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Using conflict effectively (In-depth guide)

Using conflict effectively (In-depth guide) Using conflict effectively (In-depth guide)
In this article:

    In this article, we’ll talk about focusing on the protagonist and using internal conflict to deepen the reader’s experience of the story.

    Customizing the storycoaster

    When you’re building your Storycoaster, it’s important to think about what kind of experience you want to give your reader. Is it a high-speed ride with a ton of steep peaks and scream-inducing plunges? Or is it a more gentle ride with beautiful set pieces and hand-painted cars? A story doesn’t need to be high-melodrama to be exciting and Engaging to the reader. You can customize your Storycoaster to fit the tone and scope of the story you’re telling.

    Just because a small-town contemporary romance doesn’t have as much high drama and big action as, say, an epic fantasy or a thriller doesn’t mean it’s not exciting in its own way. Writing a smaller-scale story just means conceiving of action in a different way and emphasizing the ways the characters’ choices shape their lives, rather than focusing on an external threat.

    In a character-driven type of story, big actions might not look big on the surface: going for coffee, holding hands, or even turning up the volume on a song on the radio can be a big action in the right context. But depending on the context of these events, they can have huge meaning and can represent a significant choice the characters are making. The key to compelling action is showing why the day-to-day events of the protagonist’s life matter to them, and how their choices shape their lives.

    Let’s look at an example to examine what we mean.

    Ada gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white, then consciously relaxed them. Now was not the time. In the passenger seat, Emily leaned her head against the window. The low hum of the radio and the waning daylight on the winding country highway made everything seem just a little dreamlike.

    “Thanks for coming to get me,” Emily murmured eventually.  “There wasn’t anyone else I could call.”

    “No problem,” Ada said, even though it kind of was a problem. She’d had to leave work early, and her manager was pissed. Picking up her ex-best friend from a fender bender hadn’t been on her to-do list today. But ever since Emily had come back to town, nothing had quite gone according to plan.

    Over the hum of the car, she just barely heard the opening notes of a song she’d know anywhere. They’d danced together to this song at prom, Ada in her rented tux and Emily in her satiny dress, giggling when they stepped on each other’s feet. It was a firmly just-friends situation, which hadn’t stopped Ada from feeling, for three minutes and seventeen seconds, like she’d swallowed pure sunlight. Even in the aftermath of everything that had happened, she still smiled whenever she heard the opening chords.

    That was a long time ago now. Emily probably didn’t remember. Why would she? One good memory in the sea of bad. Still, Ada carefully reached out and turned the volume up.

    Emily’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. “I love this song.”

    Ada swallowed hard. “Me too.”

    “Do you remember—?”

    “Yes,” Ada admitted. Too quickly.

    They turned onto Emily’s street. The oak trees were the same as they were in high school, the song on the radio was the same, and even Ada’s car was the same.

     But Ada? Ada was different.

    "I’m sorry,” she blurted before she could think too hard about it. “For what happened.” She didn’t say with us, but it filled up the whole car anyway.

    “Me too,” Emily said. “For all of it.”

    The car pulled to a stop in front of Emily’s mom’s house. The drive that had seemed too long when she picked Emily up was now abruptly cut off.

    “I guess this is me,” Emily said. “Thanks for the ride.” She slung herself out of the car with the same easy grace she always had.

    “You’re welcome.” Emily moved to close the car door, but Ada reached out and held it open. “And you could call me again. Just to talk. If you wanted.”

    A tiny smile graced Emily’s lips. “You know, I just might.”

    Exercise

    Before proceeding through the rest of this module, go back over this scene and see if you can identify the Climb, Peak, Plunge, and Valley here. 

    Ada gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white, then consciously relaxed them. Now was not the time. In the passenger seat, Emily leaned her head against the window. The low hum of the radio and the waning daylight on the winding country highway made everything just a little dreamlike.

    “Thanks for coming to get me,” Emily murmured eventually. “There wasn’t anyone else I could call.”

    “No problem,” Ada said, even though it kind of was a problem. She’d had to leave work early, and her manager was pissed. Picking up her ex-best friend from a fender bender hadn’t been on her to-do list today. But ever since Emily had come back to town, nothing had quite gone according to plan. 

