CONFLICT 101, by Debbie Wilson

Welcome to Debbie Wilson’s series on THE FIVE ELEMENTS of FICTION. This week she’s teaching CONFLICT. (If you missed last week’s post you can click HERE about characters.)

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The Five Elements of Fiction Series


by Debbie Wilson

“In a novel, struggle is far more compelling than satisfaction. Conflict is the first principle of plot construction, and it is also the underlying secret of great characters.” Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel, p.110

We create conflict by giving our characters desires and goals and obstacles to those goals. Various characters have goals that create tension between them. Pa Ingalls feels hemmed in and wants to be a pioneer on the prairie, while Ma Ingalls wants to be near family and have a good education for her daughters. They struggle for whose goals win. Without conflict, you have no story.

Types of Conflict:

Man versus man: Create this conflict by pitting one person’s goals against another’s. Think of Shane, Westerns, war stories, mysteries and suspense stories. Shane has determined he will not be a gunfighter any more (man against himself conflict), but the young narrator’s father has sided with Shane and welcomed him into his home. When the big cattleman tries to drive the small rancher out, Shane refuses to let his friend face the big cattleman’s hired guns. Instead, Shane knocks his friend out and faces the thugs by himself.

Man versus society: If your story has a character or group of characters standing against society and its standards, you have a man versus society conflict. Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and social commentary novels, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pride and Prejudice are examples of this type of conflict. In Pride and Prejudice, society expects Jane and Elizabeth to marry to benefit the family, but the girls want to marry for love. Pressure comes from family, neighbors, and Mr. Darcy’s aunt. Lizzie must choose whether to succumb to the expectations of those around her or hold out for what she wants.

Man against nature: In the short stories “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane, the characters face nature as a hostile enemy. Jack London’s character must start a fire though he has only a few matches, or he will die in the Yukon’s freezing temperatures. Nature, itself, conspires against his success.

Man against himself: A Tale of Two Cities and various coming of age novels feature the man-against-himself conflict. Usually the character faces the opportunity to choose some virtuous path which involves danger, expense,  or loss of face over a path that is easier but will force him to be untrue to himself or others, causing him to struggle to choose between the two options. For example, in Doris Gaines Rapp’s young adult novel, Escape from the Belfry, fifteen-year-old Adam Shoemaker is in a no-win situation. His father has not returned from World War II, and some people are accusing him of defecting to the Nazis. Adam’s mother suffers from tuberculosis in a TB ward, and his grandparents have died. If Adam stays at the family farm, the welfare representatives will place him in a home, where he will neither be able to see his mother or prepare for her coming home. Instead, Adam hides in a church belfry. He wants very much to be accepted and to be the man of integrity that his friends believe him to be, but he is living a lie by telling friends that he is living with a non-existent uncle. He struggles to become what he values instead of what his situation is forcing him to become.

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Novels frequently have more than one type of conflict. In Shane, the gunfighter wants to leave his gunfighting past behind him (man against himself), wants to keep from falling in love with the small rancher’s wife (man against himself), wants to face the big rancher for his friend’s sake (man against man).

Conflict, tension, and suspense keep readers turning pages. Here are some techniques that writers use to propel the reader through the book.

  • Use active tense, not passive.  “The reindeer ran over Grandma” not “Grandma

got run over by a reindeer.” Your characters need to be acting, not being acted upon.

  • In each scene, tell the story from the viewpoint of the person who has the most

to lose. Your reader may not recognize what you are doing, but he will intuitively

crank up his interest if your viewpoint character risks something big time. Because

the scene matters to the character, it will matter more to the reader.

  • Begin with a scene that grabs the reader, one with action and emotional intensity. However, the opening scene should not be the most action packed scene of the book.

You need to escalate the danger, the risk, the potential for loss for the character. Do not make things easy on the characters. Tension must escalate. For instance, Mary Coons opens her children’s book, The Piglys and the Hundred Year Mystery, with emotion-packed scenes for the three main characters. The city will soon bulldoze Annabelle’s cottage,  left to her by her beloved grandmother, to make a parking lot; someone has falsely accused Elsa of plagiarism in her journalism class and she has been kicked out of school, and someone attacks Parker’s house and bike shop with a bulldozer.

But other action heightens the suspense when lightening from a clear sky destroys parts of the town,  when someone tries to steal a family portrait, and when someone glues Parker to a cellar wall. Although the story begins with action, more action follows.

  • Use anticipation and dread. Shirley Jackson employs both skillfully in her short story,  The Lottery. As the villagers gather, the reader learns that some type of celebration will occur, but something seems off. Children gather stones, and people are nervous. Some decry that other towns have stopped the annual lottery while others may not be so sure that is a bad thing. Although Jackson prepares us, we still feel the horror of the character chosen as the lottery’s victim.
  • Use strong sensory details. Use all five senses. Color code your sensory details in your rough draft: red for sight, yellow for sound, blue for smell, green for taste, and pink for feel. If you find that you have not used one of the last three senses for a couple of pages, try to work one in.
  • Plan what emotional effect you want the scene to have before you write it. This helps you determine what to include, especially the sensory elements. It also allows you to vary your pacing by an action-packed scene with a reflective or humorous one.
  • Force emotional collisions and inevitable choices on your character. Inevitable choices are usually bad choices.
  • Use dialogue to heighten tension. Dialogue creates immediacy.


 1. Fast-paced yes/no conversation.

Suppose Eric climbs in his bedroom window at 2:00 a.m. to find his irate father who sent him to bed three hours ago. To build suspense, you might use one of these techniques:

“Didn’t I send you to bed three hours ago?” Mr. Kline demanded.


“You couldn’t stay in, could you?”


“How much did you steal this time?”


2. Answer a question with a question.

  • “Didn’t I send you to bed three hours ago?” Mr. Kline demanded.

“I dunno. Did you?”

“You couldn’t stay in, could you? How much did you steal this time?”

“How much do you think?”

3. Let two or three dialogue passages go by before answering an earlier question.

“Didn’t I send you to bed three hours ago?” Mr. Kline demanded.

Eric studied the floor.

“You couldn’t stay in, could you? How much did you steal this time?”

“I had something I had to do.”

4. Mimic the speaker’s line.

“Didn’t I send you to bed three hours ago” Mr. Kline demanded.

“Did ya?”

“You couldn’t stay in, could you? How much did you steal this time?”

“How much do you think I stole?”

5. Interrupt the speaker.

“Didn’t I send you to bed–“

“All right. I’m going. I’m going.”

6. Don’e answer what happened, but say why it happened.”

“Didn’t I send you to bed three hours ago?” Mr. Kline demanded.

“Sarah called. Her dad’s been drinking again.”

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If your story bogs down, check out your conflict. Perhaps you need to add another type of conflict or heighten the conflict. “Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.” — Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 136.

Assignment:  Read three children’s stories. Write down the conflict or conflicts in each. Even The Poky Little Puppy has some conflict.


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  1. Awesome post! Must print it out and refer to it as I rewrite.

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