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How To Create Conflict In A Story

Updated on September 29, 2010

Yoshi's Mailbag

Periodically, I will be adding a letter from my mailbag to this series. Now, understand, the letter may not be real, but the content will always be directed at illustrating a point. With that said, here's a letter from a critter who calls himself Ray.

Dear Yoshi,

I heard you was going to be doing an article on conflict. I've been looking forward to this. You see, my wife Mabel isn't the most friendliest of people. I do love her, but she tends to nag a lot, cusses at lot, and ... let's face it, she's plum mean!

I took those self-defense classes, purchased me some earplugs, and bought me a shimy piece of body armor - but nothing's working. Please Yoshi, help me learn conflict so I might be able to defend myself from this angry woman's wrath.

Respectfully yours,

Ray, your devoted fan

(at least I will be, iffin I ever figure out how to become one)

*My response*

Dear Ray,

Sorry to hear your wife is giving you so much trouble. While I do intend to give a lesson on conflict, I doubt it will help your situation much, as it will be about conflict in writing. However, in an attempt to help a fellow critter out, I have sent you the names of several good therapists I know of in Topeka, Kansas. I wish you luck, and hope you will keep following my column.

Sincerely yours,


I prefer responding the old-fashioned way ... with quill and ink
I prefer responding the old-fashioned way ... with quill and ink

How important is conflict in writing?

I feel for all the Ray's in this world, but I suppose some critters are just doomed to suffer. The truth of his sad life is never engraved deeper in stone than it is in the writing world. You see, readers like to know that their lives aren't so bad, so they turn to us authors to make them feel all better. And how do we do that? By showing them things could be much worse.

Great books are all about conflict. Oh, not the guns and knife-throwing kind (though it could be), but the good old fashioned 'I just can't seen to get my life straightened out' kind.

Here's an assignment for you. Tonight, I want you to watch the news. Yes, it's boring, but I'm asking you for one hour of your time - nothing more. Have a piece of paper and a pen at your side, as I want you to keep score. Keep score? Yep, here's how you're going to do it.

In one column I want you to write happy and in the other I want you to write not-happy. Yeah, I know, less than creative, but we are sifiting the happy stuff from the ... well ... you get the idea.

Each time the news tells a happy story (like a 110th birthday party for great-grandma June) put a check in the happy column. Likewise, if they tell a story about something sad or frightening, put a check in the other column. Do this for the full hour then tally up the score.

Which column scored higher? The not-happy column? No surprise to me, as I already knew this.

Now, here's the first revelation I will smack you in the forehead with.  The news has been watched daily on TV since before you were born. To keep running that long, they must know the formula for success, right?

'Not-happy' sells ... never forget the important lesson I have just taught you.

What exactly is this thing called conflict?

Conflict is all about a character wanting something, with life constantly pushing him further away from obtaining it. For example:

Joey wants a bike.

Now, if Mom hands him the money for the bike, the story is over. No conflict there. What if Mom says no? Well, Joey might whine a bit until she says 'yes', but that's still a win - again, the sotry ends there.

As we want to keep the story rolling, Joey whines until his Mom says 'Yes, but you need to work to earn the money'. Well, that's kind of a win, but Joey is no closer to getting his bike, but he has a way to reach his goal -he needs to find a job.

So, Joey grabs the lawnmower and heads over to the Furgeson's house, a few doors down the street. He envisions dollars lining his pockets, but to his horror, the lawn is already cared for. Too bad.

Joey starts to walk onto the next house, but Mr. Ferguson stops him. It seems he has a dog named Rex that needs to be watched over for the next hour - and he's willing to pay $8! Yes!

Of course, Joey accepts the job, which brings him closer to his goal. Unfortunately, Rex turns out to be the meanest pit bull in the world, and Joey can't just leave the dog home alone, as he already promised he'd watch the dog. It's only an hour, so Joey deals with it, realizing he will soon be $8 richer.

We could allow Joey his hour of torture and let it go with that, but a crafty author knows this boy must suffer a bit more. It seems Mr. Ferguson was ran over by a crazed old lady backing out at the supermarket, and he might be gone a few hours more. He offer to pay Joey more money ($20), but the dog has already bit him three times and threatened to run away. Of course, our hero needs the money to buy his bike, so he agrees to continue on. He hangs up the phone, thinking of how he is getting closer to buying his bike, when he realizes something - Rex is gone! His new chore? He needs to go around the neighborhood, chasing after a runaway dog.

From there, the seasoned author continues with the story, making Joey's life get continuously worse. Believe me ... when the boy finally gets his bike, he's earned it - and that's what the reader is looking for.

So, what have we learned so far?

