Key Types of Conflict: Which One Best Fits Your Story?

Jordan Dane
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Conflict is EVERYTHING in writing a fictional story. As they say–no conflict, no story. An example might be the difference between describing what happened in your average day (blow by tedious blow) versus sharing the same story but with a driving conflict that smacked you in the face and you had to deal with an escalating problem. A life altering conflict–such as a weird neighbor moving next door or the water that supplies your city suddenly turns into poison.

Conflict Needs Obstacles – Readers love reading about a good fight or a conflict they can relate to, especially if the conflict escalates or there is a sense of urgency to it. Conflict isn’t just about two people fighting or a man or woman against a villain. It’s about throwing obstacles in the way of your main character(s). Make them worthy of a starring role by testing them throughout the story. Conflict needs to be substantial with enough threat to drive the action, to see what the characters will do.

Conflict Won’t Mean Much Without Empathy – It’s key to get the reader engaged in your story through empathy. Conflict wouldn’t mean much if your characters don’t earn sympathy from the reader. Readers will lose interest in unlikable characters. It’s hard to be in the head of someone the reader can’t stand or a character with no redeeming qualities.

Conflict can be Boosted by your Cast of Characters –  What do other characters in your story think of your protagonist? Even a dark anti-hero can give the reader a good impression if a child loves him or a dog follows him everywhere. The people in the life of your hero/heroine can shed light on who they are and make them easier to relate to. Who has their loyalty and why? A cast of well-placed/well-thought-out characters can be strategic to support the protagonist in a conflict.

Conflict Needs Higher or Escalating Stakes – Conflict shouldn’t be something that two people can simply sit down and talk about to fix. Resolution should be hard and challenging. Try pitting two characters against each other who both have admirable opposing goals. Add major roadblocks that escalate based upon each character’s actions. The story should get complicated by their choices and they should pay a consequential price for what they do.

The essence of most conflicts can be in the list below. If you have others to suggest, please list them in your comments.

Classic examples of well-told stories with major conflict are: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Robinson Crusoe, Schindler’s list, Animal Farm, 1984, Moby Dick, The Help, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Key Types of Conflict:

1.) Person against Person – A conflict between two people or one person against a group. Typically the opposition or villain is the alter-ego of the hero/heroine. This opposite nature allows you to explore the internal weaknesses of your hero/heroine. Don’t waste an opportunity to cross over conflicts with friction that adds tension, but you don’t have to hit your reader over the head with your cleverness. If done right, readers will get it. (See Person Against Self.) For an example of person against person, try any Die Hard movie where Bruce Willis is against ANY arch nemesis.

2.) Person Against Society – A conflict that confronts the law, major institutions, society & culture, or government. It’s David against Goliath, a struggle that feels daunting and is all the more celebrated when the little guy finds a way to win–or more crushing when the hero/heroine must give in. The Help or the Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale are good examples of an oppressive society, culture, or the law.

3.) Person Against Self – A conflict that’s internal where a person struggles with physical weaknesses, prejudices, self-doubt, or personality flaws they must overcome. I would argue that even if you HAVE a main conflict, this should be another facet to your story. Giving a character a weakness or flaw to overcome can make the overarching conflict stronger by testing them. Schindler’s List is a great example of a story where the protagonist must confront his own beliefs and practices to do the right thing.

4.) Person Against God/Religion or Fate – A conflict between a person and their faith, their God, or Free Will versus destiny. This category might feel similar to a conflict of a person with Self or Society, but I like to isolate this conflict because religion and the idea of Free Will vs fate is a compelling one. (I’ve woven this thread through many of my books because it intrigues me.) With Death being the narrator in The Book Thief, it can be an example of how fate played a hand in the character’s lives or how God views the struggles of mankind–friend or foe or bystander.

5.) Person Against Nature – A conflict of a protagonist against the forces of nature (from weather to terrain to battling against the animal kingdom). Nature could also mean the embodiment of one formidable creature, as in Moby Dick, or a species such as in The Birds by Hitchcock.

6.) Person Against the Supernatural – A conflict with the supernatural realm. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is an example of a Supernatural conflict. An example of crossing over conflicts is to combine the supernatural obstacle with your protagonist’s views on God or Fate or them battling elements within themselves (Person Against Self). Many people have the belief that the Supernatural ties to the afterlife. The religious aspects complicate the story, but they can be damned compelling.

