The Ultimate Guide To Add Dramatic Conflicts To Your Story

Every protagonist has an agenda, as well as something keeping them from fulfilling it. Without a goal, there's no meaning to anything, and without an obstacle, there's no story.

That's why in a story, the reader or viewer immediately needs to know what the character wants. Motives give meaning to everything that happens in your story. To understand this better, let's go through a sample story.

A woman comes home in the evening after a day of shopping, only to find her pet dog choking and unable to breathe. She rushes to the vet, and leaves the dog there for emergency treatment.

When the woman arrives at home, her phone was ringing. "Get out of there right now," it was the vet shouting.

"Why?," she asked. "Just do it! Go to a neighbor's house. I'll be right there."

Startled by the tone, the woman agreed and got out.

A few minutes in, a couple of police cars came charging and parked at the front of her house. Horrified, the women was trying to figure out what's happening.

With their guns drawn out, the cops ran inside her house.

Meanwhile, the vet arrived and explained that he found a human finger inside the dog's throat! So he figured the dog must have caught and bit a burglar.

Sure enough, a man was found in one of the closets, holding onto a bloody hand.

To hook the readers from the beginning, you'll have to provide the things a reader's or viewer's mind instantly hunts for, one of which is:

Character Intent/Want

A reader's emotional investment into the story, and a strong plot, both stem from the character's burning desire and what he needs to overcome to get what he wants.

Every story begins with a character who's desperate for an expectation to be met. His intention may be to bring about a huge change in his life or status, or keep things as they are, like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit.

Whatever it is, it should be something that matters to him and strong enough to propel the story. If the character doesn't care much about what he wants, the reader won't either.

Your character must feel strongly that things need to change or stay the same, desperately and urgently.

He cannot leave his goal unmet any longer. He must be driven, determined and desperate to satisfy his intent and won't settle for any less.

Your story should make it clear what the character wants. If there is no want, that's a problem. That's because no action can take place without a want.

The reader and writer both, then gauge everything that happens in the story on the basis of whether it brings the character closer to his motives, or away from his expectations.

Without an intent, there's no yardstick to measure the character's progress through the plot, and no context to make that progress mean something.

But before you go on to working on your character's main goal, there's a bit more to it.

External & Internal Goals

Your character actually has two objectives: external and internal. What he desires is the external goal, and why he wants it is the internal goal.

External intent can be something like earning 10 million dollars or winning the love of a beautiful woman. The character thinks that by fulfilling his external expectations, he'll be able to satisfy the internal motives.

What does having a lot of money mean to the character? That's the internal motive. Money, for example, will make him feel successful, or let him save his daughter by paying for a critical surgery, thereby proving how much family means to him.

Similarly, the internal desire behind gaining love of a beautiful woman may be that it'll make him feel worthy. And keeping things as they are will ensure his safety.

Many times, the other characters in the story, and even the protagonist himself, doesn't know what the protagonist's internal goal is. But the story should make sure that the reader always does.

Internal goals are important because they're specific and unique to the character, and reveal more about him. Internal wants deepen the plot and give meaning to character's actions and so the reader must be aware of them.

Story Conflict

Having everything go according to plan and satisfying all your desires is really nice in real life, but not in a story. A life full of happiness and no struggles is not dramatic.

Without obstacles, a character is satisfying his goals smoothly and having nothing but a good time, which means the reader is not.

The pursuit to achieve happiness can be good story material, but not happiness itself. And happiness can be the resolution of your story, but it can't be the whole story. If all is going well, it means the story is going nowhere.

Stories are about our expectations not being met, and what that forces us to do as a result. The audience can't identify with a character unless they know who he really is. And nothing reveals who he is better than what he does in face of an active flaw, threat or obstacle.

So there should be something preventing him from satisfying intent. And just like the intent, the obstacle should be determined, desperate and driven. It should be strong enough to oppose or deny the intent.

Every good story starts with a problem, which gets more complicated and worse as the story continues. We call this "thickening" of plot.

