Conflict drives a story. I might go so far to say that conflict is your story. But I think too often, we miss that pivotal connection between conflict and character. If we don’t tie conflict directly to our characters we end up either with stories devoid of conflict and full of missed opportunities, or we force unnatural conflict on the story that doesn’t ring true. And it doesn’t help that a lot of advice on creating conflict is so high-minded (external vs. internal, blah, blah, blah) and often abstract — stakes! progression! empowerment! universality! — what does any of that mean and more importantly, how do you translate it into actual writing? Here are five ground-level ideas that will infuse your story with conflict and that you can put into practice right away.
1. Give your characters clear goals. Conflict stems from different people, different groups, different forces, different anything wanting different things—or sometimes, the same person torn between different things. But if you don’t know what your characters want, it’ll be difficult to wring any conflict out of them at all, let alone a serviceable story. Setting a story goal for your characters — the things they are striving for, seeking, wanting, going after, however you define it, really is the lifeblood of your story. Get these goals right, place them in opposition to each other, and the plot almost takes care of itself. Again, I’m not talking about high-minded theory here. This can really be as simple as asking, what does my character want? A new job, to save the world, the death of his enemies? The answer is up to you.
2. Go big, go small. Some actors use a method that teaches them to define a clear objective for every. single. line. of. dialogue. They’ll say, with this line, I want the other character to laugh. With the next line, I want the other character to cry, and so on. While you could argue that as much intention this method can give an actor in their delivery, it also can rob them of some spontaneity in their performance. You’d be right. But for writers it can be a wonderful way to pack a story with conflict. You’ve already set a story-level goal, so now look at your characters from different levels. What do they want out of every scene? What do they want out of every interaction? What do they want with every line of dialogue? Why are they saying these exact words at this exact time? Have an objective. Then go bigger. What are their life goals? Fifty years after the story ends, where are they headed? What do they value out of life. All these wants and desires, large and small, near and far, interact with and build on each other to help you create a story that’s always moving forward because it’s bursting with conflict, and a story that always works, because it’s being driven by characters seeking out clearly-defined goals.
3. Let your characters fail. You’ve chosen great goals for you characters and you’re concentrating on objectives big and small as you write, but if they get want they want too easily, you don’t have a story anymore. You’ve got, well, nothing anyone will probably want to watch or read. While we all want success from life, watching a character step out and immediately succeed doesn’t make for the most gripping entertainment. Watching them fail, get up and try again and again and again does. Think about your own failures in life. It’s how you’ve learned, right? It’s how you’ve gotten better. That can work for your characters, too. Maybe the first time they encounter the villain’s bomb they don’t know how to diffuse it and a lot of people die. What do you think will happen the next time? Keep in mind, characters don’t have to fail at just the big things in your story. They can fail at little things, also, especially if those little things tie back to the big things. Maybe a character who wants a new job has a lot of trouble getting to the interview on time (alarm doesn’t go off, they miss the bus, the building is on fire when they get there, etc.). Maybe a character getting ready for a big presentation breaks the coffee maker and has to go on without a hit of caffeine and so on and so on. Failure is ripe for conflict. Use it.
4. Make your characters opinionated. Think. Think. Think. What is a huge source of real-life conflict between strangers and family members alike? Opinions. About everything. Maybe it sounds obvious, but too often we see stories where we have no idea what the character really thinks about anything. Sure, if you’ve managed to give them clear story goals we probably get their values—they’re for good and not evil, they’re moral and forthright or dishonest and corrupt, or whatever. That doesn’t tell us much about what they believe, though, at least when it comes to the complexities of life. Look at it this way, maybe your husband character is a Republican and his wife is a Democrat. This is a real-world scenario that’s played out on cable news every election night for years that you can mine for endless conflict. But I think you can do even better (and maybe less cliched), just by taking some time to let the audience know your character’s thoughts about the things in their world. When they come up against someone who has different thoughts about the same things, BOOM. Instant conflict, instant drama.
5. Use exposition to your advantage. Watching two people agree in a story is boring, watching two people agree about some piece of exposition that you’ve had to stop the plot to give is even worse. Trouble is, most stories can’t make it without at least a little bit of exposition. Genre stories like science fiction or fantasy often require a lot. But here’s a trick that will help infuse your story with conflict and make your exposition so much more interesting all at the same time: if one person has to explain something, have the person listening disagree or question. It’s a simple bit of small conflict (though, it could be big conflict, too), but it’s more fun than hearing a character always say “yes, I understand,” or “yes, I agree,” or “yes, that’s so smart.” Try “I don’t get it,” or “I can’t believe that’s true,” instead.
Justin McLachlan is a writer, director and actor in Washington, D.C. His first short film, Roommates, premiered at the 2014 Arizona International Film Festival. In addition to writing three books, Time Up, This Time Around and Treknology, Justin has edited a number of scifi and fantasy novels, including an award-winning debut novel, Artifact. His own writing has also appeared in Wired and Popular Science, among other magazines.