7.) Person Against Science/Technology – A conflict between a person/humanity against Science or Technology. It’s a given that people generally are skeptical of innovations. Why not make them fearful of them? Create a diabolical villain who creates a technology that is harmful or dangerous for humanity, or discovers a way to rule or manipulate mankind with a new Science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would fit in this conflict element.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) What conflict on this list applies to your present project? Explain how.

2.) When you think about books you’ve read with memorable conflict, what books come to mind and why?

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

21 thoughts on “Key Types of Conflict: Which One Best Fits Your Story?

  1. My current WIP is about a typical suburban woman, married with four children, who is confronted, during a 24 hour period, with a series of strange and frightening circumstances that make her believe she, or one of her children, might die tomorrow. She must first decide if it could be true. Then she must decide what, if anything, she can do to stop it. Or not. Person against the supernatural.

    Some of my favorite stories are by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. The juxtaposition of normalcy with total weirdness-just under the skin-fascinates me.

    • “The juxtaposition of normalcy with total weirdness-just under the skin-fascinates me.”

      I love this too. The paranormal genre is best when it makes readers think it could actually happen. Your WIP plot sounds intriguing. Thanks, Deb.

  2. Good reminders, Jordan.

    Right now, I’m beta reading a supernatural/spiritual story, a genre I’m not familiar with, and was struggling with how to best advise the new author. Your points about death, religion, faith, free will, and destiny gave me signposts to guide her toward. Thanks!

    My WIP has #1 and 5. It takes place during Hurricane Irma that left more than six million people in Florida w/o electricity. When a character goes missing, the heroes have to figure out if it was accident, suicide, or murder while fighting the forces of nature.

  3. My current WIP has all of the conflicts you’d expect of a retribution themed western, person vs person and person vs nature with a touch of person vs self thrown in for good measure.

    I’m currently reading Dean Koontz’s The Whispering Room. Person vs person with person vs tech and society as duel over-arcing themes. It’s the second book in his Jane Hawk series and is every bit the page-turner The Silent Corner was.

    • Kootnz is amazing. No gimmicks, he makes you believe ANYTHING can happen.

      I love Westerns, Douglas. You have a good conflict combo too. Perfect.

  4. Wow, Jordan. This post is a mini-course on how to use conflict to drive your story. Fabulous!

    My fiction WIP has #1 and #3. My true crime WIP, oddly enough, has the same #1 and #3 conflicts. Which I hadn’t realized until now. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Sue. Researching this post gave me insights into my own work. I never realized how layered conflict can be, but that’s what makes writing FUN.

  5. My current WIP is about proving yourself. My main character is a recent widower who wishes he’d done more to make his so-so 40 year marriage better. When he arrives home one day, he finds books on his doorstep, and in those books, an inscription that sounds like a love note to his recently deceased wife, from a man he’s never heard of.
    The inscription forces him on a quest to prove that he was worthy of his wife’s love (inner conflict.) The quest, in turn, exposes darker secrets he needs to confront (external / person against person conflict.)
    Thanks for sharing these ideas on conflict, Jordan!

    • Sounds intriguing, Ed. You’ve out some thought into it. I’m betting you discover insights into your character as you discover him in your writing. Thanks for sharing.

    • I actually love analyzing films to break down elements that make it effective. Conflict is an integral essential for any story. Thanks, Patricia. Good luck with your WIP,

  6. Interesting post. Thank you.

    Usually my stories are 1 and 3.

    I do have a WIP that is 2, 4 and 7 – complicated and fun to write.

  7. That’s an interesting post- and a great reminder of what conflict is all about. I applaud your argument about a story having a main conflict *and* a Person v Self conflict. It’s why we love stories, isn’t it? To see the change someone makes.

    For one of my WIPs, I can see Person v Person and Person v Technology (or in this case, magic). Due to my protag’s actions, her father and his best friend have had their magic stolen and they’re slowly dying. She’s the one who has to confront the antagonist and fix what she broke.

    For the second WIP, it’s Person v Person, Person v Nature, and Person v Self. Due to my protag witnessing a murder, she’s on the run, and accidentally ends up on a prison transport to a prison labour camp, where it rains all the time. The Director of the camp has his eye on her because she’s sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, and she’s trying to keep her own identity secret (while struggling with what her identity really means to her).

    There’s so much to unpack with those 7 conflicts and the endless possibilities for combining them in some way.

    As far as memorable conflicts, where do I begin? Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather, The Great Gatsby… the list goes on and on.

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