Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Basic Areas to Show Conflict in Storytelling

Before I get into today's writing tip, indulge me once again. See these little guys. They've come to be known as Huey, Dewy, and Louie at my house. Well, Huey and Dewy found homes, but poor Louie is camped out on my desk waiting for another First Sighting picture of The Stone Traveler to be delivered to my email so he, too, can find happiness in his own home. I'd love to keep him around. I'm getting use to the little guy, but I'd really like to send him on his way to make room for the next contest that will coincide with The Stone Traveler's blog tour. More information will be coming in about a week. So, please if you find The Stone Traveler in a book store snap a picture with your phone and send it to the email address up there in the upper-left sidebar. Thanks!

Okay...on with today's writing tip.

Have you ever read a story that didn’t have tension? Probably not. A good story will always have tension because that’s what edge-of-your-seat storytelling does—shows tension. There's nothing that attracts interest more than a good knock-down, drag-out fight. Well, maybe not actual fighting with boxing gloves and such, no it's more along the lines of conflict.

So let’s talk about two basic areas to show conflict in your story: setting and relationships.

1) Setting—where you set your story may inherently be riddled with conflict. Think about places that have opposing forces: the campaign trail, a courtroom, school, or war. These are just a few, but you can see that conflict will be part of the scene. People can experience a great deal of tension and stress in any of these settings. Danger lurks around every corner, behind every rock. If you set your story in such places as these you will have conflict already built in your story.

2) Relationships--showing conflict in relationships can be more difficult, but they can also be more rewarding. As part of the human race we all experience good and bad relationships. Family relationships can be riddled with all sorts of emotional baggage. And let’s not forget the relationships developed in an office, or the government, or in show business or anywhere that people can be found. Relationships can be a minefield of conflict.

This reminds me of a wonderful quote by Donald Maass: “Anywhere that there are people, there is inherent conflict…Your job is to bring it out. Drilling into deep wells of conflict is a fundamental step in constructing a breakout premise.”

Can you think of other areas in your story where you could add more conflict?

I'd love to hear about them. :)


  1. My setting is split between Boston/Cambridge MA in the dead of winter and warm Southern California where the protagonist hails from. So there is conflcit introduced as the good guys make hasty flights to Beantown unprepared for a bitter snowstorm. Culture clash also rears its uglu head, causing additional conflict.

    Stephen Tremp

  2. Great post! Sometimes setting can act like a third character and could be like another relationship for the character. Setting and relationships definitely go hand-in-hand. For instance, an older sibling might be attentive to his little brother at home, but ignore him at school. That's definite tension in their relationship based on the setting!

  3. I agree, relationships can cause great conflict in the story! Love it!

  4. Stephen,
    Sounds like great conflict. I love reading stories where people who aren't accustomed to winter suddenly find out what it's like to be cold. Layer that with a good mystery and you've got me hooked.

  5. Laura,
    What a wonderful point! Yes, the conflict between brothers in different settings can really heighten the tension and conflict in a story. :)

  6. Carolyn,
    Thanks. It's great to hear from you!

  7. I just took an online course about conflict and am trying to be sure my external and internal are set up but it is an area where I am forever working on it. Thanks for a good post.

  8. What a great tips - I like the thought of setting as conflict. Usually I focus on relationships.

  9. If it's a picture book, your illustration can show conflict. A picture is worth a thousand words, right.

  10. Terri,
    Excellent! I'm so glad you brought up external and internal conflict.

    External fits setting and what's happening to the main character's external world. Internal has to do with relationships. Though the internal conflict can also be the struggle within the main character.

    I know there is even more to each conflict. Thanks for contributing to the conversation. I love it!

  11. Talli,
    I know what you mean. I tend to dwell on relationships, too. :)

  12. Cathy,
    Thanks for bringing in the artist perspective on conflict.

    I love picture books and at times a picture certainly is worth a thousand words. :)

  13. Always the most excellent writing advice ~ thank you Kathi!

    I'm quite certain I could use more conflict in all my stories. It's why I always have a zillion drafts because it takes me that many tries to layer in everything that needs to be there.

    But your note on setting today just hit a nerve with me and gave me an idea. Thank you very much!!! :)

  14. Ali,
    If something I said gave you an idea, that's fantastic! I know I always learn something from your blog. :)

  15. Great advice! I always forget how important conflict in a setting can be. I'll have to start reminding myself!

    Also, this might be a part of setting but conflict can be found in objects. For instance, if you have two characters who strongly dislike each other and one of them starts carrying a weapon...just imagine the possibilities!

  16. Shelby,
    Great point. A weapon added to the mix definitely ups the conflict. :)



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