How To Write Conflict

If Storytelling was a car, I’d say the plot and character are the wheels - directing the whole thing left, right and forward ,Theme is the power system, going through the entire vehicle affecting all components, and conflict is - obviously - the engine.


Truthfully, I drive a vespa and don’t know much about cars, but I am confident that the conflict is what drives the story, and what makes a story. Without a conflict, a story is just a situation, an anecdote.


Conflict is the basis of all stories, you can see it even in the Bible - Eve wants an apple but it’s forbidden, Jonah doesn’t want to be a prophet and is eaten by a whale, Cain’s jealousy of his brother reaches a breaking point - conflict, conflict, conflict. It’s the reason the story is happening, it’s the main event.


Here’s what I believe many writers miss about conflict


Conflict isn’t just a problem the hero needs to solve, it’s a dilemma that relates to a character’s flaw. It needs to be specific to your hero’s weakness, so it challenges him\her otherwise, it’s random. Conflict has meaning, it enables the hero to have an arc.


For example, Finding Nemo forces the hero, Marlin, to face his greatest fear - the ocean and the unknown. If his conflict would have been finding love, then there would be no story.


How do you make the story conflict as intense and meaningful as possible? There are a few things that I see that make better conflicts - and better stories:


Connecting the external conflict with the internal


The internal conflict is really the arc. Marlin learns to let go, Simba learns responsibility etc. the hero needs to be emotionally tormented by the external conflict. The external struggle is what helps him grow. If the problem they need to solve doesn't affect them mentally, you’re losing conflict intensity.


In The Dark Knight, Batman’s only weakness is his morality. He has one rule - he doesn’t kill people. This makes the Joker his biggest challenge, since the Joker has no rules, and no limits. There’s no way for Batman to defeat him other than killing him. This makes Joker Batman’s greatest conflict. It’ll force Batman to make impossible decisions and re-evaluate his beliefs about what sort of hero he needs to be to save his city.


Linking the internal conflict to the external and vice versa makes the conflict even more meaningful and the story more cohesive, because of the circularity. The outside problem affects the hero emotionally, he struggles and then acts on it, which creates more problems. You see this a lot in Breaking Bad, since it’s heavily based on Walter White’s character’s arc. It also helps create character driven plots.


Making sure the conflict keeps changing


A dynamic conflict isn’t just more entertaining, it’s necessary to keep the story alive. When the conflict evolves, the drama intensifies. Think of Katniss, going into the arena, just wanting to survive, forced to kill other teens in the games, then losing Ru, then falling in love with Peeta, only to discover by the end, one of them must die. The conflict is never just avoiding the fireballs and hornets. the conflict (both the external and the internal) changes and intensifies with every scene.

You can do this by raising the stakes (like in the dark night when Rachel is kidnapped and suddenly everything becomes personal), or changing the hero’s goal (with Katniss it’s to escape, then to avenge Ru, then save Peeta, etc.)


Creating organic conflicts