How to Establish Conflict in a Story

When I taught middle school English, I told my students, “If your story is about your character’s trip to the grocery store, he better break his leg, make an important decision, run from a tornado, or fist fight the manager.”  This was an exaggeration, but it made the students consider conflict, one of the key aspects of successful and interesting storytelling.

So, what exactly is conflict?

Conflict is a plot device that creates tension within and between a story’s characters.  All the critical pieces of a story’s plot stem from the central conflict. For example, if the protagonist loves his best friend’s girlfriend, the story may involve the protagonist’s relationship with the girl, which in turn will create both internal conflict (the fear of betraying his friend) and external conflict (the act of fighting or arguing with his friend over the girl).

There are four primary types of conflict within stories, and when leveraged properly, adding these elements increases both tension and interest.

Character vs. Character.

In this type of conflict, one character opposes another character.  This is the tale of two characters who actively try to prevent one another from doing something he/she wants to do.  Famous examples include:

Dorothy vs. The Wicked Witch (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
Harry Potter vs. Voldemort (Harry Potter series)
Montresor vs. Fortunato (The Cask of Amontillado)

Use It: To increase effectiveness when using this type of conflict, writers should focus on creating foil characters (characters who contrast one another in order to emphasize particular qualities in the other character).  For example, notice how Dorothy is both physically and emotionally different from The Wicked Witch, a tactic the writer uses to highlight the witch’s unattractiveness and emotional instability.  Try this exercise:

Exercise: Create two characters who are polar opposites.  Place them in a situation where they both want the same thing, but one must stop the other in order to succeed.  Focus on external conflicts through dialogue and physical interaction, as well as internal conflicts through the characters’ emotional responses to one another.

Character vs. Nature.

In this type of conflict, the character suffers immediate danger from an act of nature.  This is the traditional survival story, a character pitted against the elements of God.  Notable examples include:

“The Odyssey” by Homer
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
“Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson

Use It: Although the character may battle external circumstances (e.g. starvation, killer army ants, the sea, etc.), the writer should delve into the character’s psyche, illustrating how the character internally struggles as a result of his/her battle with nature.  Additional attention should be turned toward the physical devastation that occurs as a result of the external conflict.  Try this:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character is lost and only has one bottle of water in his backpack.  Focus on the character’s external response to potentially dying of thirst, as well as the internal struggle associated with rationing the final resource.

Character vs. Society.

In this type of conflict, the character deals with a law or perception that hinders personal interests.  This conflict often makes commentary on real, imagined, or exaggerated political and societal issues.  Well-known examples include:

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
“1984” by George Orwell

Use It: This conflict is enhanced when the writer places a unique spin on a trending societal issue.  Mark Twain took on the issue of racism, and George Orwell took on the issue of governmental tyranny.  To excel with this type of conflict, a writer must identify a societal issue and write a story that offers commentary on the issue’s long-term effects.  Give this a try:

Exercise: Create a story where an ethnically diverse character struggles with integration into a predominately single-race classroom.  Focus on the external conflicts that arise between characters of different cultures as well as the internal conflict of isolation.

Character vs. Self.

In this type of conflict, the character struggles internally with a personal decision or fatal flaw.  The conflict is often explored through inner-monologues where the character debates repercussions that may ensue if a particular decision is made.  Internal traits such as self-perception and mental stability often factor into the character’s struggle.  Recognized examples include:

Hamlet (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)
Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon)
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Use It: This type of conflict is improved by allowing the character ample time for introspection.  In other words, illustrate your character’s thought process, especially as it pertains to potential outcomes related to the character’s big decision.  Additional attention should be given to the external conflicts that arise as a result of the character making the big decision or exercising a fatal flaw.  Here’s an exercise to try:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character must decide between his own well-being or the safety of others.  Focus on the external conflict of the main character contending with the opinions of other characters, as well as the internal conflict associated with making a choice of self-sacrifice.


Without conflict, characters exhibit unrealistic contentment.  Let them struggle so that they are made human by overcoming adversity.


One thought on “How to Establish Conflict in a Story

  1. Pingback: 5 Tips for Writing Dynamic Characters | Circle Avenue Fiction

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