Obstacles turn dull stories into page-turners because they make the characters act, specially in ways that reveal more about them. Barriers draw the character out, and pull the reader into the story.

So the sooner and more effectively you can convey what's the problem is and why it matters, the better.

Just like goals, problems are both external and internal. Let's say your character is in a forest and is attacked by a wolf.

The external problem is the threat to his life posed by the wolf. The internal problem can be fear and lack of courage to fight the wolf.

Maybe all his life, he was raised to believe that he's a timid loser. And he must overcome his beliefs to win the fight for his survival.

When a strong desire faces an intense problem, you get the conflict required to move your story forward.

Once you have a real grasp on what your character seeks and what it means to him, and what long standing inner issue he has to overcome for a shot at success, your story will go a long way in satisfying the reader.

In the Choking Dog story, the woman's intent is well being of her dog. The obstacle is that the dog is choking on something. So there is a conflict.

To make the story compelling, both intent and obstacle must seem equally strong. If one is stronger than the other, than there is no conflict.

For the readers to identify with a character, a story is supposed to reach the limit, or get to the bottom of the character.

That's why we need to push them and pressure them with intense conflicts, and let them respond in an authentic way.

With each scene or chapter, the character must be stewing and wrestling and fretting with what just happened, contemplating options as to what he'll do now.

A real conflict emerges when something of great value is at stake. If there's nothing at stake, there's no reason to move forward.

If the want and obstacle aren't such that the character is worried or scared, and if there's any chance that your character can put up with what already is, and if it's a matter of choice, then the conflict isn't strong enough. It won't push the character to its limits.

Without an active conflict, you will find yourself struggling to keep the story going. This is because you're making the effort to propel the story, not your characters.

Your job as the author is to create strong wants and obstacles, and let the characters do their jobs. The choking dog story wouldn't have had the same effect if the dog was merely sneezing or coughing a bit instead of choking.

Another conflict is introduced when the phone rings and the vet tells the woman to get out of the house. The reader guesses the danger is somehow related to the mystery of choking dog.

The phone call scene works because it has moved the character to a worse, new place, where she is even more worried and scared than before.

The more difficult you make things for your character, the more extreme his actions, and the more is getting revealed about him. So the audience can really experience the character.

Romeo loved and pursued Juliet with all his heart. Hamlet agonized enough over his issues. Ahab went all the way to get Moby-Dick.

All these characters took steps to overcome intense hurdles, and in the process revealed more of themselves.

Action Following The Conflict

Once you've set up a conflict, the character should then take action to satisfy her intent or resolve the conflict.

The action comes as a result of the conflict. Conflict is the cause and action is the effect.

Action is about what's happening - what the character is doing to overcome the barrier and fulfill intent.

But anything a character does isn't action. He can do any kind of ranting, running or smashing, but unless it's an attempt to resolve the conflict, the readers won't care.

For an action to really count, it should be a straight attack at the obstacle or problem. Or at least defense against it.

When the dog is choking , the woman takes the dog to the vet.

When she gets the phone call and yelling from the doctor, the action is to first try to know why and then get out of the house.

One reason people love reading and watching fiction is to live through the extreme experiences that hardly come in real life.

So a great storyteller pushes his characters, conflicts and actions as far as he can at every chance.

Conflict Resolution

This is the last part related to the conflict. If it's a scene, you give a logical resolution to the conflict introduced in that scene.

If you're ending the entire story, your ending not just resolves the story conflict, but also shows what the character has learned or how he or she has changed as a result of what happened and how it ended.

In the Choking Dog, the vet arrives and explains the theory, which is confirmed by the cops. Everything makes sense.

Many aspiring writers think that ending conflicts trouble them. But when you're struggling with your ending, the ending itself isn't usually the problem. It's the beginning.

When you're struggling with a strong ending, it's because you don't have a strong beginning (an intense conflict). Ending is difficult when there's no real beginning - an intense conflict between want and obstacle.