    Here we’ve got a previous Valley and the beginning of our Climb. We open with tension in Ada’s white-knuckle grip which indicates stress and sets the tone of the scene.  The context of why they’re in the car together connects this scene to the flow of the previous action and is part of the Valley from the previous scene. If this was part of a longer story, we wouldn’t need the reminder and could instead focus on building the tension, but because this is a free-floating example, we needed to include some scene-setting as we begin to build the tension of our Climb.

    Over the hum of the car, she just barely heard the opening notes of a song she’d know anywhere. They’d danced together to this song at prom, Ada in her rented tux and Emily in her satiny dress, giggling when they stepped on each other’s feet. It was a firmly just-friends situation, which hadn’t stopped Ada from feeling, for three minutes and seventeen seconds, like she’d swallowed pure sunlight. Even in the aftermath of everything that had happened, she still smiled whenever she heard the opening chords.

    This is the Climb, where the initial stress of the opening paragraph changes into a more nostalgic tone. This moment connects the characters’ backstory and complicated relationship to the present moment they find themselves in, and begins to change the negative, somewhat hostile tension between them into something softer. Note that this is still the Climb, even though the conflict in the first couple of paragraphs isn’t getting worse or more intense. The conflict starts out as being implicitly Emily vs. Ada, and turns into a tension between past and present, which escalates over the course of the scene. The tension is still rising, because the tension is about increasing the pressure of an unanswered question, rather than escalating the conflict between Ada and Emily.

    That was a long time ago now. Emily probably didn’t remember. Why would she? One good memory in the sea of bad. Still, Ada carefully reached out and turned the volume up.

    This is the Peak. It’s not the biggest moment in the scene, but this is the moment where everything changes. One very small, almost insignificant action becomes the fulcrum around which the scene turns. This works for a couple of reasons:  1) the scene up to now has had a rising tension (the Climb) where the happy past and the difficult present of Ada and Emily’s relationship are increasingly in tension and 2) Ada makes a decision. If the song was just playing and Ada and Emily had their moment, it would not be as effective as a Peak because it doesn’t involve a choice. Ada changes the course of the scene, and the narrative itself, when she turns up the radio. She literally turns up the volume on the positive memories of their relationship, which creates the space where Emily can meet her. 

    Emily’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. “I love this song.”

    Ada swallowed hard. “Me too.”

    “Do you remember—?”

    “Yes,” Ada admitted. Too quickly. 

    This is the beginning of the Plunge. The vulnerability enabled by Ada’s action is reciprocated by Emily, which is then enlarged by Ada. The momentum of the scene is picking up. Note that we’re moving smoothly through the consequences here–Ada and Emily are responding positively to one another, keeping the vulnerability going and gathering steam. If one of the characters refused the emotional intimacy of the moment, that would significantly alter the momentum and shape of the scene. 

    They turned onto Emily’s street. The oak trees were the same as they were in high school, the song on the radio was the same, and even Ada’s car was the same.

    But Ada? Ada was different.

    “I’m sorry,” she blurted before she could think too hard about it. “For what happened.” She didn’t say with us, but it filled up the whole car anyway.

    If you thought this was the Peak, that’s a great guess. It’s the biggest moment in the scene, so it makes sense to think this might be the Peak. But this is actually the Plunge because it’s part of the consequences of the previous action. Usually, the biggest action in the scene is the Plunge, not the Peak. Think about the rollercoaster: we get on the ride for the experience of the downward plunge, not to hang out at the top.  If we were putting a cliffhanger in this scene, this would be a great spot for it. 

    “Me too,” Emily said. “For all of it.”

    The car pulled to a stop in front of Emily’s mom’s house. The drive that had seemed too long when she picked Emily up was now abruptly cut off.

    “I guess this is me,” Emily said. “Thanks for the ride.” She slung herself out of the car with the same easy grace she always had.

    “You’re welcome.” Emily moved to close the car door, but Ada reached out and held it open. “And you could call me again. Just to talk. If you wanted.”

