that makes us question how much should we depend upon technology?
6. Character vs Supernatural:
When a character is facing something that doesn’t have a “rational” explanation for and is not backed by science, they most likely are battling a supernatural.
‘Us’ was a mind-bending movie; how would you like to fight a much faster, stronger and deadlier version of yourself? Adelaide Wilson and her family return to her childhood home for a summer getaway. Adelaide’s unexplained and unresolved childhood trauma stringed with eerie coincidences once they arrive, puts her on edge. Without giving any spoiler, the movie pits “real” people against their doppelgänger.
How to Create a Conflict
Now that we know the basic types of conflicts, let’s understand how to create a meaningful conflict. A conflict is subjective and holds different meanings for everyone, so there is no particular way to identify a conflict in the story. However, there are simple questions you can ask before deciding upon the conflict of the story:
1. What does your character want?
In this step, you determine what the protagonist’s worldly goals are. These could be any achievements or goals the protagonist wants to fulfil- make sure they are something in the real world, and not abstract goals for self-fulfilment. These goals should be so highly valued by the protagonist, that they are willing to go to all lengths the achieve them.
Example: 10 Things I Hate About You
Kat Strafford, a bright, intelligent but abrasive toward her peers, is a high school senior. She has a bubbly younger sister, Bianca, who’s a junior at Kat’s school. The Strafford sisters were famous for not dating anyone because their dad is against it. Let us focus on Bianca’s wants, which is, to have a boyfriend like every girl of her age has.
When their dad, Walter, was frustrated by Bianca’s constant complaining, he changed the rule on dating. The new rule was Bianca can date, when Kat does... power move from dad.
2. What is in their way?
Now that you have your character’s wants down, add in an opposing force that is preventing the character from achieving their goals. Having some kind of obstacle drives the story; letting your character just have what they want defeats the purpose of telling it. Think of the most logical roadblock that can hinder your character’s path.
Example: 10 Thing I Hate About You
Now that the dating rule has changed, the only thing standing between Bianca and her future boyfriend is…Kat.
3. How can their strength be used to their advantage?
Now you come to devise a plan to get around the obstacle. Most characters have natural characteristics that can be used to their advantage to help achieve their goal. Sometimes these can be easily identified, and sometimes you have to dig deeper into the character’s personality traits to create identify these strengths.
Example: 10 Things I Hate About You
Bianca is a sweet and charming girl, and that was what she used to her advantage in the story. Bianca was able to convince a guy, Cameron, who was smitten by her to do all the work of getting Kat to date someone. All Bianca had to do was help him raid Kat’s bedroom and find out more about her likes and dislikes.
4. What must change to overcome the final hurdle?
While getting through these hurdles, the character most likely also lands up in a conflict either internally or with another character. These small conflicts spark change in the character, which is what we call character development. For the character to achieve what they want something needs to change in them on a much deeper level.
Example: 10 Things I Hate About You
Bianca like any other sophomore had a crush on the hotshot of the school, Joey, a young arrogant model. So, while Cameron was being strung along by Bianca, and doing all the hard work of finding a guy for Kat to date, Bianca was hanging out with Joey. Cameron confronted Bianca for her actions and expressed how hurt he is, which was what sparked a change in Bianca and made her realise that her actions not only affect her but those around her.
5. What consequences will this change have?
Old habits aren’t easy to change, but whatever the character chooses to do there will be consequences for it. If the character doesn’t let go of their old habits, it could essentially mean that they will never be able to reach that goal they set out to pursue. Similarly, if the character does make changes in themselves, not necessarily their goals would continue to remain the same. Change can bring in a new clarity in their thoughts, and that’s what you as a writer need to think of.
Example: 10 Things I Hate About You
Bianca wants to date, but she can’t unless her sister does. She misled Cameron to do her bidding, while she was trying to get close with Joey. Only after Cameron confronts Bianca, she realise her mistake.
From this point on Bianca can either continue to mislead Cameron by sweet-talking to him and Bianca can get close with Joey, just like she was initially planning to do. Here two things can happen, either Bianca will successfully pull this off. Or, Cameron can realise his worth and not work on getting a date for Kat, which will leave Bianca single until she graduates from high school. Or
Bianca can reflect upon her mistake and patch things with Cameron. She can also realise that Joey doesn’t really care about her as he always keeps bragging about himself. By patching up things with Cameron, she will be able to get Kat to date and will end up with a good boyfriend.
6. How can other characters bring these conflicts to life
Different side characters can assist in character’s development. These characters can help in the following 3 ways:
a. They can create resistance necessary for the character to develop.
b. They can offer assistance to the protagonist to resolve with their perspectives and ideas on the problem.
c. They can make an abstract conflict, a real issue in the character’s world. Like adding biased parents and judgmental relatives, in a plot where the protagonist is going through an identity crisis.
Bottom line is, the side characters will help make the story’s concept tangible, and they are either supporting the protagonist or against them.
Example: 10 Things I Hate About You
a. Bianca’s dad is a paranoid obstetrician who is scared that his daughters might become teen mothers if they date. Walter’s fear and strict rules about dating is what makes Bianca more adamant to date.
b. Chastity, Bianca’s “bff” at high school, turned out to be a bad friend. Chastity would ditch Bianca to hang out with Joey when Bianca said no to going with Joey. Towards the end of the movie, Chastity shows up to senior prom as Joey’s date and mocks Bianca by saying that Joey only wanted to use her nothing more. All these instances make Bianca realise the kind of company she should be keeping close and whom she should be wary of.
c. Kat essentially symbolises “freedom”. Bianca being a people pleaser, and wanting to date only because of peer pressure makes Kat an opposite force that shows Bianca that she doesn’t need to fit into society’s expectations and do what she wants to.
With all the information out of the way, one important thing for you to keep in mind is the purpose of the conflict. Any story, any conflict without purpose will not be impactful and will be forgotten by the audiences.
Meaning produces emotion
When you are trying to write a meaningful story, you are talking about the values in the story. So when you talk about values, it essentially is the story’s guide to life, it is their take on life and its meaning. The purpose of a story is to give an understanding of a possible way to live life.