When you have two equally strong forces going against each other, you have a strong conflict.

Get the beginning right, and your characters will propel the story towards a satisfying end.

When the intent beats the obstacle, or vice versa, you get the ending.

The ending is resolution of the conflict, which can be either victory, defeat or a compromise.

Weaving Conflicts Into Story

So in simple form, the main plot of a novel or story will be about a large conflict, followed by an action or set of actions, settled by one big ending.

The scenes or chapters are about the sub-plots, with their own conflicts, actions and resolutions.

Every chapter is a little story with conflict, action and resolution. Each scene will have a conflict, action, resolution, but not the final resolution.

In scene resolutions, things should get worse than they were at the beginning.

Ideally, you should keep building conflict after conflict, making things worse with ever scene and chapter.

In a good story, things keep getting worse and worse, with layers of conflicts appearing in every scene and chapter, until the end, when things start getting better or disaster comes out on top.

If there are two scenes or chapters in your story with a lot of activity, but things haven't gotten worse, your story isn't moving.

Each step should lead to more trouble and threat for the character. That's what you'll keep working on mastering throughout the craft.

Storytelling is about sticking to the basics. If conflict and action are in place, then your story will be moving forward. You will not be stuck.

Your Turn

Let's take another story. Try to identify what's wrong with it.

Larry & his girlfriend Lisa have a friend called Sam. Sam is going through a nasty breakup. Lisa ran into him at the university and he looked really depressed and weak. So she invited Sam over for breakfast so she and Larry could try to cheer him up.

Sam's an old friend of Larry and Lisa. So they know what he likes and prepare the same. In the midst of delicious breakfast and some cheerful conversation, everyone's feeling good. Even Sam.

Larry and Lisa let Sam know that they are there to support him. He could call anytime if he needs anything. They replenished their friendship. Everyone felt better. It was a great start to the day.

Did the story hook or move you? Are you satisfied after reading this? Of course not. Bored or irritated may be, but certainly not entertained. So what did The Choking Dog gets right that this story got wrong?

Yes, you guessed it. There is no conflict in this piece. No barriers to prevent the characters from completing their intentions. So it just falls flat.

How can you turn this into a gripping story? By introducing tension and conflict. Let's see an example:

The day Sam is coming for breakfast, Larry isn't feeling that great. He woke up in the morning with a touch of flu may be. But he cares about Sam and doesn't want to cancel the breakfast with him.

Sam's an old friend of Larry and Lisa. So they know what he likes and prepare the same. In the midst of delicious breakfast and some cheerful conversation, everyone's feeling good. Even Sam.

Lisa goes to grab another pack of orange juice from the kitchen, only to find that they have run out of it. So Larry heads out to the corner store to get more. 

He gets the juice and heads back. But instead of taking the same route back, he decides to come from the back door. Because that's where the kitchen is and he can get some ice too before serving the juice.

He's in the kitchen. And it seems Sam and Lisa haven't noticed that Larry is back. They're busy in a rather intense conversation. Larry hasn't seen Lisa that lively and happy in months. 

So what do you think? Better than the first version right? Through conflict after conflict, I gave you an experience that kept you reading. And the stakes got higher with each conflict.

Of course, that's not the end. The story can go in lot of directions.

No matter what direction you pick, there must be conflict, action and resolution. Or the story will fail. Here's another piece to practice on.

Rob works at a busy burger joint, when what he really desires it to be a ballroom dance coach so he could wear those fancy black shoes everyday.

He teaches himself every night by watching Youtube videos. But that really annoys the neighbors who live downstairs. They keep whining to the landlord about the loud sounds coming from Rob's apartment as if elephants are stomping.

Rob knows about this, but learning to dance matters so much to him that he keeps doing it anyway. 

Try to apply the principles we have discussed so far and figure out what's wrong. Then let your imagination rewrite and fix it.


Hitesh Sahni

Hitesh Sahni is a freelance writer, educator, consultant, marketer, and web designer helping people and businesses grow.
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