    A tiny smile graced Emily’s lips. “You know, I just might.”

    This is the Valley of this scene, where we understand what’s changed. The relationship between Ada and Emily which was strained and difficult at the beginning of the scene has now subtly transformed by Ada’s choice and the resulting vulnerability. The possibility of reconciliation is now real for both characters, and Ada’s invitation to talk sets up the tone and action for the scene to come.

    Throughout this scene, the stakes are not the result of a big external conflict, but rather the result of how the characters feel about this moment and each other. Things aren’t life or death here, but the events of this scene nonetheless feel deeply important because they matter so much to the characters, and the writing has effectively brought us into their world and relationship.

    Writing conflict responsibly

    While we love the soaring highs and deep lows of a thrilling story, when you’re thinking about conflict you can include in your story, it’s important to make sure the conflict you’re including in fiction is not going to do harm in the real world by trivializing real experiences of harm and violence. It can be tempting to reach for the biggest conflict you can think of, or to take a “ripped from the headlines” approach in order to get to those really big highs, but when those conflicts are based in real-world issues (like sexual assault, for example) you have a greater responsibility as a writer to make sure you’re handling them sensitively, authentically, and with respect. This is especially important when you personally don’t share the experiences you’re writing about.

    If you do want to include complex social topics in your story, their weight in the story should be proportionate to their weight in real life. When these topics come up, they should matter to the characters, and should have lasting ramifications throughout the story. Crucially, you as the author should also have an excellent grasp of the topic you want to write about, and should plan out in advance how the topic is going to be included in your story.

    Some examples of social issues that should be handled carefully and with forethought:

    • Sexual assault
    • Police brutality
    • Intimate partner violence

    This is not a complete list; just some examples that we often see in Wattpad stories of weighty topics that should be handled thoughtfully.

    If you want to write about a serious social topic in your story, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

    • Why do I want to include this topic?
    • How much do I know about this topic?
    • Do I have lived experience of this topic? 
    • How much reading have I done on this topic? How many reputable articles and books have I read on this topic by experts and people who are directly affected?
    • How connected is this topic to the rest of the story? What ramifications does including this topic have for the characters and the plot?
    • What do I hope the reader will take away from my inclusion of this topic?
    • If this was the only story someone read about this particular issue, what would they come away thinking?
    • Am I including this topic just to make my main characters look like good people?
    • Whose experiences am I centering when I write about this topic? Which characters am I focusing on, and why?
    • Would writing about this have a harmful effect on people who are more directly affected than I am? 

    The goal here is not to never write about hard social issues. Talking about social issues is vitally important, and fiction can be an important way to do that. We want to make sure that when we write about difficult and complex social issues, we are doing it in a way that is sensitive, informed, and accurate.

    Resources

    Writing about social issues is a big topic, and we’ll be returning to it throughout our educational materials. Here are some great resources we recommend for thinking more deeply about how we represent social issues and oppressed and marginalized people in fiction:

    Deepening internal conflict

    Internal conflict is conflict based on your character’s internal beliefs and feelings. Essentially, it’s the conflict your character has with themselves. Including internal conflict is a great way to deepen your story and make external conflicts feel bigger and more impactful. Sometimes, we reach for big external conflict to make stories feel dramatic and impactful when what the story actually needs is more internal conflict to make the external conflict that already exists feel bigger.

    Let’s look at an example. These are summaries of the first two acts of the same story, one without internal conflict, and one with. The internal conflict additions are bolded below.

    External conflict only

    Bella Lombardo is the fiercest killer the mafia has ever seen. She works for the Abruzzo family, who runs most of New York City, in part because of Bella’s ruthlessness. Bella had been taken in by the Abruzzos as a young orphan, and they had molded her into the perfect killing machine, honing her skills and cultivating her cold, detached personality. She also is in a fiery romance with the heir to the Abruzzo empire, Tomasso.

    One day, Bella is given a mystery assignment by Tomasso. The target turns out to be a young woman. Just as Bella is about to pull the trigger, she hears the cries of a young baby, so Bella leaves, sparing the mother’s life.

