How Do You Write a Conflict in a Story? Let's Fight About It

Doug Landsborough
July 5, 2023

If you are writing a story, you’re writing about conflicts. But writing an entire book can sometimes be easier than writing a good conflict.

Sounds a bit contradictory, right?

You can have a really cool plot, amazing characters, and a gut-wrenching theme, but it all needs to be tied nicely together with a conflict bow. That’s how it all fits.

Through this article, you’ll realize not only how conflict is important but why. To do that, we’ll talk about:

  • What conflict is
  • The different types of conflict
  • How to write compelling conflicts

So get those fightin’ words ready.

What is Conflict?

There might be a few things that come to mind when you read “conflict.”

Maybe you think of a fight scene or an international arms race. Maybe you think about two coworkers/love interests competing for the same promotion. Or perhaps you picture an athlete struggling with the confidence to beat their rival.

If you thought of anything like those examples, you’re right. Mostly.

Conflict is what happens when a character in your story has a goal but there is an obstacle in the way of accomplishing that goal.

To raise the stakes a little, know that conflict is the lifeblood of your story. If your conflict doesn’t make sense, your book will flounder. That’s because, as you’ll see, conflict is what pushes characters out of their comfort zone, drives the plot, and forces growth.

If there isn’t conflict to make these things happen, why would they? Worse, poorly written conflict will make those aspects of your story make no sense.

So, long story short, conflict is important.

Types of Conflict

So we know what conflict is (goal + obstacle), but we need to cover the different types of conflict. If you want to get down and dirty with the specifics, check out this other article here

For the sake of learning how to write conflict, I’m going to break down the two big types: internal and external.

Internal Conflict

Also known as Person vs. Self, internal conflict isn’t the most flashy type of conflict but it is the most important.

Internal conflict is the battle that happens inside a character. It is facing one’s demons, pushing yourself beyond your limits, rising to be a leader that you don’t think you can be, or mustering up courage where there is every reason to be afraid.

“But Doug,” you implore, “why is internal conflict the most important?”

Because, dear reader, internal conflict is what drives character arcs, and character arcs are like the lovechild of plot and character. If your character doesn’t have some sort of internal conflict, they won’t have an arc. They won’t change, grow, or fall.

If I may be blunt, that’s a pretty boring character.

External Conflict

When you have a conflict outside of the character’s inner workings, you start to have external conflict. This is when a character goes up against someone or something other than themselves.

An external conflict can pit a character against anything ranging from another character, to a supernatural creature, to Mother Nature herself. It’s flashy, fun, and exciting.

To be clear, external conflict is just as important as its internal counterpart. In fact, they’re directly linked.

That’s because external conflict forces internal conflict to happen.

External conflict forces the characters to make choices, often not the ones they want, which causes internal conflict.

Here’s an example.

An evil king is rooting out scientists because of the threat their knowledge poses to his rule. Our main character is a wife, mother, and scientist. This is one of your external conflicts: the main character is being hunted by the king and his army.
But the main character has the knowledge to make some sort of technology that would liberate all those under the king’s rule. So now she faces an internal conflict: run and keep her family safe or rise as a leader to help the world.

See how those two work together? So, before we dive into a medley of tips and tricks for writing a compelling conflict, keep in mind how you can mesh internal and external to make your story great.

How to Write Compelling Conflict

Are you ready to write the best conflicts of your life? I’m going to present you with some questions to ask yourself. These questions will start to generate deeper conflicts than you’ve probably thought of to date.

After we get those ideas going, I’ll leave you with some killer tips to polish your conflicts.

Conflict-Generating Questions

1. What does your character want? This is where all conflicts start. Your character needs a desire, a goal. Don’t just go with the first thing that comes to mind; sure, they want to win the war, but they want to win to protect their family and friends.

2. What obstacle gets in their way? There will likely be multiple obstacles, but they might be associated with different conflicts. Make sure these obstacles are tailored to your character. A physical threat that needs smashing isn’t much of an obstacle to the Hulk.

3. What does failure mean? This is a poetic way of asking what the stakes are. Make this clear and, again, tailor it to your character. The consequences of failure should get exponentially worse as the story progresses.

4. What’s the relationship with your antagonist? This isn’t applicable for conflicts like person vs. nature, but think about your antagonist’s conflicts, too. A good antagonist has their own goal (one that impedes the protagonist’s goal) and thus will have their own obstacles. Things get spicy when the antagonist has a clearly defined and well-written goal and conflict.

5. How does the conflict force your character to change to overcome the conflict? I mentioned before that internal conflicts are the heart of character arcs. Your protagonist can’t just keep running into their obstacles until they eventually stumble through. That’s poor writing.

Tips for Writing Conflict

Now that you have those questions under your belt and the conflict ideas are a-buzzin, let’s talk about some tips for bringing them to life.

Every meaningful character should be involved in a conflict. This means your protagonist(s), antagonist(s), and secondary characters should all be involved in their own internal conflict and at least one external conflict. While some characters can be involved in the same external conflict as others, their internal conflicts should be unique.

Constantly remind the reader of the stakes (but not explicitly). No, you don’t need to write “my family will die” every chapter to remind the reader why your protagonist is doing what they’re doing. But show us how bad the villain can be. Let us feel the stress our characters are experiencing. Remember, show, don’t tell.

Weave together internal and external conflict. I know I’ve said this a few (million) times by now, but internal and external conflict do not exist in isolation. They work together to create your masterpiece. As your external conflict progresses, what effect does it have on a character’s internal conflict? Likewise, how does the growth or change caused by a character’s internal conflict affect the external conflict?

Nail your character’s motivation. Remember, all conflict starts with a goal. Your character needs to want something, and to want something they need to be motivated. If your character’s motivation doesn’t make sense or is shaky, your reader isn’t going to buy your conflicts or your story.

Study your genre. We all know that we should be reading books in our genre to get a better feel for what works, what doesn’t, and what our readers want. That extends to understanding conflicts, too. Your romcom protagonist likely won’t have an internal conflict fueled by revenge for their murdered spouse.

What’s the final hurdle and why is it the most important? The last obstacle in a character’s conflict should be the most difficult to overcome. If you look at any plot structure, you’ll notice that things just get harder and harder for our protagonist, often culminating in an all-hope-is-lost moment before the final victory. Try and think about how your conflict escalates to this moment and what it means for the character.

All conflicts should have a lasting change. Imagine you endure this gripping conflict with a character and it has no lasting impact on the world or those you’ve read about? How disappointing would that be? Your conflicts—every single one of them—should have some sort of permanent change on your world and the characters. The larger the scale of a conflict, the bigger the impact and the more people it will affect. 

Don’t Be Conflicted About How You Write Your Book

I remember when I first started writing, I had no idea what “conflict” was or how to write one effectively. I thought that my good vs. evil fantasy story with big fight scenes and cool battles would suffice.

Then I learned how to write great conflicts—internal and external—and it took my writing to another level.

If you’re looking to take your own writing to the next level and craft compelling conflicts, then take a look at all Dabble has to offer. With the Plot Grid, you can seamlessly create subplots and conflicts, making notes about the effect each has on any given scene and vice versa. 

On top of that, you can store all your character and worldbuilding notes, add cover art, work with co-authors, set goals, and write the story you want to write.

So stop settling for word processors that don’t do enough or outdated, overly complex platforms that make writing your book harder than it needs to be and get started with Dabble today. 

You can get access to everything Dabble has to offer, totally free, for 14 days. We don’t even ask for your credit card to get started. Click here to get writing today.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.