Finding Story Conflict in Other Places

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

Photo courtesy of jjpacres on Flickr

Photo courtesy of jjpacres on Flickr

Suppose you’re in the middle of plotting or revising. You have your main antagonist and protagonist outlined. You’ve set up their opposing agendas within your plot. But what about the scenes when good and evil aren’t battling each other? Does the rest of the story fall flat? Feel static? Maybe you need more conflict, just not a lot of the same. Different types of conflict.

Conflict can be found anywhere, if we look hard enough.

In developmental editing, I’m always looking for areas in a manuscript to heighten conflict and tension where it could make sense for characters.

Here are some methods to try out:

1. Conflict Between Friends

Just think of two people who are on the same side but want different things. After all, characters can have minds of their own. Their desires won’t always fit perfectly into a pretty package. In fact, unexpected opposition is a great way to throw a wrench in that nice and tidy plot (and the protagonist’s comfort zone).

Sometimes the conflict has to do with a friend having the protagonist’s best interest in mind, but the protagonist isn’t ready to overcome his personal obstacles to do what his friend thinks is best.

Sometimes this conflict can lead to betrayal, when a friend turns on the protagonist to fulfill his own needs. He may not be the antagonist, but his actions certainly add a twist to the greater conflict.

2. Conflict Through Denial

In dialogue and in action, characters can avoid issues like nobody’s business. Whether it’s an argument or someone leaving the room, tension rises when one character refuses while the other insists. This kind of opposition isn’t always between friends or those who share a close relationship.

We’ve seen in crime/drama TV shows when a detective has a lead—but the lead is a politician’s son. One must tread carefully and be absolutely sure before pursuing. Our detective is sure but doesn’t have evidence, and he’s got to convince his captain why following this lead is vital to solving the case. But the captain is denying that there's any real need to pursue this line--the risk isn't worth it. He says, “I wish I could help, but my hands are tied. I’m sorry.” And that apology is more of a dismissal. The captain's decision opposes the detective’s goal.

However, denial can be found in less dire situations. Suppose the protagonist has a neighbor who owns a dog that barks incessantly. It’s disturbing the neighborhood peace and startles and irritates our protagonist when he’s trying to relax after a long day. He really wants his neighbor to fix this, but his neighbor thinks obedience will hurt the dog’s feelings. And it’s such a cute doggie, too. The protagonist just wants blessed silence, but his neighbor continues to deny that there’s problem.

3. Conflict in the Family

Main characters can be at odds with family members or their guardian. The parent-child relationship is fraught with opposition and can be a driving force behind a character’s mindset, decisions, and reactions.

  • The strict parent dealing with a rebellious child
  • The affectionate-hungry child dealing with a neglectful parent
  • The orphan child dealing with a birth parent wanting to re-connect
  • The mentally unstable child dealing with memories of an abusive parent
  • The caring mother who just wants to see her career-driven son or daughter married off
  • The overprotective older sibling dealing with a wayward younger sibling
  • The guardian who doesn’t know what’s best for a child

The list can go on forever. There are a lot of possibilities to work with here. This type of conflict can manifest in so many ways and add inner conflict and backstory to main characters.

4. Conflict En Route aka the Universe Hates You

Your alarm never woke you up, you didn’t have time to shower, the late-morning traffic dragged, you lost that client you were supposed to meet with, and your boss told you to take some time off or never come back.

That scenario just looks like a lot of bad things happening, but there’s opposition at every step. The alarm didn’t do the job you wanted it to do, time was against you, drivers blocked your need to speed, an unforgiving client wouldn’t give you another chance, and a boss took you off a project you wanted to see through to the end.

When so many things go wrong, it’s the protagonist’s desires conflicting with the universe.

It’s made up of small common obstacles people face when they’re trying to accomplish something—and your characters can too. They can slow a protagonist down or trigger a greater conflict that jump starts the plot.

Sometimes this method of conflict can be considered a forceful way of shaping a specific outcome. But if it’s done well, it doesn’t matter that you used a heavy hand to make your character struggle more.

These are some modes of conflict I’ve found useful. Have you discovered other places to find conflict in your story?