    Bella goes to Tomasso and tells him that she is done with killing and wants to leave the mafia. Tomasso knows his family can’t keep control of NYC without her. If she leaves, she’ll become their #1 target. Bella suggests they run away together and leave the mafia behind, but the mafia is in Tomasso’s blood. Bella has no other choice but to go into hiding.

    Bella runs away to Tokyo. The only thing that brings her any joy is her nightly runs through Yoyogi Park. But on one of these runs, she’s attacked by two mafia assassins. She manages to escape but knows she will never be safe. The only way to guarantee her freedom is to return to her life of killing for one more job: take out Tomasso Abruzzo.

    External and internal conflict

    Bella Lombardo is the fiercest killer the mafia has ever seen. She works for the Abruzzo family, who runs most of New York City, in part because of Bella’s ruthlessness. Bella had been taken in by the Abruzzos as a young orphan, and they had molded her into the perfect killing machine, honing her skills and cultivating her cold, detached personality. She also is in a fiery romance with the heir to the Abruzzo empire, Tomasso.

    Recently, Bella has been having nightmares. Her victims haunt her, reminding her of the suffering she had caused. The more she killed, the more the weight of her actions pressed down on her, until she could no longer ignore the guilt and shame that consumed her.

    One day, Bella is given a mystery assignment by Tomasso. The target turns out to be a young woman. Just as Bella is about to pull the trigger, she hears the cries of a young baby.  Bella recalls her own motherless upbringing, and how she longs for a life without bloodshed and death. So Bella leaves, sparing the mother’s life.

    Bella struggles with an impossible choice: she wants to leave this murderous life behind her but owes so much to the Abruzzo family. She loves Tomasso more than she’s ever loved anyone and is torn between her loyalty to him and the mafia, and her growing sense of guilt and shame for the lives she had taken. Bella goes to Tomasso and tells him that she is done with killing and wants to leave the mafia. Tomasso knows his family can’t keep control of NYC without her. If she leaves, she’ll become their #1 target. Bella suggests they run away together and leave the mafia behind, but the mafia is in Tomasso’s blood. Bella has no other choice but to go into hiding.

    Bella runs away to Tokyo. During this time, she struggles, constantly wondering if she made the right decision. She misses Tomasso with all her heart; he was the only family she’d ever known. She stayed in the mafia because she was scared of being alone, but she’s never felt more alone than she does now. She thinks about going back to NYC but never does. The only thing that brings her any joy is her nightly runs through Yoyogi Park. But on one of these runs, she’s attacked by two mafia assassins. She manages to escape but knows she will never be safe. The only way to guarantee her freedom is to return to her life of killing for one more job: take out Tomasso Abruzzo.

    Adding in the internal conflict really deepens the story here and makes the conflict feel bigger. We have a much greater sense of Bella’s motivations for her actions, and thus she feels more sympathetic to the reader. We are more invested in her and understand the journey of personal growth she is trying to go on here. With the internal conflict, her choices have more depth and meaning. The events of the story are the same, but the meaning and stakes attached to them are deeper because of the internal conflict. Using internal conflict is a great way of adding more tension and drama to a story without having to find a way to make the external conflict bigger. Here, the conflict is already life-or-death—we can’t go much bigger than that. However, adding in some internal conflict for Bella makes the stakes feel bigger and more impactful because they have more dimensions. 

    Exercise

    If you’re new to thinking about internal conflict, it might help to develop your protagonist’s backstory.  Write out four important memories from your protagonist’s life, two positive and two negative. Why are these memories so important to your character? What do they represent? How have these moments shaped them as a person?

    Now that you’ve got those memories, think about how they might drive your character’s actions in the front story. Maybe something from the positive memories becomes something they’re reaching for or an ideal they hold close to their heart but can’t quite live up to. Maybe a negative memory illustrates their flaws or their greatest fears that they have to overcome. These are the seeds of your internal conflict. How does the external conflict provoke the internal conflict? What in the character’s present circumstances reminds them of their past, and how does that shape how they’re going to respond in the present?

    Long curving line Long curving line Long curving line