The main character MUST want something badly for there to be a story, and they need to endure a lot to gain what they desire.

Read what you wrote, my fine critter, as ole Yoshi shared with you a mighty important secret.

It's never about the words - it's about how they make the reader feel inside. Keep your reader questioning if it will all work out, and you have them hooked for the whole story. This is the stuff great works are made of!

Conflict is the substance that keeps a reader concerned.

Conflict needn't always be about swords and knives
Conflict needn't always be about swords and knives

How do I make conflict work in my story?

First, you must envision what your main character wants the most. That's your horizon. So long as your character doesn't obtain that goal, the story continues on.

What's a good goal, you might ask? It's anything a person can desire enough to endure suffering. It need not be something the reader wants, but it MUST be something your main character needs. Recognition, a possession, power, inner-peace … these are all great goals, and there are many more. The important thing is that you convey to the reader just how important that goal is to your main character. They need to accept it as fact, without ever questioning it.

So, you have a good goal – now what? Well, you first need to somehow communicate in the beginning of the story what that goal is. From there, you keep placing obstacles in the way of the main character, watching them struggle as they keep trying to push forward.

This method works for all genres – even romance. Romance? Especially romance.

Robert loves Julia, but Julia doesn't know he even exists. His goal is to win Julia's love, but Julia's goal is to repel this awful beast away. Along the way, Robert will need to make himself appear more attractive, and we all know a lot can go wrong on that quest. So yes, it even works in romance.

All you need to write conflict is to consider what might stand in your main characters way as he or she attempts to obtain their goal. Then, you show the character trying to work past that obstacle, and in doing so, running into a new obstacle to overcome. Throughout your story, your main character will win some and lose some, but will never give up – that's what makes this person endearing to the reader, and the final victory at the end all that more appealing.

Can you give me an example?

I can, but I want you to work with me, so I know that you're learning your lessons well. For this example we will return to Joey's plight. So far, we know he wants a bike and his Mom says he must work for it. Mr. Ferguson hired him to watch his pit bull Rex, and Rex has ran away. Things don't look good for our main character – let's make them worse …

What if ….

(A while back we talked about using 'What Ifs' to get great story ideas. Guess what. They work here too!)

What if ... Joey finds the dog a few blocks down the street? It seems ole Mrs. Harris was out weeding her petunias and Rex decided to save the weeds from her poisonous spray bottle. With her back against the wall, Mrs. Harris pleads with Joey to save her life. Our hero needs to do something – he needs to find a solution, or we won't consider him a hero anymore.

He calls for Rex, but the dog ignores him. He runs over to wrestle the mutt away, but the dog (while smaller) is more vicious than he ever imagined. The outlook appears bleak, until he sees a stick and casts it across the yard. Rex chases it (wahoo!) then sees the ice cream truck and decides that's more fun to run after. 

Mrs. Harris is safe, but now Rex has joined the ice cream man on a twenty block run through TurnerCity. This just isn't worth $20. So, what now?

Writers block!

It's that prickly feeling you get in the back of your neck when you know you have written yourself in a box. If the conflict becomes so great that your character should consider giving up then you have overworked the conflict. this needs to be fixed before we can write more!

Now, you could back away from this plot line and rewrite – or – you could make it worth the character's while to continue. How?

Mr. Ferguson calls back and tells Joey he'll be at the hospital a few hours longer, and he is so sorry for the inconvenience (yeah, we bet he is). He promises to pay Joey $50 for all his troubles ($50? Maybe he truly is sincere), which adds fuel to our hero's determination. After all, that would bring him so much closer to that bike he wants. With motivation resolved, our hero chases after the dag, which is still chasing after the truck. 

Writers blovk resolved!

And on and on it goes, with Rex increasing Joey's problems, while Mr. Ferguson (feeling guilty, as he should) keeps upping the pay. And how does it all end? Maybe Mr. Ferguson buys Joey the bike and (perhaps) Joey makes peace with Rex. After all, the dog earned him a bike – and boy, did he work hard to earn it. This is the stuff great stories are made of!

Simply put, conflict pushes the main character away from his goal, while offering new avenues that might allow it to be obtained, and that's the most important iota of information to take away from this lesson, which brings us to the end of another topic. *sigh*

Well, that's all I have on this for now. I'll try to answer any questions as best I can, and comments are always welcome. Also, if you have an idea for a topic, let me know and I'll write one up for it. Fans are welcome too. I know Ray is following along intently, though I question where he is understanding much of what's being said. 

As for our next topic, it will be showing versus telling. And Ray, if you're still reading my column, this next one might help improve your marriage. After all, if you can show Mabel you're not afraid of her, rather than just tell her, she just might let you live a bit more peacefully.

Until then …

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